They are fellow North Carolina alums, but they circle each other as coolly as rivals for prom king. At Jordan's comeback press conference he twice mentioned Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady as his challengers but neglected to raise the name of Carter. (A simple oversight, Jordan said later.) Speculation had been that Jordan would make a run at bringing Carter to the Wizards next summer, but Carter nixed that by signing a $94 million extension that will keep him in Toronto through 2007-08.
The two players diverge in telling ways. Never would Jordan have run off to attend his college graduation during the playoffs, returning only five hours before the tip-off of a Game 7, as the 24-year-old Carter did during the Eastern Conference semifinals last May. The issue had nothing to do with Carter's so-so performance that night—he scored 20 points on 6-for-18 shooting and missed the decisive last shot in an 88-87 loss to the 76ers in Philadelphia—but everything to do with his teammates. They had to question the commitment of their leader, who could have participated in the graduation ceremony over the summer.
Although Carter is almost Jordan's equal as a scorer, Jordan long ago realized that even he could have bad shooting nights, so he worked to strengthen his defense. Last year Jordan said defense was a fundamental flaw in Carter's game. At the first of their three meetings this season, when Jordan isn't blanketing Carter, he will bait him into forcing shots that will disrupt the Raptors' attack. Carter is not likely to do the same to Jordan. As one NBA scout puts it, "Vince gives me the impression he'd just want to outscore Michael."
VS. KOBE BRYANT AND THE LAKERS
FEB. 12 AT LOS ANGELES
For Jordan, the confrontation could not be more eerie. Facing him will be Phil Jackson, his former Chicago Bulls coach, who understands his game better than anyone; Shaquille O'Neal, his successor as the league's most dominant player, who won't hesitate to foul Jordan hard when he drives to the hoop; and Bryant, who has made Michael his life study and, at 23, has blossomed in his idol's absence.
This matchup will mean the world to Bryant, and he will attack Jordan at both ends of the floor. From watching Jordan so much on tape, Bryant has picked up a lot of his mannerisms, including the way he speaks in interviews. "I just look at it as the Lakers versus the Wizards," Bryant says, publicly ignoring the individual matchup, much as Jordan used to do when discussing his own rivals. "It's about my being a leader for this team and making sure my teammates are playing well, making sure they're in the flow of the game. It's not about me trying to prove something to him or to anybody else."
To Jordan, however, a vow to set up his teammates is no mere platitude. With his team woefully undermanned, expect him to draw the defense and dish, in the post and on the break, in the far-fetched hope that a hot hand will carry the Wizards to an upset. Jackson may even cut his friend some slack. "I doubt I'm going to junk up the defense to match Michael's game," he says. "He's got one performance at Staples, and I'd love to see him do well."
VS. SCOTTIE PIPPEN AND THE TRAIL BLAZERS
FEB. 27 AT WASHINGTON
For the first time Batman battles Robin. As keen as Jordan is about challenges, this is one he will especially want to win—to remind Pippen who was boss when they were teammates and who remains boss today. If their relationship has a parallel, it's the one between Patrick Ewing and his Georgetown prot�g�, Alonzo Mourning. No matter how close Mourning's Miami Heat came to overtaking Ewing's New York Knicks in their playoff struggles, Ewing almost invariably gained the upper hand.
While the Blazers should prevail, the 36-year-old Pippen is unlikely to expose his diminished skills by engaging Jordan head-on. Pippen is one of many former Bulls who functioned best as complements to Jordan, and Robin is already deferring again. "Michael can come back and still be one of the top players—maybe the top player," Pippen says. "No reason he can't."