Thursday January 20th, 2005

It's well known that New Yorkers are enamored of themselves, and of their city's self-proclaimed status as the "capital of the world."

So it should come as no surprise that the stars of the area's two NBA teams are full of the same swagger. In the last few weeks, the Knicks' Stephon Marbury has told us how he is the league's best point guard. And New Jersey's Vince Carter intimated that he plans to show up those who doubted his abilities before the Raptors traded him to the swamps of New Jersey in mid-December.

Both are delusions of grandeur.

As entertaining as both players are, as many highlights as both generate, neither player is as good as he thinks.

Take Marbury. The Knicks' floor general has undoubtedly helped make the team relevant,but that's about the limit of his capabilities. Yes, he's averaged 20 points per game and at least eight assists in five of his last six seasons. But a player's value is measured in the postseason, a place Marbury has been four times -- and exited each time in the first round.

Even more telling is the fact he's been shipped off of three teams already in his eight-year career, and in each case, the team shedding itself of Marbury has been better the following season -- dramatically. Minnesota improved from a lockout-shortened 25-25 mark to 50-32 post-Marbury. New Jersey enjoyed a 26-game turnaround after sending Marbury to the Suns for Jason Kidd. And this season the Suns have started 26-4 after winning a total of 29 games all last season with Marbury directing the offense for the bulk of the campaign.

And what of this season, in which Marbury has, in his humble opinion, ascended to the throne once held by Magic Johnson and John Stockton? It's an interesting claim, to put it charitably, for a player who has led his team to a 16-14 record in a conference in which less than half the teams are playing at least .500 ball. Or for a point guard whose assist-to-turnover ratio stands at a pedestrian 2.68, a mark that trails the likes of Milt Palacio and Tyronn Lue.

Tellingly -- although Marbury made a mission last week of proving his bold statement against the player to whom it appeared the comment was directed, Jason Kidd, with 31 points and four 3-pointers -- it was Kidd who led his Nets to an 89-83 win at Madison Square Garden.

Did Marbury finally learn a lesson? We doubt it; not after Knicks GM Isiah Thomas gave his stamp of approval to Marbury's claim. Thomas, of all people, should know that point guards aren't weighed by their numbers; they're measured by their wins.

Speaking of winning, that isn't something many close observers would associate with Vince Carter.

Not since 2001, when Carter short-circuited what seemed a certain path to the mantle of the NBA's best by flying to and from his college graduation on the day of then seventh game of the Eastern Conference semifinals with the 76ers (this after VC had stopped regularly attending classes at North Carolina before his senior season). Philly won 88-87.

Not since Carter was seen grooving at a Nelly concert while in the midst of rehabbing his now-infamous jumper's knee a few seasons back.

And not since he thanked the Raptors and their fans for their years of medical support and All-Star votes by dogging the first 20 games of this season while asking out of Toronto.

Now Carter has the nerve to proclaim he will prove his doubters wrong as a Net.

But it is Carter and his increasingly laissez-faire play that have been the source of these doubts. A once-explosive scorer aggressive enough to launch his groin into Frederic Weiss' face during a memorable dunk at the Sydney Olympics, Carter has become more passive with each succeeding season. Carter even went so far as to claim that he was through with dunking. Mind you, he's all of 27 years old, which doesn't quite seem the time to start using a cane.

It isn't as if Carter is trying to save his legs for the playoffs; he's been there only twice in his six-year career. And that is precisely why Air Meadowlands is so maddening. Blessed with the ability to bend the game to his will, Carter chooses to remain in the NBA's version of The Matrix, avoiding contact, launching 231 comfortable 3-pointers a season and starting summer vacation early each year.

In time, and without the protection Marbury enjoys as a hometown hero, Carter will soon learn that as willingly as New York embraces the proud, the city is equally effective at discerning a fraud. Don't say you haven't been warned.

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