NEW YORK — A word of caution to anyone anointing the Cleveland Cavaliers as the NBA favorites.
Yes, the Cavaliers are going to be good, no doubt. It's impossible not to be with the game's best player. But even LeBron James knows Cleveland has a lot of work to do.
"We're not ready right now. No way," he wrote in his first-person essay in Sports Illustrated.
Quite a different tone than when he arrived in Miami four years ago.
Quite a different situation, too.
While the player dominos continue to fall in place during free agency, James' decision has leveled the playing field even more in the up-for-grabs Eastern Conference.
And the battle should be very entertaining: James vs. the likes of Pat Riley, Phil Jackson and Larry Bird.
Cleveland won't even be a sure thing within its own division where Bird's Indiana Pacers and the Chicago Bulls have veteran squads that have played together for years.
And an NBA championship is surely no guarantee, not with the San Antonio Spurs possibly even stronger than the powerhouse that rolled through James and the Heat in the NBA Finals. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers are potent, and the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers don't look far away.
So if Cleveland's a favorite, it may only be a sentimental one, for those wanting to see James lead his home team to a title that has eluded the city in all major sports for 50 years.
"We have to pull for the Cavaliers now," Charles Barkley said on NBA TV. "We have to pull for that team."
Some will, but it's going to be a challenge.
Toronto (Kyle Lowry) and Washington (Marcin Gortat) held on to key pieces from their up-and-coming squads. Brooklyn believes it has another year to contend if Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett stick around, and the Knicks sold Carmelo Anthony on his return with promises to be better next season.