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If things go according to plan, which is rare in the NBA these days, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming will be together longer than George Burns and Gracie Allen. They will connect in Houston, play uninterrupted basketball well into their 30s and enjoy a good run of karma, not to mention championships.

Everything seems to be in place, which makes them fortunate. They are All-Stars, yet neither has hit his prime. They still have to prove they can win. They have a coach who is one of the game's top strategists and has a loathing for losing while possessing the nature of a fussy accountant over details. This is a good foundation.

While there are some potentially devastating NBA duos such as Denver's Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin and Miami's Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade, the future belongs to the McMing Dynasty. In the after-effects of the messy Shaq-Kobe Bryant divorce in Los Angeles, McGrady and Yao could instantly and quite reasonably be called the best twosome in the entire league. The "next Shaq and Kobe" comparisons are inevitable.

"It certainly can be," Philadelphia 76ers coach Jim O'Brien said. "Tracy McGrady is certainly a great basketball player. It comes down to . . . I think every coach's dream is to have an inside-outside attack. If you can have two All-Stars -- one that you can play in the gut and do things with the basketball the way Yao can, score it, pass; and then you have one of the premier perimeter players out there where you can shoot the three, drive the basket and post him up -- I think it's very difficult to guard against."

But Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy -- the one with preparation anxiety -- said Kobe-Shaq comparisons are premature.

"We have to win and win big and win championships for them to ever be compared to those guys," Van Gundy said. "I would think also we have a lot to prove in general, individually and collectively. As a coach I have a lot to prove. I've proven I can get a team to the Finals. I haven't proven I can win in the Finals. Those two players you just talked about also have a lot to prove. They've never been out of the first round."

Still, it's a tantalizing prospect, one that could launch the Rockets near the top of the Western Conference this season and be the underpinning for future championship runs. If everything falls into place.

Houston turned over the core of its roster in a blockbuster seven-player deal over the summer with Orlando because of McGrady's breathtaking versatility, athleticism and ability to score in every way imaginable. But McGrady-led teams cornered the market in ineffectiveness in the most dramatic fashion, and in some circles he's been dismissed as a monumentally talented individual who has not learned how to raise his teammates' level of play. While the 6-foot-8 McGrady led the league in scoring last season, the Magic won just 21 games. This is also McGrady's third team in seven seasons.

While Michael Jordan was tagged with some of the same labels early in his career, he was never considered lazy or self-serving like McGrady.

"I think obviously coming off the year that Tracy had last year as far as individually but more importantly the team, I think this is the perfect time to coach Tracy," said Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who coached McGrady in Orlando. "I think you have a chance of really getting him to do it right all the time. Tracy wants to win, and I think you're going to see that this year."

Now that O'Neal plays for the Miami Heat, Yao can establish himself as the premier center in the Western Conference. He's 7-foot-6 but has a great feel for the game and the all-around skills of a small forward. He is an outstanding passer in the high post and his jumper is deadly from 18 feet and in. But Yao has to learn to establish position in the low post and not get shoved off the blocks.

"I think offensively, Yao's improvements will come, or in general, his improvements will come with greater conditioning," Van Gundy said. "He'll be able to go longer and harder and play a little bit more minutes. . . . I think secondly, on the offensive end, his ability versus teams who front him and/or double-team him, he's got to be more efficient out of that. Defensively, he's got to continue to improve in his transition defense and his pick-and-roll defense."

Chemistry is also an issue. Understanding a teammate to such a level that his tendencies are second nature is the goal. For Jordan and Scottie Pippen and John Stockton and Karl Malone, it was a way of life. For Shaq and Kobe, despite winning three consecutive championships, it never truly meshed.

"I'm a believer that chemistry is always what it's all about," Memphis Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown said. "Last year at this time, everybody conceded the Los Angeles Lakers a championship, and I said, 'Well they do have these four players, but I do believe that the Los Angeles Lakers before them had Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor and did not win.' The only year they won it was the year Baylor retired. I always use that as a reference point. I never assume a team is going to have the necessary chemistry."

McGrady, a two-time scoring champ, may have to adjust his game to conform to Van Gundy's system, which is built on half-court execution and running the offense through Yao. Although McGrady has played with two players with All-Star presence -- Vince Carter in Toronto and Grant Hill in Orlando -- he has never played with a post player of the level of Yao.

"So before you say they're going to be better than San Antonio, Minnesota and Sacramento, you have to be careful," Brown said. "That's just my opinion. Maybe Jeff Van Gundy and his staff will get it to mesh, and in the second half of the season that's where we could see a real push by that group if the chemistry is there. Before you start saying they're the force in the West, I think you need to take a step back and look at the three teams I just mentioned."

So at this point, all we have to go by is potential.

"I don't ever like to draw comparisons because each guy is unique," said New Jersey Nets coach Lawrence Frank. "But I would say they are two of the better players in the NBA. They're in a great system with coach Van Gundy out there in Houston, and I think they're going to form a dynamic duo."

The closest NBA teams for Western New Yorkers who want to take in a game are Toronto, featuring All-Star Vince Carter, Cleveland, with budding superstar LeBron James, and Detroit, home of the world champion Pistons.

Toronto is a nearly two-hour drive, Cleveland about three hours and Detroit around 4 1/2 hours.
Ticket information:

Toronto Raptors: 40 Bay St. Suite 400, Toronto, Ont., M5J 2X2; Phone (416) 872-5000;

Cleveland Cavaliers: 1 Center Court, Cleveland, OH, 44115; Phone (216) 420-2000;

Detroit Pistons: 4 Championship Drive, Auburn Hills, MI, 48362; Phone (248) 377-0100;


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