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Tuesday, December 10, 2002
Updated: December 11, 4:34 PM ET
Does T-Mac's desire match his game?

By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2

In recent weeks there's been much hoop-dee-doo about the hottest NBA question:

Who's better: Kobe Bryant or Tracy McGrady?

So, as long as we're debating comparatives, I'd like to toss up a couple more that have puzzled me for lo these many years. Who's better: Superman or Captain Marvel? Peter, Paul or Mary?

You get the idea. Most debates of this kind are all about taste -- and hype. Which is better: chocolate or vanilla? At the same time, in any dialectical investigation of comparative athletic prowess there's one additional vital consideration that either levels the scales or obviates the entire discussion: function!

For me, the question of Kobe versus T-Mac is artificial and even fatuous, simply because both players are required to perform vastly different functions with their respective teams.

Kobe Bryant & Tracy McGrady
McGrady vs. Bryant: the debate rages on, but is it being analyzed correctly?

Because Shaq is the most dominant pivotman in the league, the Lakers are best served by playing inside-out basketball. Once Shaq has the ball in the shadow of the basket, few teams can risk having him operate one-on-one. That's why Shaq is routinely doubled-teamed before he receives an entry pass, or else on the "catch" or the "first move." The result of this defensive scrambling is that Shaq's teammates are now playing 4-on-3.

Since 75 percent of the Lakers offense is initiated with an entry pass into Shaq (or the threat thereof), the big man is the deliverer and Kobe functions primarily as a receiver. Only in an open court, or with certain favorable matchups, and also with the shot clock running short, is Kobe encouraged to play one-on-one basketball and either create an open shot for himself or deliver a cunning pass to an unguarded teammate.

Lacking a big man with exquisite post-up moves, the Orlando Magic are forced to play drive-and-kick basketball. Here, the ball is dribbled hoopwards, then passed out to a shooter when the defense collapses. In the Magic's scheme, McGrady's primary job is to flat-out score. Under duress, he becomes responsible for delivering the ball to his teammates.

In the unlikely event that McGrady and Bryant ever switch teams, then their offensive responsibilities would likewise switch.

So forget about who has the quickest first step, who's longer, who's the better shooter -- because function supercedes talent. In truth, comparing Bryant and McGrady on an absolute level is like comparing apples and oranges. If a comparison is what you are looking for, better to isolate each player and evaluate how well he fulfills the demands of his team.

Tracy McGrady
McGrady usually can't be stopped on offense, but admits his defense is far from perfect.

Since I'd already analyzed Bryant's functioning (and misfunctioning) in the Lakers' triangle (see "Trouble in Paradise" -- 11/1/02, and "Like Father, Like Kobe" -- 11/4/02), I was anxious to scout McGrady when the Magic visited New York on December 4. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that McGrady was unexpectedly down and out with a twisted ankle suffered two nights before in a home game against the Celtics. So, with McGrady getting intensive treatment and off-limits in the trainer's room, I touched up several friendships and acquaintances with the rest of the team.

Which was a true pleasure. As presently constituted, the Magic will not win the championship this season, but they do lead the NBA in all-around nice guys. The coaches, as well as several veteran players, gush about the joys of working with this group. Also, the players are genial and comfortable not only with each other but with the media as well.

McGrady came to Orlando in August 2000, traded by Toronto for a future first-round draft choice, and Magic coach Doc Rivers' first up-close look at McGrady was a little disconcerting. "We work really hard in training camp," says Rivers, "and Tracy was overwhelmed. He said that they never worked that hard in Toronto. From the get-go in Orlando, playing with intensity has always been a big problem for Tracy, both in ballgames and in practice."

Two seasons later and McGrady's work ethic remains a work in progress. "Last year," says Rivers, "I'd estimate that Tracy had 50 high-intensity games out of the 76 he played. It's still an up-and-down kind of thing, but he is getting better. Maybe he's up to speed in about three out of four games these days, and he's also working hard in most of our practice sessions."

Because almost all of the Magic's offense goes through McGrady, the vim and vigor he brings to his game is crucial for the team's success. "Tracy is our power source," says Rivers. "It's up to him to energize the rest of us."

Tracy McGrady
McGrady leads the NBA in scoring and has topped 40 points three times this season.

Orlando's most veteran player is Horace Grant, and he agrees that McGrady's energy level is sometimes inadequate. "The thing is," says Grant, "that Tracy's still only 23, and his competitive nature is still maturing. And, yes, a young player can learn to play with greater intensity. It's a technique, just like good footwork or making an outlet pass. But time is running out. If Tracy doesn't learn to play all out all the time within the next two years, then it'll be too late. Nothing gets unfixable as quickly as bad habits."

Another teammate has a much more critical scouting report: "Instead of busting his butt on defense, Tracy likes to take short cuts. He gambles and cheats so much that he puts the rest of us in jeopardy."

Though he wouldn't be playing against the Knicks, McGrady showed up for the player introductions in his game sweats, and then took a seat on the bench. Say what? Turned out that the young man anticipated that he'd be playing and came to the Garden wearing blue jeans. When the team doctor evaluated the ankle injury and said nix, McGrady was too embarrassed to sit on the bench wearing down-home duds, so he climbed into his uniform.

Even without their (and the league's) high scorer, the Magic beat the hapless Knicks, 98-97.

I caught up with McGrady after the game and was surprised once again. Of course, I've seen the kid on TV numerous times, and his oncourt body language suggested that here was another self-congratulating dunk-o-maniac, just one more run-of-the-mill NBA bonehead. That's why I was delighted by McGrady's soft and humble manner. Forget his post-dunk yowlings, and his smug superstar smiles ... it's all a ruse to disguise the fact that T-Mac's really just a small-town kid at heart.

So what does McGrady think about the critiques of his defense? "I know that I have to get better," he says. "I think I'm OK guarding somebody straight-up, but I'm too slow recognizing when I have to rotate to the ball. In this league, it's very easy to get embarrassed out there if your defense is lame. Hey, I know, because I've been on both ends of the deal. But I'm starting to take pride in my defense and I'm working hard to improve it. Someday, I hope I'll be good enough to make the all-defensive team."

OK, but what about the Tracy vs. Kobe controversy? Is it just a media-inspired frenzy, or does it really mean something to the players involved?

According to Horace Grant, who played with Kobe in 2000-01, and knows the full intricacies of the triangle offense, "Kobe is totally into proving that he's better than Tracy. Last week, when the Lakers came to Orlando, Kobe was breaking plays left and right, just forcing shot after shot, trying to outscore Tracy."

And McGrady? "Well," he says, "to tell you the truth, as late as last season, I did get caught up in trying to prove that I was better than Kobe. But not any more. It's a huge compliment that people even consider me to be one of the best players in the league. But I've learned to focus on winning."

OK, OK & but, besides Shaq, who is the NBA's premier player?

"There's no question about it," says McGrady. "It's Kobe and he's got three rings to prove it."

In other words, the ultimate function is to win championships.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."