By Tom Withers
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — With any new NBA season there are changes to coaching staffs, rosters, lineups and goals. It’s a fresh start for everyone, a clean slate from baseline to baseline.
Except for LeBron James.
“It doesn’t change,” he said. “The main thing is still the main thing, and that’s to win a championship.”
No player carries the burden of expectations like James, still the league’s best all-around player and indomitable force entering his 13th season. No player is asked to do as much year after year as James, who has played in five consecutive NBA Finals and will likely extend his streak to six — assuming, that is, the Cavs get healthy and can stay healthy.
No player demands more of himself than James, as confident as ever in his second season back with Cleveland.
He’s hoping for a smoother ride than in 2014-15, when the Cavs endured a tumultuous regular season under first-year coach David Blatt on the way to the NBA Finals, losing stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving along the way.
James carried the Cavs as far as humanly possible — he averaged an unprecedented 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists — before Golden State’s depth and unparalleled outside firepower proved too much for the four-time MVP and his sketchy supporting cast.
The loss dropped James to 2-4 in the league’s showcase event, and it’s that record — fairly or unfairly — that will ultimately define his legacy. James turns 31 in December, and while his game isn’t showing any visible signs of decay, he’s beginning to acknowledge his hoops mortality.
“Father time is undefeated,” he said.
Although James and the Cavs begin the season as odds-on favorites to defend their Eastern Conference title, they’re currently a shell of themselves. Irving remains sidelined following surgery and there’s no timeline on his return; Love was only recently cleared for practice; Iman Shumpert will miss at least two months with a wrist injury; Anderson Varejao is working his way back from a season-ending Achilles injury; and Tristan Thompson hasn’t reported to the team because of a contract holdout.
Also J.R. Smith (hamstring), Timofey Mozgov (knee surgery) and Mathew Dellavedova (ankle) all missed preseason games with injuries.
The Cavs added veterans Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson to bolster their rotation, but there’s nothing they can do to prevent ankle sprains or bad luck from derailing dreams of a title.
James, who recently received an anti-inflammatory injection in his back, knows there are no givens.
“The East has gotten better,” he said, “and I understand not to put too much into the beginning of the season, but I’m a guy who is all about chemistry and camaraderie on the floor. But you need your guys to be healthy.”
Here are some other things to keep in mind as James and the Cavaliers try bring Cleveland its first major sports championship since 1964.
MINUTE BY MINUTE: James has logged nearly 44,000 minutes during his NBA career, and that number doesn’t include his long hours on the practice floor or summers spent with the U.S. national team. He played a career-low 36.1 minutes per game last season, but he and the Cavs would like to reduce that further to keep him fresh for the playoffs.
“I’ll be very smart with how many minutes I play per game and what I’m doing on the floor,” James said, “and we have enough pieces to. Kevin Love will allow me to sit a lot this year just because of what he’s able to do.”
THOMPSON’S HOLDOUT: The Cavs and Thompson’s agents remain in a standoff over a long-term deal for the power forward, who came up big while filling in for an injured Love in last year’s playoffs. Thompson wants a maximum deal, but the team doesn’t seem willing to budge off an initial offer of $80 million over five years. This could drag into the regular season, creating a distraction and drama the Cavs don’t need.
IRVING UPDATE: The All-Star point guard could miss the first month — or more — as he recuperates from surgery. One of the league’s best finishers, Irving has vowed to modify his game when he returns. All the drives to draw contact have taken their toll on the 23-year-old. The Cavs still need him to penetrate and create, and it will be interesting to see if Irving can be as productive playing differently.
BLATT’S LESSONS: Blatt was under scrutiny from the start of a rough first season for him in the NBA. Once it ended, Blatt, a highly decorated coach in Europe, admitted the transition was much more difficult than he expected. He’s confident the experience will make him better.
“I had a lot to learn,” he said. “I only realized it after I went through it, and so this year it’s easier because I have a better understanding.”
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