CLEVELAND — Before he left the Cavaliers locker room Monday for the winter chill, LeBron James showed another sign that the sun is finally starting to shine on his 2014-15 season. It was mentioned to him—after a third straight win, this one 108-94 against the Bulls—that new center Timofey Mozgov appeared to be acclimating adequately, with 15 points and 15 rebounds against a quality Chicago front line.
"The new pieces fit perfectly," James told Bleacher Report, smiling. "We needed a big, we needed a spacer and we needed a defender. And we got all three."
Since general manager David Griffin cashed in most of his chips to acquire Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, who is soon returning from injury, James has gotten physically healthy. The only issue is a touch of flu that kept the four-time MVP out of Tuesday's practice but won't keep him out of Wednesday's game against Utah. His rest, rehabilitation and return can't be understated in explaining the Cavaliers' recent turnaround, not with James averaging 31.8 points and showing more lift in his legs in the past four games than he had all season.
But that smile spoke of something else: a much healthier outlook.
He now clearly believes that, after the transactions, his team in its current state has a better chance to consistently compete and eventually contend.
Because that's what it has always been about for James: his connection with, and confidence in, his teammates.
The relationship with the coach, at least at the NBA level, has always been of secondary relevance, regardless of who that coach has been. Good? Bad? It's marked more by indifference, which doesn't make his perspective much different from that of a lot of players. That indifference has sometimes been misconstrued as dissatisfaction, or even as insubordination, such as when James wouldn't publicly back Mike Brown, or didn't seem overly excited when Erik Spoelstra won a Coach of the Month award or when he repeatedly stated that David Blatt's hire had no impact on his decision to return to Northeast Ohio.
It's been seen as shade. But that's the wrong way to read it.
Consider the Miami situation. Heat insiders will tell you that even after James became much more amenable to Spoelstra's ideas and input sometime during their second season together, adopting some of the coach's pet principles and often acting as his most important ally behind the scenes, they didn't see eye to eye on everything—such as which position James would play or how much he would initiate the half-court offense.
But that tension ultimately didn't impede the team's progress in any meaningful manner, as the Heat reached the maximum four NBA Finals and didn't lose two of those because of creative differences between superstar and coach. In 2011, James wasn't his usual self, and in 2014, the Spurs were too strong.
It won't matter if Blatt and James become best buddies if James isn't comfortable, on and off the floor, with his Cavaliers teammates, if they don't build appreciation for and trust in each other. The talent infusion allows not only for a more balanced rotation, but a mental reset in that regard. That's not a shot at any of the recently departed, not fringe guys like A.J. Price or Alex Kirk or Lou Amundson, nor even the enigmatic Dion Waiters, who continues to crow about the warm welcome he's gotten from his new teammates in Oklahoma City and about not "having to look over (my) shoulder."
With the Cavaliers roster incomplete, ill-fitting and clearly requiring reshuffling, that didn't exactly create the right conditions for cohesion and continuity. And even if all 15 guys had been set from the start, it still would have been challenging for James to create quite the same camaraderie with his new, younger Cavaliers comrades as he had with the more mature "Heatles" in Miami. There, he was joining a similarly accomplished peer and close friend in Dwyane Wade, and he was surrounded by veterans who had willingly embraced sacrifice.
The 2011-12 and 2012-13 Heat, with a perfect blend of personalities—from brainiacs to cutups—were as tight as any team you'll encounter in the NBA, which allowed them to stay relatively loose even under intense pressure. And James, who considers himself a "chameleon" in his ability to adapt to all stripes of people, came to understand his essential role in that Heat universe: the guy who pulled it all together, organizing group Halloween outings, Thanksgiving dinners, music videos and socially conscious photos.
There hasn't been as much public bonding in Cleveland, at least not since the preseason beach workouts in Brazil. (Blatt was behind a recent bowling day.) James still tends to interact most with those he knew best prior to returning, such as Miller and James Jones and earlier-era Cavaliers teammate Damon Jones, the former point guard who's come aboard as a shooting consultant and devotes much time to working or joking with James.
So while Mozgov, Smith and Shumpert can plug some holes on the court, they may also provide a positive, and necessary, jolt off it. As much as the Cavaliers have underachieved this season, all three have endured much worse in Denver and New York, respectively. The Knicks didn't win any of the last 12 games in which Shumpert was a sidelined member of their organization. At least the Cavaliers are above water. All three appear to be enjoying some gasps of fresh air.
"They have no sense of entitlement," James said Wednesday.
Now the best-case scenario for Cleveland is that one or two energize the atmosphere the way Smith's former Nuggets teammate, Chris Andersen, did when joining Miami on Jan. 20, 2013 after the Heat struggled some (going 3-3) on a West Coast trip. Andersen's arrival, as James has acknowledged, altered the vibe on and off the court to an incalculable extent.
Here is one way to quantify it: Miami lost only three times, winning 37, in the games he played for the rest of the season.
Mozgov is the antithesis of Andersen in appearance and disposition, but his biggest contribution can come simply through his genetic giganticness, which relieves James of the burden of needing to play as much in the post. Wednesday, James marveled at how fluidly the 28-year-old runs the floor, saying it stuck out compared to others players he's seen at a similar size.
Shumpert has some flair, starting with the signature "Simpsons" hairstyle, but he can help James most by picking up some of the tougher wing covers.
"I love his intensity defensively," James said. "What he brings to the game, that sense of physicality."
After a full-court three-on-three scrimmage, Shumpert said he felt "stuck in mud" a few times, but his shoulder felt fine. He didn't expect to return Wednesday against Utah, but maybe by Friday, and likely as a starter. He feels he should get up to speed with the system quickly, since it's similar to what the Knicks ran successfully in 2012-13.
"I'm a great teammate when I'm on your team, and I'm a terrible enemy when I'm on the other side," Shumpert said.
He added that when James was out, sitting on the bench, they talked "constantly" about the play calls and how Shumpert can help.
Shumpert's return would make a sixth man again of Smith, the kindred spirit of his close friend, the similarly inked Andersen.
Could Smith make a similar impact?
That certainly wasn't widely anticipated at the time of the trade, with the Knicks looking to rid themselves of the rest of his contract and attaching Shumpert to do so. And while Smith is no sure thing to settle in from here, he's been an undeniable asset thus far. He's taken 89 shots, 51 from deep, in his seven appearances for Cleveland, six of them starts. That's a higher rate than he was taking in New York, but the Cavaliers won't complain about the accuracy: His effective field-goal percentage of 55.1 ranks second on the team, behind the injured Anderson Varejao.
After Tuesday's practice, Smith told Bleacher Report that it's been "cool" and "fun" so far, and that coming over with Shumpert—and his familiarity with James, an occasional summer workout partner—has made the transition "so much easier and faster."
Smith is 29 now. At age 23, he was a key contributor on a Nuggets team that reached the Western Conference Finals before losing in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers. He has been past the first round just once since, on the 2008-09 Knicks, and says it would "mean the world" to be part of a relevant playoff push again.
"Not seeing it for a while, it makes it tough," Smith said.
He says he's a different player now. He admits, somewhat surprisingly, that he doesn't have quite the same range, because he doesn't practice the deeper shots as often, but believes he's better from right behind the arc than he's been.
"My basketball IQ has gotten much better," Smith said. "My shot selection has gotten much better. It may not seem that way, but I think it has."
What does he mean by that?
"Some people say it's a bad shot, but [they are] shots I take, maybe it's not in the rhythm of the game, the rhythm of the offense, but [those] are shots I practice, those are shots I'm used to taking," Smith said. "[They're] shots that I'm used to. So that's why I shoot when I shoot."
Naturally, he's earned some skepticism over the past decade about his on-court and off-court maturity, about whether his playing style works well on winning teams. Griffin, upon acquiring him, tried to counter some of that stigma, explaining that, in all of the Cavaliers' research, they couldn't find any negativity about Smith as a teammate.
"It's not always about me, and I know that," said Smith. "To achieve something great, you've got to put yourself aside." He argues that he's just done what his teams have asked, whether it's been scoring or passing more. Still, he'd like to change his checkered reputation: "This is definitely not something I would want to stick, so hopefully winning a championship would change it all."
To Smith, the criticism comes from a lack of familiarity.
"Everybody who knows me knows who I am, and what type of person I am," Smith said. "So when I hear those things, 'Oh, he's trouble in the locker room' or stuff like that, I've never had a teammate who disliked me. In my eyes, anyway. Everybody I've played with, I've gotten along with.
"In my eyes, it's hard not to like me. It's for people who don't know me, and just read whatever, or (hear) whatever is said on TV; it's easy to say, 'Oh, he's terrible.' Especially the way I look, with all my tattoos and stuff like that. It looks like that from the outside. But when people know me, they like me. For the most part."
James seems to be among that group. Other players have noted their chemistry. James has praised him regularly, and Smith has returned the affection. "I didn't know he was as funny as he is, honestly," Smith said. "I thought he would be more keep-to-himself, more of a star status player, like, 'I work with the people I work with, and that's it.' He's a more open and hilarious person."
It feels a little like the Cavaliers have re-opened their season. It's the honeymoon period, for sure. One long losing streak can do considerable damage to the camaraderie of a relatively new team. But there's been more laughter lately. And this much has been clear over the course of James' career: The more he and his teammates are laughing, the more they must be taken seriously.
Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at@EthanJSkolnick.