By Ben Golliver
LeBron James and the Miami Heat have heard it all in the two-plus years since the Big 3 came together in 2010. That experience has left them as skilled as any organization at deflecting and deflating potentially hazardous storylines.
A report indicated Thursday that the Los Angeles Lakers could be making preparations, including clearing their salary cap books, to make a run at James, the NBA's reigning MVP, in 2014, should Lakers guard Kobe Bryant follow through on a stated plan to retire. While the Lakers aren't alone in their ability to clear significant cap space by 2014, the first year James could exercise an early termination option in his contract to become a free agent, they are the one obvious marquee franchise in position to do so and their recent track record of landing big-name stars has put them in the center of virtually every recent prominent free agency conversation.
Later Thursday, as his Heat faced the Detroit Pistons in a preseason game, James attempted to dodge questions about the report linking the Lakers to him before pledging his allegiance to the Heat.
The Sun-Sentinel reported James' pre-game and post-game comments and noted that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra stood up for his star.
Approached pregame, James wasn't biting. "What story?" he said, asking everybody and nobody. "The Marvel Comics story?"
"We've developed so much Teflon the last two years," Spoelstra said, "that I mention it time and time again, we've learned how to compartmentalize."
Following Thursday's game, James seconded that notion. "I'm here," he said. "I'm preparing for the season. I'm preparing to defend our title. I understand it comes up because of who I am."
ESPN.com added a bit more from James.
"That story, I don't know where it came from, but I understand why it came up because of who I am -- it's going to happen," James told reporters after Miami's first preseason home game. "But I'm not going to worry about it. I've got to continue to stay focused with these guys and make sure we're ready for any challenges that come."
Also Thursday night, Heat veteran forward Udonis Haslem weighed in on his Twitter account, advising his followers to "stop [with this LeBron playing] in LA talk," noting that James is "Dade County certified," before asserting that "[you] can put [the] house [on]" James remaining with the Heat. Haslem also exclaimed, in reference to Miami's area code, "Once 305 always 305!"
James is a changed man these days. He spent the 2012 playoffs in virtual isolation, logging off Twitter, reading book after book, and putting basketball first, last and only. That was in stark contrast to the 2011 playoffs, when he came up short in the Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, played passively, mocked Dirk Nowitzki for being sick by fake coughing, and bristled at media members who suggested he wasn't rising to the occasion. Winning his first title only reinforced that overhaul in approach and maturity. Still, we're a long way out from July 1, 2014, and James' situation, as of this moment, is close to ideal. His team is the odds-on favorite to repeat, all of its key players are healthy, the Eastern Conference has been weakened by Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose's serious knee injury, and the Heat are just days away from the Big 3's first championship ring ceremony together. The true tests of James' loyalty will come later, perhaps much later, once the rumors and new adversities have had plenty of time to accumulate.