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Older, Wiser LeBron Understands Smaller Role Could Mean Bigger Things for Cavs

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterSeptember 29, 2015

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts against the Golden State Warriors during Game Six of the 2015 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — The creases in the forehead stay put no matter his expression now, a natural consequence after all the years of pressure from that mythical crown pushing down on him.

LeBron James, 30, began his 13th NBA season Monday at the Cleveland Cavaliers' media day in advance of training camp, and he did not even try to downplay the mileage his freight train feels every day.

James couldn't get more than a few words of a joke out about how he feels as spry as he did as an 18-year-old rookie. So he just exhaled and said: "I could definitely use a couple more months off."

Exponentially greater weariness, James confirmed, comes from laboring all the way to the end of the past two seasons without the only result anyone accepts from a longtime king.

"Every year that you lose in the Finals," he said, "it gets worse and worse." He said it again, just to be clear.

And because those last two failures to the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors tip James' NBA Finals scale from a passable 2-2 to a bottom-heavy 2-4, some shine has to come off him and that heartwarming 2014 decision to come back to the Cavaliers. 

Though James said the latest loss in June has fueled an anger to make amends this season, it has more so reaffirmed his late-career lean toward preserving himself for "the long run."

Let's pause for a moment, though, and acknowledge the staggering accomplishment of advancing to the championship round in five consecutive seasons. James' work in a losing cause last spring while "undermanned" (his polite description) to make a six-game series of it stands as one of his greatest performances.

Let's also recognize that this was James' most recent effort.

LeBron spoke at media day and showed his age more than ever this year.
LeBron spoke at media day and showed his age more than ever this year.Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

His most distant try on the grand stage came in 2007, when he similarly arrived with an undermanned team, but then had no clue how much to do himself or how to get his guys to compete at the highest level with him. Those Cavs got swept by the Spurs.

These Cavs actually led 2-1, scared Golden State only because James got his team to compete—and, let's be honest, a big part of it was that he was cagey enough to save his energy from the regular season so his finishing kick could kick opponents' tails. He was even prepared to sit out another stretch late in the season to be extra certain he was fresh for the playoffs.

So we see the growth steps of the future Hall of Famer on the back side of his career: amazing productivity throughout, yet unearthing invaluable secrets about efficiency and economy in the newer results.

The Big 3 appear more genuinely bonded this year than last.
The Big 3 appear more genuinely bonded this year than last.Ron Schwane/Associated Press/Associated Press

It's undeniable that James looks older and seems a bit beaten down. He no longer bothers with the headband accessory. Off the court, he has evolved into a legitimate actor—besides being a force in the business world.

What would be a mistake is to assume the changes mean James is worse for wear.

The flip side is that he is wiser than ever.

And that, ultimately, is what you want in a king.   

Exuberance, energy and athleticism are all useful skills, but if you expect someone to rule, you value the wisdom the most—even at the expense of some of the bloom.

The most ardent James was Monday was when he preached about his awareness that his status as a global icon is mere periphery. He pointedly insisted he knows his priorities and was hypersensitive that he might be "cheating the game" with all of his off-court efforts.

Question his jump shot these days and he might laugh, but question his ability to manage himself and his team for the best championship angle, and he'll bristle, because he knows he has become a maestro on that front.

He came into the league early with a man's body, but now he's loaded with a man's experience. He thinks, visualizes and leads.

He is, more than ever, King James—which is what his Twitter and Instagram handles are, and is not his real name, by the way.

He has, in many ways, always been a man of the people, but he knows now how to wield his power. And it is absolutely not for him to bound down from his throne, grab the sword off the Cavaliers logo and roar like a gladiator as he vanquishes regular-season opponents for as long as his body holds up.

The likely reason it was such a quick sell for Kevin Love to return to the Cavaliers—on a five-year deal, no less!—was that James' vision seems to align with Love's: more Kevin Love, less LeBron James.

Love is so happy about it that he was as bouncy as his new curly hairdo during media day, joking with reporters about shaving his chest, slyly knocking over the chair that Kyrie Irving was about to sit in and running over to throw a headlock on James before the three stars took photos a lot less staged than a year ago.

James went so far as to make this plain statement Monday:

"Kevin Love will allow me to sit a lot this year."

Kevin Love's stats might be set to return to his T'Wolves days with James taking more of a back seat this year.
Kevin Love's stats might be set to return to his T'Wolves days with James taking more of a back seat this year.Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

James threw Irving's name in there, knew of the 11-guys-back continuity on this deeper roster and took it a step further:

"I won't have to worry about playing big minutes."

The best angle for James to win the next Finals is to measure his efforts.

All he needs is to know he's still got it when he does need it.

To that end, despite his focus on rest, he said he "got a little crazy" the past month in his "strive for greatness" training.

Three times a day. Five days a week. He tested himself.

"I believe I improved," he said.

It's why he could laugh when asked if he ponders the coming day when he's not the best player in basketball.

"No, I don't," he replied.

He will look like the best only in spurts this season, however, same as last. He would much rather orchestrate this group up the standings. That already included gathering guys for a minicamp in Miami. It will include, at times, tapping into the anger he remembers bringing into his second season in Miami after falling short in the first.

It will not, under any circumstances, include pushing the boulder himself.

"I'm very hard-headed because I love to play so much," he said. "But I think with what we have, I don’t need to be hard-headed. I'm going to be very smart about how many minutes I play."

That is James' decree, and the witnesses worldwide, but especially his disciples here in northeast Ohio, will have to trust his patience. 

The smoke from the stacks and all the folks standing outside with their cigarettes remind that this is a place in uncommon need of any kind of warmth. The lake-effect snow and slushy roads are months away, but even in the clear of autumn, you can easily spot the brown rust on cars distressed from past pain.

They call the city "The Land," and it's well documented how much it has lost. Having just gotten James back, it is about to get a lot less of him.

Cue the widespread panic.

It's not altogether unfounded, either. Indeed, Irving (knee) and Love (shoulder) aren't sound entering the season, and Cavs general manager David Griffin said they would be brought along "very slowly."

Yet rest assured—and his followers should know this about him by now—that James is trying to give, not take.

The King knows his homecoming will not be right until it produces a parade.

And no one in this land knows how to make it happen better than an older, wiser LeBron.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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