Don't be fooled: Mike does like LeBron

Editor's note: As part of "The Stein Line" every Monday, ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein gives his take on things in "Slams and Dunks."

Perhaps you've heard Michael Jordan's biting statements recently about LeBron James. The line about how LeBron is "talented for 18 years old." How MJ downplayed LBJ's dominance in front of ESPN cameras, and everywhere else, because "he's played against high school kids who probably are under 6 feet and have the talent of sportswriters."

Good quips, and we can't really argue with that last one, but don't believe that they really mean much. Jordan is an unabashed LeBron fan who, knowing Jordan, is simply saying this stuff to try (in vain) to keep the kid level-headed. MJ just made similar public critiques of Antoine Walker, another one of his favorites, and don't forget that LeBron was invited to the legend's private Chicago pickup games last summer. One big reason why Darko Milicic and Carmelo Anthony have no shot to displace James from the No. 1 spot in the June draft is how well James played in those games.

As one Western Conference executive told us last month: "As good as Darko is, he hasn't played with NBA players and left them standing speechless like LeBron."

Jordan's true feelings for LeBron were on display again in a Gund Arena hallway Tuesday night after MJ played his last game in Cleveland. Jordan approached the youngster, gave him a hearty hug and then whispered some advice. Jordan then backed off and loudly announced: "I can't be talking to you. I don't want to be tampering." Memo to Mike: It's not tampering until you're a GM again.

  • You can pretty much count on the sale speculation that pops up periodically in Cleveland to cease if the Cavaliers' 25-percent chance of winning lands LeBron in the May 22 lottery. As for the Cavs' coaching situation, expect an announcement later this week that interim coach Keith Smart will be considered for the permanent position and retained in his current role until a decision is reached.

    But it's believed that owner Gordon Gund favors a proven veteran, especially if the Cavs do score LBJ, with Mike Dunleavy Sr. still topping the list of candidates. Dunleavy's interest figures to be easier to gauge after the lottery as well.

  • One lottery team that apparently has no interest in winning the rights to draft James is Miami. Touched as we were to see the Heat retiring No. 23 on Friday night in a tribute to MJ -- which touched us since that number was also worn by Heat-ex and Stein Line fave Cedric Ceballos -- what is Pat Riley going to do if James winds up in South Beach and wants the same No. 23 he has been wearing?

    Some potential consolation for Riles: There is a belief in Golden State that the Heat is more of a threat to steal Gilbert Arenas away in free agency than Denver, even though the Nuggets have the most cap room, because Arenas really does despise cold weather.

  • Congratulations to Milwaukee's George Karl. Now it's George's turn, along with Gary Payton, to be the dangerous No. 8 seed and upset Detroit or New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs. Maybe that would avenge Seattle's infamous loss to Denver in 1994's opening round.

    As for the North Carolina job, it's Philadelphia's Larry Brown -- not Karl -- who has been linked strongly to the Tar Heels. The Sixers don't want Brown to go, but they would undoubtedly like to bring Maurice Cheeks back from Portland, if they can swing it, should they have to replace Brown.

  • After watching the Sonics spank the Lakers twice ... and seeing Ray Allen play so well post-trade ... and noting that Rashard Lewis is not only growing into a role of prominence but that Lewis missed only a few games this season even though he didn't have off-season surgery to repair a bum shoulder ... we can say it safely now.

    If I'm a Sonics fan, even though GP is no longer with me, I won't abandon all hope unless they trade Kevin Calabro. Losing the melodious Voice of the Sonics? Now that would hurt.

    Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.