CLEVELAND (AP) -With natural light bathing them inside their new $25 million cream-of-the-NBA-crop suburban training facility, the Cleveland Cavaliers huddled around coach Mike Brown following a long practice.
They listened attentively, then, the Cavs touched hands before breaking in a familiar cry of ``One, two, three, championship!''
They didn't sound convincing.
The Cavaliers, you see, are not quite themselves.
Fresh off their first trip to the finals, where they were swept in four straight by the far-superior San Antonio Spurs, the Cavs are poised to start 2007-08 minus Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic, two key contributors from last season's squad who remain overseas and unsigned.
Unless general manager Danny Ferry and their agents get something done soon, Varejao, the frizzy-haired Brazilian forward, and Pavlovic, a swingman who averaged 12.7 points in 28 starts last season, could miss the season in contract holdouts.
LeBron James knows the Cavs just aren't the same without them.
``We're worse,'' the 22-year-old All-Star forward said. ``We're not as good as we were if we have those guys. We all know that. Those two guys are a big part of our team. There's no reason to sit here and say we're better without them.
``Hopefully something happens.''
But with the Halloween home opener against Dallas drawing near, the Cavaliers aren't expecting Varejao or Pavlovic. The sides are in a stalemate, and at this point there's no guarantee either player will be around at all.
``We hope that they can make it here. And the sooner, the better,'' center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. ``But for right now, we can't look over our shoulders or keep hoping and waiting for them.''
Ferry recently went to Brazil for a face-to-face meeting with Varejao, who is represented by agent Dan Fegan. Although no other teams offered him a contract, Varejao is seeking a deal worth $9 million per season, a figure the Cavs refuse to pay a six-point, six-rebound player no matter how much energy he provides or how popular he might be.
Pavlovic turned down a $2.8 million qualifying offer from the Cavs and is threatening to play in Europe.
For now, the Cavaliers seem willing to move on. The club isn't willing to destroy future salary-cap room with two deals that could impact them for years.
Sticky negotiations aside, this is all new to the Cavs. They've never been a defending champion before, and now the bull's-eye is on their backs. Along with everything else comes higher expectations, and higher hopes.
The 7-foot-3 Ilgauskas, drafted by the club in 1996, always has seen things from a higher level. He's loving that his team is looking down - for once.
``There will be more pressure on us, because now there's only one more step up to win a championship,'' he said. ``Other than winning one, the year will be considered a disappointment. But it's a nice place to be, finally, after all these years. We don't want to just make the playoffs anymore or just advance past the first round.''
As he showed last season, James can carry the Cavs as far as he wants.
This summer, he played on the U.S. national team that dominated the FIBA Americas tournament and won gold. The experience of playing with Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant and other stars had a positive effect on James, who seems more mature, more focused and more determined to be an all-time great.
Maybe James has just grown up. Or maybe it's his time.
Unlike many other teams in the East, the Cavaliers did little in the offseason to bolster their roster. The only additions were combo guard Devin Brown and forward Cedric Simmons, two role players brought in as protection in case Varejao and Pavlovic don't return.
While Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Miami and New York all got stronger, the Cavs stayed the same.
James wishes Ferry had done more.
``We didn't do any reshaping,'' James said candidly. ``We didn't do any regrouping. You start to think a little bit, 'How are we going to continue to get better?'''
James averaged 27.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists last season - joining Oscar Robertson as the only players in league history to reach 27-6-6 three straight years - and knows he may be required to do more.
``I'm going to give it my all,'' he said. ``I'm going to give what needs to be done for us to win. That is regardless of who is here or who is injured. That is what I do best.''
James worked tirelessly on his jump shot and may use his size to post up smaller players more often. He's been working on hook shots with both hands and seems more comfortable with his back to the basket.
``I've been working on a lot of different things, just trying to get better,'' he said. ``I feel comfortable from everywhere.''
Along with James and Ilgauskas, Cleveland's starting five will include forward Drew Gooden, shooting guard Larry Hughes and Daniel ``Boobie'' Gibson, last season's postseason hero, at the point.
With a shallow bench, Brown, who has introduced a new move-the-ball-if-LeBron-isn't-open offensive philosophy, might have to play his starters greater minutes than last year. That could present a problem down the line for a team hoping to still be on the floor in mid-June.
Last year's finals sweep wasn't a surprise to James. It didn't take long for him to realize the Cavaliers were overmatched, so he didn't spend any sleepless nights afterward thinking about what might have been.
This year's different. Now that James has tasted the finals, he wants to eat them whole.
``It's going to be tough, because we are one of the best teams in the NBA now,'' he said. ``We have to hold our fort down.''

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