- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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Every now and then the NBA schedule unexpectedly serves up a rare collision of stars jockeying for the same rarefied air on an otherwise ordinary regular-season slate of games. This is one of those nights.
This is a night to put aside who has the hippest commercial or draws the biggest endorsement check or even has the most championship rings to his name. This is a night we all can review our personal list of franchise swingmen and decide if the pecking order needs a little revision.
Lame jokes aside, I'm not going to crack on them for giving honest answers. As I see it, the only people who can judge VC and T-Mac are those still working despite already being bankrolled for life. My guess is Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have coasted through a few work days after they put together the mansion-yacht-jet trifecta. I know Kurt Vonnegut mailed in at least one novel ("Breakfast of Champions") he'd already been paid for and my CD collection is littered with discs by big names that I couldn't bear to listen to more than once.
We all have attended a concert, play or movie that was less than the featured star's best effort. To be honest, I have found it kind of refreshing. Anybody in any walk of life, for that matter, who sincerely believes he or she gives 100 percent every day is either kidding themselves or too easily satisfied. Take your pick.
What makes the comfy cousins' confrontation interesting, in light of their recent statements and the current state of their respective teams, is that this night boils down to pride. While they're both viewed as dogs by the general public, whoever makes the bigger contribution tonight -- and, no, I'm not talking about mere buckets -- walks away standing a little taller in the mind's eye of Joe Q.
This, after all, is not the fourth game in five nights in March on a lottery-destined team, something they've both experienced. Vince is campaigning to show JKidd he doesn't have to switch teams (again) to have a shot at a title. With Richard Jefferson out, what bigger statement could he make than laying one on his younger cousin and Yao Ming on their home floor?
McGrady, meanwhile, should feel a debt of gratitude to the Rockets for dealing Jim Jackson and Tyronn Lue. While the acquisitions -- David Wesley and Jon Barry -- improve the Rockets' spot-up shooting, they've also made it easier to hide T-Mac's weaknesses on defense. He's not awful defensively, but he has all the God-given attributes to be Scottie Pippen or Andrei Kirilenko and he's certainly not in that category -- and the Rockets desperately could use someone who is.
The main event, of course, is LeBron James making his lone appearance this season in a purple-and-gold-festooned Staples Center to take on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. When it comes to swingmen, these are the meat eaters. I'm not overwhelmed with the sense T-Mac will not sleep a good night's sleep until he carries the Rockets to a title. And does Vince strike you, as he apparently hasn't JKidd quite yet, as someone who will feel his career will be incomplete without a championship?
No need to ask that question about Kobe, of course, since even his biggest critics believe he wants to win a championship (singlehandedly, they think). As for LeBron, well, he certainly doesn't seem satisfied despite already being, well, King James.
In fact, while it has been hotly debated whether or not Kobe makes the Lakers better, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that LeBron James is the reason the Cavaliers are leading the Central Division. I even hear LeBron being mentioned as an MVP candidate, but not Kobe.
This, in my mind, is a matter of personality overshadowing performance. After all, what is there not to like about LeBron? He's both amazingly gifted and seemingly gracious.
While several years younger than Kobe, he managed to keep his emotions on the down low when it came to moving Ricky Davis and losing Carlos Boozer. He's fiercely competitive but doesn't come off as if he'd cut his mother's heart out for a win. With the world laid at his feet, he has had the civility to say, "For me? Awww, how nice."
Kobe, on the other hand, seems ruthless and calculating and at the start of this season dispensed with being affable in front of the notebooks and cameras. Maybe LeBron isn't self-deprecating enough to be Gollum, but for a while there Kobe was a dead ringer for Smeagol. It wasn't all that hard to imagine him glaring over his shoulder and shrieking, "My precious! Give it to me! It's mine!" He's chilled some, but that first post-Shaq impression has been hard to shake.
Take the way the two have played, their teams' standing in their respective conferences, their individual statistics and, perhaps most important, the soundness of their decisions at crunch time and I have no problem putting LeBron in the MVP race. Right behind ol' Crazy Eight, that is.
In any case, tonight we get to see them on the same chess board and watch, simultaneously, who best orchestrates his pieces. LeBron has a slightly better supporting cast, but that's only fair since Kobe has a boatload more experience.
This is not the kind of soap-opera goofiness that made the Christmas Day games must-see TV, with Shaq and Kobe crossing paths for the first time since they parted ways and the Pistons-Pacers going at it for the first time since several Indiana players decided revenge on a few fans was more important than winning a title.
These games might require a little more scrutiny than watching to see who gives dap to whom and checking the box score at night's end. You might actually have to forget about the final score and watch to see who does what for 48 minutes, particularly on defense.
In other words, it might require giving 100 percent. You know, like we always do.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 29. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.
When VC faces T-Mac and LeBron faces Kobe, each swingman has something to prove.