INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert pointed to the gold-colored horseshoe pin on his lapel, a not-so-subtle reminder his downtown casino is days from opening.
These are good times for Gilbert, who believes his NBA team isn't far from a return to glory.
Back to when LeBron James led the Cavs.
Although they've won just 40 games the past two seasons -- following James' departure as a free agent -- Gilbert feels the Cavaliers, being built around presumptive rookie of the year Kyrie Irving, can return to the playoffs as early as next season.
"I certainly think it's a possibility we are in the playoffs next year," he said. "I think we play every year to be in the playoffs regardless of who is on the court. So I don't think anyone has put any limits on where the team can go in any year."
That's ambitious talk, but that's Gilbert, who has never shied away from offering his opinion on almost any subject, whether in an email like the scathing one he sent after James left or via Twitter. Gilbert seems more optimistic than coach Byron Scott, who recently said a return to the playoffs is "is still going to be a long process."
After answering questions for nearly 20 minutes, Gilbert, who is doing the media rounds this week to promote his latest business venture, Horseshoe Casino Cleveland, was asked about James' comments in February when the two-time MVP said during Miami's visit that he could envision playing again for the Cavaliers before his career ends.
"I think it would be great," James said. "It would be fun to play in front of these fans again."
Gilbert initially balked at discussing James, saying he couldn't speak about any player under contract with another team.
However, when asked if he was surprised by what James said, Gilbert opened up -- a little.
"Nothing in the NBA surprises me," he said. "Honestly, nothing that happens."
Has he forgiven James?
"The truth of the matter is July 11, 2010, we just started focusing on the future and you just try to look ahead and look forward," he said. "That's where we're at."
That date, of course, is when James announced on a nationally televised special that he was leaving Cleveland as a free agent and signing with the Heat to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Cavs have struggled since James left, but Gilbert believes the team has progressed to the point that the postseason is again possible.
A little luck would help, and Gilbert got some last year when the Cavs won the NBA draft lottery and selected Irving with the top overall pick. The former Duke guard was better than advertised, averaging 18.5 points per game and renewing optimism in Cleveland.
Gilbert's teenage son, Nick, represented the Cavs at last year's drawing. Gilbert plans to send him again.
"If he doesn't get the first pick, he will be grounded all summer," Gilbert joked. "This is a very important draft for us. We hope to add some key pieces this summer."
Gilbert was more serious about his confidence in Cavs coach Byron Scott, who has been charged with rebuilding a young team amid two seasons of costly injuries.
"Byron has been great for the franchise," he said. "He's the consummate professional in every possible way. He hardly ever gets rattled one way or another. I think he brings stability to the team and the franchise. He brings credibility and we love having Byron Scott here."
Thanks to Irving and the development of rookie forward Tristan Thompson, Gilbert said it was much easier to watch the Cavs this season than last, when Cleveland won just 19 games.
"This year we had hope for the future with Kyrie and Tristan and a couple of the other players that are coming back," he said. "Whether it's this year or in the future, you know you've got pieces you are developing so last year was much more difficult. This year you can see the path."
Gilbert has acknowledged past mistakes with James, who may have abused some of the owner's generosity during his seven seasons with the Cavs.
Gilbert was asked if some of the team's philosophies have changed.
"You mean since Zendon Hamilton left?" he joked, referring to a former forward.
Gilbert then acknowledged the Cavs are doing things differently.
"We learn from everything we do, right decisions made, wrong decisions made, right strategies, wrong strategies and you try to repeat the things you do right," he said. "We want to build a franchise with Kyrie or with other superstars -- not around superstars. We think that's probably not a great formula for success or else we would have rings already here. We would have championship trophies.
"We believe `the with' is the key here and we're looking forward to adding more great pieces."
By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer