Bouncing around Georgetown's McDonough Gym on an unseasonably warm December morning, LeBron James looks happy. Simultaneously chatting with reporters, joking with teammates and video chatting on his phone, James bears no resemblance to the man who once claimed publically he enjoyed playing the role of the villain.
Maybe it was their dominating Finals win over the Oklahoma City Thunder last June. Maybe it was the offseason additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, who along with Shane Battier make up probably the most likeable bench in the NBA. Whatever the reason, the vitriol normally reserved for third-world dictators that has engulfed the Miami Heat over the past two years seems to be evaporating.
It's not the Heat that are any different but rather a changing NBA landscape that has created new storylines. The Lakers have already fired one head coach, and center Dwight Howard seems poised to take over James' throne, as the guy fans love to hate. The Knicks are legitimate title contenders for the first time in decades and New York City backs down from no one. With a 12-4 record and James, Wade and Bosh all healthy and putting up their usual all-star numbers, the Heat are elite and slightly boring.
"We know we can make someone's season if they beat us," James said yesterday. "Teams always get up to play us. We'll be ready."
Wade echoed these sentiments. "We know as champions we'll get everybody's best shot."
This is true. The Heat still sells out at home and draw 18 thousand plus on the road. Their presence helped fill the Verizon Center on a Tuesday night a feat more rare than a J.D. Salinger interview.
The Miami stars proved to be prophetic as the Wizards, mired with a 1-13 record that amazingly seemed even worse than that, took down LeBron and co.
Still, for the first time since James and Chris Bosh joined Miami two summers ago, the main issues the Heat faces are on the court. They have plenty of holes to fix, but don't seemed burdened with the national scorn they once faced.
With the best record in the Eastern Conference, the Heat are second to last in the league in rebounding and surprisingly, in the bottom third of the league in team defense. Allen and Lewis are still getting adjusted to their new surroundings and as great as the big three are, it's been proven that Miami won't win without contributions from their bench.
Coach Erik Spoelstra threw cold water on the idea that all is perfect in Heat-land. "We have a lot of dangers within our own camp. We're searching for consistency right now and haven't found it. It's all mental and discipline."
A former DC pariah, LeBron was introduced Tuesday night to a huge ovation. Even after a bitter loss, he was jovial in the locker room, joking with reporters and teammates. This is a new, happier LeBron James. The three-ring circus that has surrounded him for the past 30 months is gone, replaced with an acknowledgement from fans and haters alike that we are watching one of the best to ever play. For Spoelstra, the ultimate gym rat, it's just nice to only have to worry about basketball again.