Let the circus begin in Cleveland

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- During the summer months following their loss in the Eastern Conference finals, the Cavaliers spent their time focusing on a clear obstacle.

Now there is another hurdle, the Delonte West situation, though it's a bit more complex. But more on that in a moment.

First, remember back to last season. Including the playoffs, the Cavs put together a record of 76-20. It was impressive indeed -- they entered the postseason with the No. 1 overall seed and were favored by most to win their series with the Orlando Magic. But that wasn't the truth, they were not the best team in the league and they were not the best team in the East, a fact that wasn't proved just by a 103-90 Game 6 loss in Orlando.

Of those 20 losses in 96 games, six of them came at the hands of the Magic in nine tries. The Cavs also lost both meetings to the Lakers, the only team in the NBA they didn't beat. That's eight losses in 11 games against the two teams that reached the Finals.

Against the other 27 teams the Cavs were complete gangbusters, racking up blowouts and actually sniffing the 1995-96 Bulls in a couple of categories. Yet even with LeBron James' MVP season, Mo Williams' first All-Star appearance and one of the most dominating home-court advantages (39-2) in history, the Cavs were plainly no better than the third-best team in the league.

So there seemed to be a striking clarity to what they needed to do, or at least attempt to do. It was magnified by the simple fact that the 2009-10 season is without argument the most important season in team history thanks to LeBron's soon-ending contract.

This was the easy part. They were too small and too thin on the interior and they lacked tall, athletic wing defenders. They couldn't handle Dwight Howard and they couldn't guard all the Magic's tall scorers. When Pau Gasol was on the floor with Andrew Bynum or Lamar Odom, the Cavs couldn't get enough height in the game to deal with it.

So they traded for Shaquille O'Neal and signed Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon and Leon Powe. In order that's: an ultimate big man, one of the few in the world who can actually still cause Howard or Gasol or Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett to lose a little sleep the night before a game; two veteran, long and athletic wing players; and a versatile reclamation-project forward who already has a championship ring.

"It is an exciting time for me," James said this week. "Everybody wishes they could play alongside a Hall of Famer and I'm getting that opportunity. We brought in two NBA champions with Shaq and Leon; this is the best team I've been a part of since I've been here."

There are uncertainties -- O'Neal's health and his ability to mesh with James perhaps being the biggest -- but most agree that the retrofitted Cavs could work. But there is another variable they must concern themselves with and it is a challenge with which no other team can quite compare.

James and O'Neal both carry tremendous star power and interest and both are in the final year of their contracts. All leading up to the biggest free-agent bonanza period in league history, no less. It is a recipe for nonstop distraction, which could end up being a thorn in this vital season for the Cavs.

It is well known that James passed on signing an extension to leave his options open. Now, every time the Cavs come into one of the major markets with a home team owning big cap space for next summer -- count three games in New York/New Jersey, two stops in L.A. and two stops in Miami at the top of the list -- there will be endless questions and media tricks. If last season was any indication, James will willingly buy in and flirt at each stop to maximize the exposure.

Then there's O'Neal, who wants a two-year contract extension and wasn't afraid to mention it after being traded. Only the Cavs aren't ready to give him one. In other words, the exact opposite of James' situation.

So when the Cavs' national tour gets cranking, O'Neal will be asked about it, too. In addition to being quizzed about how he's meshing with James and the coaching staff. His track record says he's not afraid to say anything at any time, team chemistry aside.

It won't even matter what O'Neal and James say for the record, the speculation will run its normal course. If the Cavs struggle at all, it will only increase.

Then there's Delonte West. After becoming a story last season when he had a career year after publicly revealing a battle with mood disorders, West is off to a rocky start. He was arrested two weeks ago with three loaded guns on a Maryland highway. Then after coming to Cleveland and announcing he was back on his medicine, West blew off the first four practices without an accepted excuse. Even if the team cleans up this situation, his trial on the gun charges is in late November and he faces a possible suspension from the league at that time. More distraction.

The New York papers and some national media outlets are already focusing on James nearly daily, evaluating not how the current Knicks are getting ready for this season but how they might look with James next season. Just imagine if the Cavs have a three- or four-game losing streak during the season or if the Knicks have a long winning streak. If the Cavs are showing any signs of bowing in February, count on there being speculation that the Cavs should consider trading one or both.

So it is no wonder that Cavs coach Mike Brown is already hammering home a new mantra in training camp, something he feels may be nearly as important as making sure O'Neal and James stay healthy and create good chemistry.

"We have to have a bunker mentality, that is something we're stressing from day one," Brown said. "There's going to be a lot of distractions for us out there during the course of the year."

At the start, it seems O'Neal and James are trying to buy into that. It seems they have formed a pact. No contract talk, no brash predictions and, so far, no helping the hype machine.

"Next summer is next summer," James said. "When it's time to deal with it, I'll deal with it."

Said Shaq: "I won't mention my situation, I won't mention his situation, I'll just come play. My mother told me not to say anything about it because I've been the luckiest athlete in the world. I've had three great deals in one career so if I can get one more, good. If not, I'll try something else."

O'Neal is sounding more deferential than at any time during his career, openly ceding control to James. This may already have been obvious; James is 13 years younger and starting his prime. But just in case anyone got any ideas there may be issues on sharing the ball or the limelight, O'Neal tried to put them to rest.

"I'm 37 years old. It isn't my time anymore. I had my time and I did what I did," O'Neal said. "I'm not one of those players that always thinks it is his time. It would not be advantageous for me to take 30 shots a game when you have a guy like [LeBron]. To get him the ball and let him do what he does and when he drops it off to me I'll do my job."

It all sounds well and good but the proof comes over the next eight months. Not just in the benign preseason moments, but when the heat, both the actual and the perceived, starts flowing from opponents on the court and off it.

Or as Williams said during Monday's kickoff of training camp: "It's day one of the madness."

More on the East's elite: Sheridan on Celtics | Hollinger on Magic

Brian Windhorst covers the Cavaliers for The Cleveland Plain Dealer.