The best of enemies

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"I always keep in touch with LeBron,'' said Kidd, who became friends with James while they played for USA Basketball last summer in Las Vegas. "I think the sky's the limit for him. We hung out a lot this summer in Vegas and I appreciate the work ethic, that he doesn't just rely on his talent and that he wants to get as much information as possible. Me being on another team, I don't mind cheering for somebody because I want him to be the best that he can be.''

Kidd admits that he and James daydream about contending for championships together in Cleveland. "There's a little talk,'' Kidd said. "But I told him, 'What-ifs can get you in trouble. You go out there and do your thing, and if I don't get to play with you until this summer [at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing], then that's the way it's meant to be. But the big thing is for you to go out there and lead your team.' And that's what he's doing.''

So too is Kidd. The inconsistent Nets were 7-8 after losing 110-103 at home Tuesday to the young Memphis Grizzlies (5-9), but where would New Jersey be without Kidd? He had his fourth triple-double of the season with 12 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists, and afterward he planned to text James with the news that they were now tied for the NBA lead. It's definitely a two-man race: The rest of the league has produced two triple-doubles.

"I tease him about him leading the league,'' Kidd said. "I say, 'Man, I'm not playing hard enough.' I'll say, 'I don't think I'm ever going to get to 37 [points], 12 and 12 [which James posted Saturday against Toronto]. I don't think my numbers will ever be that big. Those are Oscar Robertson numbers.' ''

New Jersey is benefiting from Kidd's newfound rivalry with James. At 34, Kidd was averaging 10.5 assists (second in the NBA to Steve Nash), 11.5 points, and a team-leading 8.9 rebounds. His scoring and shooting are down slightly from last year, but his assists are up. He credits his offseason work at the FIBA Americas tournament for keeping him young.

"Everybody who played this summer has been playing at a higher level,'' Kidd said. "You look at [Dwight] Howard down in Orlando, you look at the kid in Utah, [Deron] Williams, D-Will is playing off the charts. And Mike Miller is shooting the ball great, Michael Redd is playing great, Kobe is playing as Kobe, LeBron is taking it up another notch and Carmelo's playing great.

"That's another challenge. I don't want to be the old guy where they say, 'He's too old, the summer took some steam out of him.' Everyone else is playing at a high level, so why can't I?

"That's why I played this summer. I wanted to play to keep myself in shape and work on my game, and why not go against the best players in the world to do that? So the one thing that I hopefully am doing is driving a market for myself in two years -- when I become a free agent [in 2009] -- so it's not looked upon that I'm 36 and can I still produce.''

Kidd was intrigued last year by a potential trade that would have paired him with Kobe Bryant had the Lakers been willing to package Andrew Bynum with Lamar Odom to New Jersey. While that door now looks shut tight, it is known around the league that Kidd wouldn't mind returning eventually to Dallas, where his 14-year career began.

His first choice obviously would be to return to the NBA Finals with the Nets, but their roster looks like it's on the downside -- a perspective affirmed by team president Rod Thorn's willingness to explore blockbuster deals over the past year. Kidd complained last week that "there is no light at the end of the tunnel'' for the Nets, but the next day he backed away from that critique.

Kidd told me Tuesday that he has no plans to publicly force a trade -- an attempt that failed three years ago. So long as he keeps playing at a high level, Kidd is convinced he'll wind up playing for a contender, whether in New Jersey or elsewhere.

"In this business, it always works out somehow, some way,'' he said. "And if you start to manage stuff, it tends to go the opposite way and it doesn't help you. I've been there, done that.

"So you just play it out. This is my job. That's what you have to do. You learn from what you've gone through early on in your career, and you tend not to make that same kind of mistake.''

It would be wrong to say that Kidd's ambition to play for a contender puts the Nets in a weak position. Just the opposite: His desire to compete makes him worthy of the $19.7 million he's making this year and the $21.4 million he is owed next season. He knows he could be a highly attractive prize at the February trade deadline for a team hoping to copy the recent moves of Denver and Boston: The Nuggets acquired Allen Iverson and the Celtics landed Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett by surrendering potential talent and appealing contracts in return.

The Cavaliers would be an obvious candidate for Kidd, as LeBron has made no secret of his desire to play at a faster tempo with an upgrade at point guard. After a five-point win at Indiana on Sunday, James said of the Pacers: "I think [coach Jim] O'Brien has definitely put them in a position to win ball games because they run up and down. They have the athletes to do that, and they have the point guard that's going to lead them. I like what I'm seeing.''

Kidd would provide the leadership while pushing the ball. The difficulty for Cleveland would come in assembling a package to acquire him. As intriguing as it may be, the odds of Kidd moving to Cleveland appear slim.

Kidd "would love to'' play into his late 30s while following the example of John Stockton, who retired at 41. When he becomes a free agent at 36, Kidd said he may be willing to consider a lesser role with a contender.

"Maybe as a guy coming off the bench or maybe understanding different situations where I can help a younger point guard, then that's what I would like to do -- if that question presented itself in two years,'' he said. "Once that big [contract] number goes away at 36, there's still some value. I still have some time left on my legs, and the experience, you can never put a dollar amount on that. Hopefully I can continue to grow in that aspect, and at the end of the day, there will be somewhere I can go to win a championship.''

While Kidd maintained that he won't involve himself in publicly asking for a trade, he had no problem in spelling out his admiration for LeBron. Last summer in Las Vegas, Kidd praised James' decision to pass to Donyell Marshall for a potential game-ahead three-pointer in the closing seconds of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals in Detroit.

"The true story is in Vegas, when I first saw him, we had the practice and the first thing I said to him was, 'You did the right thing,' " Kidd said. "I said, 'It wasn't like you guys were getting killed. You felt that you had a chance to beat them.' He went for the win. If [Marshall] makes that shot, then everybody says, 'How could that kid find that guy in the corner?' "

Kidd told James, "But the big thing is you didn't let that shot take you to a low. From there you make the shot in Game 3 and then you write the history books by going four [victories] in a row. You never backed off, you kept coming, you took criticism and you just went out there and were you. Because most players could just go sideways and would never be seen again.''

They've become friendly enough that Kidd occasionally provides advice. "When he was not shooting free throws well, I said, 'Hey! Relax. Relax. I've seen you shoot free throws. Go back to whatever you were doing, but don't press. Relax and be you,' " Kidd said.

His rivalry -- if that's the right term -- is renewing Kidd's ambition. "People in New Jersey will say, 'Why is he helping a rival?' But its not that I'm helping him. I'm using him at the same time,'' Kidd said. "As much as I want to beat Cleveland, I want his best game as much as he wants my best game. And then in the summer it's time to talk about who got who.''

Kidd's triple-double Tuesday was the 91st of his career. Only five NBA teams -- the Kings, Lakers, Celtics, 76ers and Nets -- have accumulated more triple-doubles over their franchise histories than Kidd has earned as an individual player.

"I'm not worried about the teams,'' Kidd said. "I'm just worried about that kid in Cleveland, because he has too much time, he has a lot of time left on his clock.

"You look back at [rivals] Larry Bird and Dr. J, or Magic and Larry -- and I'm not putting me in that category,'' Kidd said. "But you're waking up, and you read the newspaper, and you see LeBron had a triple-double. Now I've got to get excited because he's entering my area. So, OK, I guess I'm not playing hard enough, I've got to start stepping it up. And you text each other in that fun way, and before you know it he's filling up a stat sheet and that's taking his game to a higher level. And that's just by texting and e-mailing each other.''