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CLEVELAND – Four years away from home changed LeBron James. He came back more mature, more focused, more complete — in a class by himself as a player.
More significantly, playing with Dwyane Wade in Miami taught him how to be a champion, and James won two titles while making four straight trips to the finals with the Heat.
Now that he's returned to his Ohio roots, he wants No. 3, the title that would top them all.
Cleveland hasn't experienced the glory of winning a pro sports championship since 1964, when the Browns finished atop the NFL. The champagne has always sprayed elsewhere.
In the prime of his career, James now knows what it takes to win it all. He's fully aware that any path to a title is strewn with potential roadblocks such as injuries and chemistry issues. Nothing is certain and nothing will come easy to the Cavs.
There will be growing pains, perhaps roster changes. It may take a year or two.
Still, James is poised to deliver that long-sought championship to Cleveland. It's his chance to make good on the promise he made before leaving in 2010, when his departure broke hearts and drained hope from an entire region.
He's got a much better supporting cast this time around. He'll team with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — the league's newest "Big 3" — and maybe a trio more devastating than previous incarnations in Boston and Miami.
James had preached patience in the heartfelt Sports Illustrated essay which ushered in his return in July. That was before Love was on board and before the Cavs — with James' urging — signed Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and James Jones, all players with championship pedigree to help him to get the job done.
A championship here would be more meaningful.
"For multiple reasons, but I don't want to get too ahead of myself," James said recently, trying to tone down roaring expectations. "I don't want to talk about it too much because then it could be used as a sound bite. So I'm not even going to get involved in that right now. We've got a long way to go."
It's promises to be quite a ride, and here are some other things to monitor as the Cavs chase a championship:
THE KING'S MEN: James spent two years unofficially recruiting Love, his Olympic teammate in 2012. He's always admired Irving, whose decision to sign a five-year contract extension just minutes into July's free-agency period ignited the Cavs' monumental makeover. The talent is undeniable, but will the three stars align?
"It's tough because sometimes you're put into a role that you're not familiar with because you've been used to carrying a team so long," said Paul Pierce, who won a title in Boston with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. "The guys we had made the transition easy. I think we all made it easy on ourselves because of our communication and our bond from the start. We wanted nothing more than to win a championship."
Love and Irving, by the way, have both had injury issues and neither has been to the playoffs.
BLATT'S CHALLENGE: Imagine David Blatt's luck. One of Europe's top coaches over the past 20 years, he was hired in June after the Cavs fired Mike Brown following a 33-49 season. In the span of weeks, Cleveland's roster was transformed, making the Cavs instant title contenders and putting the pressure on Blatt.
His uptempo offense has been described as "genius" and Blatt has been surrounded with a quality staff to ease his transition from the international game.
SHARING THE SPOTLIGHT: James has always dominated the ball on offense. He's been the trigger man for everything. That could change now that he's paired with Irving, whose assist average could go through the roof and who doesn't have to carry the Cavs as he did the past three years.
"It's Kyrie's show," James said. "I never played with a point guard like Kyrie Irving, a guy that can kind of take over a game by himself. He's our point guard. He's our floor general."
CENTER OF ATTENTION: While the Cavs lack a true, rim-protecting center, Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson are both high-energy rebounders who will undoubtedly benefit from teams focusing on James, Love and Irving. Blatt doesn't think it matters which of them starts and has confidence in both players.
"If one guy has played 26 minutes and another guy plays 32 minutes or they play 28 and 30, it doesn't make a difference," he said. "They're both equally effective and they both mix and match well with the other players out there."
CONFIDENT WAITERS: Dion Waiters likes being an outsider. He takes the majority of his shots from the perimeter, and the guard now finds himself pushed to the outskirts as a side dish to the James-Irving-Love entree. That's fine with Waiters, who averaged nearly 16 points per game last season and has never been shy about shooting.
"They're going to say Big Four at the end of the year, or Big Five," he said. "I like being that dark horse."