LeBron looking even better in camp

COLUMBUS, Ohio – You have carlosloozer.com T-shirts on sale in Cleveland's downtown mall.

You have loads of Clevelanders longing to bust out their 2005 calendars with the circle around March 15, because that's when the Carlos in question makes his Gund Arena return.

You also have numerous Cavaliers, new ones and old, insisting there's no such thing as a Boozer hangover, no matter how many times the defector is mentioned on a daily basis.

That's because the Cavs believe the franchise already has rebounded from the controversial exit of their best board man.


It's too soon to say that.

There's only one way for the Cavs to prove it, and only one Cav in particular who can point the way.

Losing Boozer as a teammate, no matter which explanation of how it happened you're willing buy, isn't going to lower the expectations LeBron James carries one whit.

James simply has to take the Cavs to the playoffs this season. There is no alternative, unless he's prepared to answer questions much more nagging and unsavory than the uncomfortable queries he's been getting about fatherhood lately.

"Ain't no reason we shouldn't make it this year," LeBron says, accepting the challenge.

Then he explains why he feels so confident, and why he announced on Media Day last week that Year 2 will be "a breeze," at least for the Cav wearing No. 23.

"I've got a year of experience," he said. "I know what I'm getting myself into, so I feel like I'm going to be able to control my own destiny."

James, like everyone else with the Cavs, thought he'd be sharing that destiny with Boozer for a decade or so. Instead there is only one other starter left from the fivesome that took the court in Sacramento for LeBron's stunning debut last Oct. 29 – center Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

Yet James needn't count on any sympathy from the nation's hoop punditry.

He beat out Carmelo Anthony for the Rookie of the Year trophy even though Cleveland fell just shy of the playoffs, but the masses won't be so understanding if the Cavs fall short again.

For a player of his stature, two consecutive seasons without a postseason sniff is unacceptable.

Even at just 19, LeBron is supposed to be that good ... especially in the East, where five playoff spots are highly available behind the Detroit-Indiana-Miami power trio.

The good news?

Cavs coach Paul Silas, based on what he already has seen during his club's weeklong stay in Columbus at Division III Capital University, is convinced James is going to be that good in 2004-05, with or without Boozer.

"I just see in LeBron a different player this year," Silas said. "The mental aspect of the game, it's coming together with the athleticism. He relied (mostly) on athleticism last year. If you look at him now, he just understands how to play.

"His whole game is just elevated now, and I think you're just going to be surprised at how good he's going to be this year."

Philly transplant Eric Snow, one of the new starters, backs that up with his first impressions as a LeBron teammate.

"He's probably better than I initially thought he was," Snow said.

Shooting and footwork – how he moves his feet when he's shooting and when he's defending – were focal points of James' summer workouts.

Camp observers say the dream teen, despite missing a couple practices for the birth of a son and looking less than pleased by the media's persistent interest in his fatherhood, has noticeably improved in several key areas.

Most notably he's curling off screens better, making smarter passes in traffic and showing more willingness to absorb contact at both ends, either going to the hoop or chasing through screens defensively.

James, meanwhile, swears that his legs ooze with "more spring than I've ever had in my life.

"That's kind of scary for me," James said, and he won't be the only one to tremble if it's true.

He's also considerably more vocal than during his first NBA camp, when James preferred to settle in quietly with a team he said belonged to Ilgauskas and the since-exiled Ricky Davis.

"I'm still going to lead by example," LeBron said, "but (I've) got enough leeway now where I can voice my opinion, tell people what to do and what not to do."

All of that sounds great, mind you, until someone points out that the Cavs still have plenty of trouble spots to address if they hope to halt a stretch of six straight seasons out of the playoffs. Even in the East.

They'll need Ilgauskas to stay healthy for a third straight year, and they'll need him to focus on the present as opposed to next summer's free agency.

They'll need Drew Gooden, Tractor Traylor and perhaps rookie Anderson Varejao to combine for something close to Boozer's production as a triumvirate, but without Gooden getting in Ilgauskas' way.

They'll need Snow and Jeff McInnis to play well and co-exist sufficiently as a starting backcourt, so James can play small forward, which is what Silas sees as his natural position.

They'll also need Lucious Harris and rookie Luke Jackson – and LeBron, of course – to provide some perimeter offense.

"The only problem we had last year was being able to go out and shoot the basketball," James said. "I feel like every shot I put up now is going in."

Again, the talk sounds great. However ...

James is going to have to show us when the games count that his marksmanship is developing. You also wonder how the offense will flow without the selfless Boozer to chase down the misses.

"We took a step last year, winning 18 more games than the year before," said Cavaliers general manager Jim Paxson. "(Even) considering what happened over the summer, the next step is making the playoffs. Have to is a strong phrase, but that's our goal. We think it's realistic."

Said Silas, trying to absorb some of the burden James is shouldering: "Not only LeBron, but there's pressure on everybody – myself, Jim Paxson, (owner) Gordon Gund. We all have great expectations. ... (But we) missed the playoffs by one game last year, (and it's a) better team this year. So there are great expectations, and it's something we don't shy away from."

Yet when pressed, Silas concedes that "the focal point is still going to be on LeBron. If we need something, he's going to have to provide it."

Otherwise, the basketball public of Northern Ohio might never get any lasting closure from Boozergate.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.