INDEPENDENCE — LeBron James said on several occasions after he returned to the Cavaliers in 2014 that he envisioned playing the rest of his career in Cleveland.
The four-time league MVP didn’t back away from that Monday at the team’s annual media day.
“It hasn’t changed,” James said in one of many highlights from a captivating interview that lasted more than 40 minutes. “That’s why I sit up here today, still in this uniform, still ready to lead this franchise to a championship, put us in a position where we can be successful.”
When pressed about his expected free agency in July 2018, James said salary negotiations are meant for the summer, not for when a team is setting out to reach its fourth straight NBA Finals.
“I won’t ever cheat my teammates or cheat the fans or the situation where I’m worrying or talking about free agency all year long,” the small forward said. “I’m not going to give energy to something I can handle in the summertime when I should be concentrating on what I need to do, on a day-to-day basis, to help this franchise compete for a championship.”
James, who spent seven seasons with the Cavs before departing for Miami in July 2010, knows there will be tons of rumors about another exit from Cleveland — some have already started — but vowed they wouldn’t take away from his commitment or on-court performance.
“It’s never been a distraction for me, personally,” he said, adding, “My focus has always been there if you just go back and look at my game and look at my team. I don’t think anything will change.
“I have a contract. I will fill out that obligation, which I’ve always done. I’ve always handled it in the most businesslike way. We’ll handle that in the summertime, which we always have.”
A former championship-winning player, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue is also not concerned.
“The biggest thing for him is to win,” Lue said. “His focus is on winning a championship, along with my focus and the team’s focus. As far as speculation on everything else, I have nothing to do with that. LeBron is the ultimate competitor and we’re just focusing on winning the championship.”
If the Cavs are to duplicate their 2016 title, it will come without former point guard Kyrie Irving, who requested a trade because he wanted to be the leader of a team.
The 25-year-old Irving was dealt to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, a 2018 first-round pick and a 2020 second-rounder, with James saying he had some dialogue with his former teammate soon after the trade request became public, but had not spoken to him since.
“I had a ton of emotions,” James said. “I was wondering if there was something I could have did better to make him not want to be traded. Is it the way the season finished (with a loss to Golden State in The Finals), or was it me coming back in the first place or the coaching changes or the GM change (from David Griffin to Koby Altman)? I had so many different emotions go through my head.
“I tried to do whatever I could to help the kid be the best player he could be, try to help him be a better leader, a better scorer, a better floor general, a better defender, a better passer getting guys involved. I tried to give him everything, as much as the DNA as I could. At some point, when he was ready to take over the keys, I was ready to give them to him.
“The only thing I’m upset about is he took a lot of the DNA and the blueprint to Boston. That’s the only thing I’m upset about, really. Other than that, I wish the kid great health.”
James drew huge chuckles when asked what advice he would give Irving as the leader of the Celtics.
“I don’t have any advice for him now,” he said with a smile. “I’ve got no advice for him or any other people that’s on any other team. Listen, man, we’re trying to win a championship here. I don’t have time to give advice to other guys. You’re either with us or against us.
“If my son went to another team and we were playing against each other, I’m not giving him (crap). He can come home and eat dinner or something, but he ain’t getting no advice from me. That’s just the way it goes.”
Looking as lean and muscular as ever, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound James said he was shocked when he first learned of Irving’s request.
“I don’t think anybody in the organization sensed it coming,” he said, adding, “It was definitely a shock, but we did a great job. Koby and the guys in the front office did a great job of putting together a great package for our guys to be as competitive as we’ve been in a long time. That’s what I’m truly excited about.”
Near the end of his press conference, James spoke individually about his seven new teammates — Thomas, Crowder, Zizic, Jose Calderon, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman and Derrick Rose — before saying, “I’m ready to go. This is one of the best offseasons I’ve had in my career. I’m extremely excited.”
For that, James credited attending the summer AAU games of sons LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus.
“The basketball jones and the basketball fever was put back in me early in July,” he said. “It’s crazy to say my 10-year-old and my 12-year-old could inspire me, but they did.”
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