INDEPENDENCE — His battered body healed long ago. The mental scars remain raw for LeBron James.
Losing for the fourth time in the NBA Finals took its toll on him.
“It gets worse and worse every time,” he said.
On the eve of the Cavaliers opening training camp to begin chasing a title, James said that while it was difficult to handle losing to Golden State in six games, the journey is worth the physical and mental anguish.
“I will take all the pain that comes with competing for a championship at the end of the day,” he said. “I’ll take all the bumps and bruises that I get when I’m playing because I know that I left it all out on the floor.”
James was in a reflective mood during his moments on the podium Monday as the Cavs held media day saddled with the same expectations placed on them a year ago.
For the second straight year, Cleveland is the presumptive pick to emerge as Eastern Conference champion. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — both coming off surgeries and to be limited in the preseason — and a roster deepened by the additions of veterans Richard Jefferson and Mo Williams, the Cavs appear to have all the pieces to support James.
One of them, though, is currently missing.
Forward Tristan Thompson, who emerged as a postseason star after Love was lost with a dislocated shoulder, remains at odds with the Cavs over a new contract. The sides are in a stalemate and Thompson has until Oct. 1 to accept the team’s one-year qualifying offer of $6.9 million that would enable him to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
The Cavs appreciate Thompson’s value, especially as an offensive rebounder, and want him around — but only at the right price. They have made offers in the range of $16 million per season, but Thompson’s representatives have been fixed on getting him a maximum contract worth more than $90 million for five years.
James, who is also represented by Thompson’s agent, Rich Paul, is confident an agreement can be reached. The sides could mutually agree to extend the qualifying offer deadline.
“As the leader of this team I understand how important Tristan is to this team,” said James. “I thought we all saw what he was able to do last year, and not only in the postseason, but all year around to help us be successful. So I’m very optimistic something will get done on both sides long-term.”
General manager David Griffin would not discuss any specifics about negotiations, but made it clear that team has affection for Thompson.
“We love Tristan and we want him to be part of our future,” Griffin said. “We’re excited about moving forward with him into the future in whatever form that may take.”
The offseason was a chance for James to recover and get ready for the grind of another season. He’ll be 31 in December, but the four-time MVP said another birthday hasn’t raised his sense of urgency to win a championship. That’s the case every year.
His first season back in Cleveland was a wild ride and included a sometimes strained relationship with first-year coach David Blatt, who is more confident he has grown from that experience.
“You’re talking about coaching arguably the greatest player this game has ever known, and that relationship is always evolving,” Blatt said. “It’s something you sort of work at every single day, and find the right ways for us both to help this team come to the place that we want to bring it to.”
For the Cavs to get where they want, they’ll need better health this season. Irving’s fractured kneecap, which came after Love dislocated his shoulder, left James on his own against the Warriors. He averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists — the highest averages in league history — but it wasn’t enough.
As usual, James spent the summer fine-tuning his stunning game, even working out three times per day, five days a week to get ready for the season. And while he wouldn’t reveal what he worked on, James hinted that his mental approach will be similar to his second year in Miami.
His first season with the Heat ended with a loss to Dallas in the finals. James and his teammates took the floor the following year with an edge.
“When we came back, we were angry,” he said. “We were very, very, very, very angry. And everybody that we went against knew it when we came back.”