CLEVELAND -- If the Cavaliers were to have it their way, they probably would prefer that LeBron James would become a free agent this summer rather than next summer, when he can opt out of his contract.
No, the Cavs didn't win the title this season, making them now 0-for-6 in the James era. No, they did not even return to the NBA Finals, a level they reached two seasons ago. But yes, James is pleased with the franchise, and if he were a free agent this July 1 and not next July 1, he certainly would re-sign with the team.
That's because the team is deeper, younger at many spots and significantly more successful than it was one year ago, when it was coming off a 45-win season and James was publicly demanding upgrades. Although he's bitterly disappointed about the way the Cavs went out this time, as his actions showed in the moments after the Cavs lost Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Orlando Magic, he does have the perspective to realize the team has made significant progress in the past 12 months.
"I'm great; I feel great about this situation that's going on," James said Sunday before he rode off in his Ferrari for the rest of his spring and summer.
"You want to continue to get better, that's all you can ask. We got better this season, and I feel this team will be better next season. You don't want to take a step backward. I thought we went forward from the Boston series [in last year's Eastern Conference semifinals] to this year, and hopefully we can go forward one more time next year."
That is the positive the team can take out of this season, which included a team-record 66 victories and its first division title in 33 years. But the reality is that James is not yet a free agent, and the bar to get him to be in the same mood one year from now has been raised significantly.
No matter which flirtatious phrases come from James' mouth between now and the end of next season -- and just wait until he starts promoting a wide-release documentary and a matching book on the talk-show circuit in August and September that he certainly will want New Yorkers to see and buy en masse -- what really will matter most is how James feels next year.
That's unknown, even to James himself, which is one reason he very likely will not sign an extension this summer, just as Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Yao Ming probably won't. Having such flexibility is so rare, even for superstars, that keeping their teams on high alert is worthwhile.
So the mandate for the summer of 2009 -- what could be the biggest summer so far in Cavs history -- is strikingly clear: Create an appropriate encore when you've increased your regular-season win total by 21 games, helped your star win the NBA's Most Valuable Player award and reached the conference finals.
Not much wiggle room there. Perhaps the charge isn't championship or bust, but it may be very close to that. It's not a comforting thought, especially when the Cavs look at their record this season against the two teams still standing: 0-2 versus the Lakers, 3-6 versus the Magic.
Cleveland certainly needs one more major element, a quality big man who can defend the basket and require attention at the offensive end. What the doctor has ordered is someone to protect the rim besides James, who led the team in blocks this past season, and a player who would require the opposition to play five-on-five on defense rather than totally ignoring Ben Wallace or partially ignoring Anderson Varejao to eye James instead.
To be more specific, they need someone who can check Orlando center Dwight Howard. No one in the league can stop Howard, but a fair percentage of defenders wouldn't allow him to catch the ball 3 feet from the basket over and over, as the Cavs did during the Eastern Conference finals. And let's not overlook how Lakers big men Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol ripped the Cavs apart inside the paint during their two meetings this season.
The problem is that such defenders are not easy to find. But you can expect to hear all the recent usual suspects in the offseason chatter, including Shaquille O'Neal, Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman, Tyson Chandler and so on.
Fortunately, the Cavs have a lot of assets and an owner who not only doesn't mind paying the luxury tax but also faces the pressure of putting on a full-court press to retain James.
They also have a few very attractive trade pieces: players with nonguaranteed contracts and players making huge money at the end of their deals. And they are buyers in a seller's market shaped by the ways the economic crisis has hit the league, meaning they might be willing to move some of the their expiring contracts for longer, more expensive players.
Sasha Pavlovic has a contract worth $4.9 million next season that includes only $1.5 million in guarantees. Young players Darnell Jackson, Tarence Kinsey and Jawad Williams are all under nonguaranteed contracts for next season for around $2.5 million total.
The Cavs conceivably could construct a package so that they could trade for a player making $9.5 million yet send only $1.5 million in guaranteed contracts in return. In the current marketplace, that option opens a world of possibilities, not just for trades but also for sign-and-trades.
Then there's Wallace, who said this week that he is thinking of retiring and may be willing to leave some of his $14 million on the table to do it. Wallace was already going to be a trade chip because of his expiring contract heading into 2010, expected to be the greatest free-agent summer in NBA history. Now, if he's willing to talk about a retirement buyout, it makes him even more valuable as a potential trade piece.
In addition, the Cavs are about to peel at least $25 million off their payroll in the coming weeks as Eric Snow, Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith and Lorenzen Wright become free agents. That number will jump to more than $30 million if Varejao opts out of his contract, as expected, although the team hopes to re-sign him.
So the Cavs will be in position to use their entire midlevel exception of around $5.5 million and their biannual exception of just less than $2 million to go after veteran free agents this summer. Not many teams will be in the mood to do the same, considering the market. In particular, expect the Cavs to inquire about such players as Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Antonio McDyess and even old nemesis Rasheed Wallace, just to name a few.
And throw in another factor: The Cavs are willing to buy draft picks or move up to take on a higher-salaried rookie in a draft where many teams will be looking to trade their picks or move down.
It's a challenging time for the Cavs to be sure, especially as they sit and watch the Magic and the Lakers play for the title they finally thought would be theirs.
And as No. 23 watches, too.
ESPN.com contributor Brian Windhorst covers the Cavaliers for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.