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Cavs ambivalent about LeBron's return

LeBron James' Cavs teams were one big happy family. Those days seem like an eternity ago. David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images

CLEVELAND -- A thousand little pieces.

That is what it feels like the Cavaliers have become since the last time LeBron James was at Quicken Loans Arena. They were a juggernaut championship contender with a $100 million payroll, the two-time Most Valuable Player, a team with seven years of infrastructure designed to support the best player the franchise has ever seen.

Now, James is in Miami with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and one of the team's trainers. Shaquille O'Neal and Delonte West are in Boston. Mike Brown is doing television work waiting for another head coaching job. One of his assistants is working in New Orleans, another in Denver. Team executives have departed and been hired in San Antonio, Phoenix and Oklahoma City.

Simply put, the Cavaliers are a shell of what they once were. They've lost five of their past seven games -- not great timing with the country focused on James' return to Cleveland on Thursday.

The remaining players and leadership may have moved on from James' franchise-shaking exodus, and they say so frequently. But in NBA terms, where rosters are inflexible and overhauls are measured in years, not months, they are still very much in shock -- not just because the players don't all fit new coach Byron Scott's system but because, even five months later, they don't fully understand what happened.

While many Cavs fans may have been celebrating some of the Heat's early season struggles, it hasn't been seen that way in the Cavs' locker room.

To a man, no one faults James for exercising his free agent rights. But as basketball players, they're having some problems coming to grips with it. That's especially true as they experience their own struggles and see the Heat having issues fitting in with James after they'd nearly perfected it.

"The situation he had here was great," said Cavs guard Daniel Gibson, who has been a friend of James the past four years.

"We were the best team in the regular season for the last couple of years. He was the league MVP. It was past a good fit. It was a great fit. That's why it caught us by surprise. I didn't think he would leave."

Some of James' friends on the Cavs keep in touch with him. But there seems to be a discomfort about the message James sent them with his decision to sign in Miami: They weren't good enough for him.

"He knows he had a good supporting cast last year," said Mo Williams, whose once strong personal relationship with James has eroded since July.

"At least I hope that didn't have anything to do with his decision. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. Everybody knows we were good."

But not good enough apparently. The Cavs have problems -- they're 7-10 -- but seeing James struggle to find his footing with the Heat has given some in Cleveland some private reassurance.

In Miami right now, James doesn't have the depth he enjoyed in Cleveland the last several years, doesn't have the perfect pick-and-roll partners, doesn't have the same level of defensive support on a nightly basis that led the Cavs to 127 wins over the last two regular seasons.

On some level, the Heat's early issues give his former Cavs teammates, both the members still in Cleveland and those since scattered, some vindication.

"He didn't say it exactly but it is unfair to send the message about the players we have here," Gibson said. "LeBron and I will be friends for 50 years. When we talk we don't talk about basketball, we talk about our sons and families. … But I've been here and I know what players we've had here. The situation was so different."

It probably won't be this way forever. Eventually, even if it isn't this season, the Heat and James may find their stride with each other like the Cavs did. With teammates like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, there is no doubt that James is playing alongside the best talent of his career. There is an understanding of why he chose it.

"When we all first got together here it took us some time to figure it out," said Anderson Varejao, who played with James for six years. "They are going to be a good team."

The Cavs will approach Thursday like a postseason game, as there's a chance it may be the closest they get to the playoffs in this transitional season. They know they won't be favored, even in front of what is expected to be a hugely supportive crowd.

That's because the Heat are indeed a good team. But while the Cavs will be strongly focused on beating their old teammate, there is that nagging memory that will be triggered when seeing him again.

They were a good team, too. And they were in James' hometown.

"In his heart of hearts, he knows that he'll never play for a city like this ever again," Gibson said. "The loyalty they showed, the love they showed. He knows that. He may not say that. I know it."