(Reuters) - LeBron James enters the 2017-18 season with a deeper Cleveland Cavaliers team than the one that lost in last year’s NBA Finals and anything less than a championship in June could mark the end of his second tenure with the team.
James can opt out of the final year of his current contract and become an unrestricted free agent after this season, which many pundits feel the game’s greatest player will do if he fails to capture a fourth NBA title.
But James, whose departure from Cleveland in 2010 left deep psychic wounds, has refused to get drawn into the debate and is instead focused on leading his new-look Cavs to a fourth straight NBA Finals.
“Any time I’m able to be a free agent or my contract is ending, I’ll approach that when the summer comes,” said James, who returned to Cleveland in 2014 and led the Cavs to their only league title in 2016.
“I don’t ever cheat my teammates or cheat the fans or talk about free agency all year long because I’m not going to give energy to something I can handle in the summertime when I should be focused on what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis to help this franchise compete for a championship.”
James, 32, will chase that title with a much different cast of teammates after an offseason in Cleveland that saw the type of turnover usually reserved for developing teams.
Gone is All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, who was dealt to the Boston Celtics after he surprisingly requested a trade, and among the newcomers are offensive weapon Isaiah Thomas, out until January with a hip injury, former league MVP Derrick Rose and 12-times All-Star Dwyane Wade.
If all goes according to script, Cleveland should once again roll through the Eastern Conference and into a Finals rematch with the reigning champion Golden State Warriors.
For someone like James, who has already accomplished all there is in the game of basketball, winning another title as opposed to any individual awards, could ultimately determine for him whether his 15th NBA season was a success.
Prior to the upcoming campaign, James hosted his teammates at the University of California-Santa Barbara last month for workouts and left feeling upbeat about the group’s mindset.
“The best thing about it is guys just came in to work. No entitlement at all,” said James. “We’re all here for a reason. We want to compete a the highest level.
“Our coaching staff will give us a game-plan every single night like they always do and it’s up to us to go out an execute.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Gene Cherry