(Reuters) - LeBron James could not bring Cleveland a NBA title during his initial stint with the Cavaliers but in the first season of his second go-round with the team, he has them looking like true contenders for a championship.
A shaky beginning marked his return, James at times looking sluggish during the Cavaliers' 6-7 start, but after he took time off in January to rest his body, the team has become one of the Eastern Conference's best.
Still, despite taking over a team that missed the playoffs last year and spearheading a 20-win improvement along with a division title, James is remaining cautious.
"We're a championship contender, but we're not there yet," he said this month. "We have the talent, we've had the process so far, but we still have some time left. We won't take those days for granted."
James famously left the Cavaliers in 2010 to join the Miami Heat, where he won two championships in four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. A burning desire to win with his hometown team brought him back to Cleveland.
His Miami experience should prove invaluable for a team that will enter Sunday's playoff opener against the Boston Celtics with several postseason debutants.
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, two of Cleveland's top three scorers, and Tristan Thompson have never been in the pressure-cooker environment that is the NBA playoffs. The same is true for rookie head coach David Blatt.
James has singlehandedly resurrected a Cavaliers franchise that missed the playoffs with four consecutive losing seasons while he was off winning titles in Miami.
He may not have had his best season statistically, averaging the lowest number of points (25.3) and rebounds(6) since his rookie campaign in 2003-04, but he has been invaluable to the Cavaliers.
Cleveland went 50-19 with James in the lineup and 3-10 without him.
The Cavaliers were branded as contenders the moment James announced his return last July, Las Vegas installing a 33-win team as favorites to win their first NBA championship.
The NBA's four-time Most Valuable Player has more than delivered on those lofty expectations.
Despite enduring more growing pains than expected, James has the Cavaliers in a solid position
"We've been playing the right way -- win, lose or draw -- we've played the right way," James said. "We've stuck to our system and I think it's built some great habits for us going into the postseason."
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Gene Cherry