CLEVELAND — Whether judged visually or empirically, LeBron James hasn't consistently appeared to be quite the same player as he'd been the past four seasons with the Heat. Many logical reasons were referenced, from acclimating to a new system and new teammates to moving farther away from the basket than he'd been while playing more power forward in Miami.
But you couldn't rule out the physical component completely, particularly as he pressed up against his 30th birthday, which came Dec. 30.
Wednesday, prior to missing his sixth straight game due to back and knee strains, James told reporters that he had finally stopped ignoring it himself.
"I haven't felt great all year," James said. "I've had spurts where one or two games I felt good, and after that, I was just pushing through it, just being the competitive guy I am and wanting to be out there for my teammates. I feel better right now than I [have] for the majority of the season."
That feeling has come after a full week on a rigorous rehabilitation program that has had him working with trainers three or four times per day but not picking up a basketball. James said that, after that week, he feels like he is "on pace" to return after another week.
"Yeah, of course I would play," James said. "I would have played a week ago if it was a playoff game. ... I hate missing games."
James said he believed the back and knee problems were related.
"I just finally listened to my body, ultimately," James said. "I was affecting my game. And once I see my game being affected by my stubbornness, I had to just look myself in the mirror and understand I had to do something that was best for me as well. It was one of the hardest, one of the smartest, decisions I've made."
While he's been out, the Cavaliers have made some other decisions, making two trades that cost them guard Dion Waiters and future assets to bring in guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, plus center Timofey Mozgov. James said he hadn't had a chance to talk to Waiters but that "losing brothers"—he also included Alex Kirk, Lou Amundson and the waived A.J. Price—"is always a tough thing."
In this case, though, he believed it would make the Cavaliers a tougher team.
"I think the additions that we've had the past couple of days are going to benefit us a lot," James said.
James highlighted Smith's ability to space the floor, as well as his 51 games of playoff experience. He called Shumpert "a young guy who can form himself into what Jimmy Butler was a few years ago, just a guy who goes out there and you put him on the best offensive player, and he's going to try to contain him the best way he can. I kind of see him as Jimmy Butler at some point for our team."
And while he noted that the Mozgov deal wasn't official, he spoke of how once Anderson Varejao got hurt, "obviously we needed to get bigger on the interior."
So, are the Cavaliers starting from scratch?
"We won't start from scratch," James said of his team, trying to hold on to the fifth spot in the East. "We can't. We don't have time to start from scratch. But it's still a process."
That process won't really get started until he returns, along with Shumpert, who is out at least another two to three weeks to heal a shoulder separation.
"Until we get healthy, we won't know what we're capable of doing," James said. "I don't think we will ever be fully healthy, as far as being 100 percent, it's impossible. I can never get my motor back to 100. As close to 100 as possible for all of us. But once we see all our pieces on the floor, coach Blatt and the coaching staff [can] do a great job of putting the guys together, seeing what lineups, what pieces work together well, we'll see what we are capable of doing."
We'll also see if James is capable of being more consistently dominant than he's been so far.