Isiah Thomas had a plan. Armed with the seventh pick in the 1995 draft, Thomas had his eyes on Kevin Garnett — even piecing together a transition program that would ease the gangly, gifted South Carolina-born high schooler into the pro game. But it didn’t take long for his big idea to unravel. Thomas, then executive vice-president for the fledgling Toronto Raptors, had tried trading up with Washington to secure the fourth selection. He was rebuffed. Meanwhile, Minnesota general manager Kevin McHale, an acquaintance of the Pistons legend since high school, asked Thomas about the rumors of Garnett’s alleged volatile personality. Thomas replied honestly. He told McHale that everything he had heard about Garnett off the court was not true. And on the court? KG’s talents were so big, they outweighed any concerns.
So McHale selected Garnett fifth overall, making him the first prep player to jump directly to the NBA in two decades. Thomas had a feeling that Garnett would have a great career, but he conceded that Toronto was hardly the best place for it to begin. By then, Thomas had not yet purged the team of the expansion castoffs who could corrupt a wide-eyed teenager. Obtaining “infrastructure,” as Thomas liked to call it — veterans who could support and mold a prodigy — was necessary for such a talent. Having the tools was never an issue for the players of this generation. But where they landed, and who shaped those tools, has often foretold their futures. Every one was a risk. Two years later, the infrastructure was in place in Toronto, and Thomas had his chance at another high school phenom skyrocketing up draft boards. He grabbed Tracy McGrady, a long, lean Swiss army knife of a player, with the ninth overall selection in the 1997 draft.
“He reminded me a lot of George Gervin at that time — his ease, in terms of being able to always get it done without looking like he was working too hard,” Thomas recently said.
That ease has trailed the spectacularly talented McGrady for much of the past 16 years. On the one hand, his natural ability has led many to question why McGrady never could escape the first round of the playoffs. Critics said he was too lazy, too selfish, too eager to do it all himself, and he didn’t try to improve the elements of his game not directly related to scoring. On the other hand, he was one of the great shot makers of his era. McGrady’s game was elegant, effortless, and unbound. It’s easy to forget his greatness now, but he once scored 62 points in one game. He amassed 13 points in 35 seconds in another to pull out a win in miraculous fashion. He glided where others sprinted, and often arrived first to the spot.
“People put the label on McGrady that he’s not a hard worker, or that he’s lazy, but that wasn’t the case at all,” Thomas said. “When you watched him play, he was always in position, and he was faster than everyone else, so once he got there, once he got to the position, everyone else was a second late. Which, consequently, gave him some time to relax.”
Sixteen years into that career, one of the most talented players in NBA history strolled onto the practice court in Miami on an off day of these tug-of-war Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat. This is the spotlight McGrady’s career warranted but never demanded. And cruelly or not, the two-time scoring champion and seven-time All-Star has impacted these games about as much as Patty Mills and his towel. Season after season, splendid individual performance after splendid individual performance, his was a career of unlucky bounces, untimely breaks, and unfortunate quotes. After undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee in 2009, that effortless explosiveness — like the quiet revving of a Jaguar’s engine — was gone forever. He spent the bulk of this season playing in China, the land where once-prominent NBA careers go to die. Many thought his NBA life was over. He certainly did. Then San Antonio waived Stephen Jackson in April and Gregg Popovich called with a simple pitch: Join us and know that you may never play. Or don’t. Now McGrady, 34, is the Spurs’ break-in-case-of-emergency, an aging All-Star and an active player finally out of the first round after being denied eight times.
McGrady still intrigues. Media members quickly built a circle around him on an off day’s practice at a time when Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, and other Spurs were available to them. One reporter began a question by stating that McGrady had not played the night before.
“Shit, I don’t think I am going to play,” McGrady said. “I watch just like you. I just have a better seat.”
The Spurs are closing in on a championship for him. Whether that will be enough for him, to justify this comeback, doesn’t matter. This will have to suffice — he won’t get another shot.
“Listen, I was always a guy that said for a player to be on a championship team that didn’t contribute, how can he feel like he deserved that ring?” McGrady said. “But look here, man, I’m in that situation and I tell you, my career has been something, especially after my injury. It’s been tough, and I can’t do nothing but appreciate this opportunity.”
Jeff Van Gundy, his former coach in Houston, has watched McGrady closely in these playoffs. “I’ve always had this pang of regret that I was never able to help him advance, because he was such a great player and was so incredibly consistent,” Van Gundy said. “I still feel bad, but that’s why I’m so happy for him now.”
The early stages of McGrady’s career were humbling. From being the man at Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina to the kid at the end of Toronto’s bench, the 18-year-old traveled a long way in a short time. “He wasn’t seeing no light of day,” said Damon Stoudamire, the point guard Toronto drafted with Garnett unavailable.
“He slept a whole lot. Any chance he got, he was asleep. Literally. I mean, the bus, the plane. The crazy thing about it is, I don’t think he was asleep because he was necessarily tired or he was overwhelmed. I think he was still growing.”
Toronto suffered 66 losses in McGrady’s debut season. Butch Carter replaced Darrell Walker as head coach midway through the year. Joel Hopkins, McGrady’s high school coach, and Alvis Smith, his longtime AAU coach, voiced their skepticism over Carter’s appointment. “The first call I got when I became coach was from those guys. They’re cussing me out, saying I’m going to be terrible for Tracy, blah, blah, blah, right?” Carter recalled. “I told those guys to shut up, give me a little time.”
As for McGrady? “He was a mess,” Carter said. Carter had coached high school basketball in Ohio after his NBA career ended. He’d seen freshmen forced into varsity duty. The talent was always there, but the physical immaturity was often unconquerable. Carter learned not to judge their progress by their practices and to bring them along slowly. He did the same with McGrady. “They don’t run two-year-olds in the Kentucky Derby and that’s for a reason,” Carter said. “It’s because they’ll break down. A young guy’s body, you have to give it time to harden. You can’t throw Tracy McGrady against Charles Oakley or Doug Christie in a practice and expect to get a positive result.”
He designed a strength regimen for McGrady adapted from Cris Carter, his All-Pro wide receiver brother. In McGrady’s rookie season, after he returned from the All-Star break, Carter noticed he was giving little effort in practice. “He was still in Florida,” Carter said. The first game back, he skipped over McGrady in his rotation. McGrady confronted his coach and the two came to an agreement: For an hour’s worth of focused practice, Carter would help McGrady turn into a star. Playing time was the carrot for a young McGrady. “Most coaches who don’t understand young players view ‘selfish’ as something bad,” Carter said. “My thing as a coach is, I can’t get a player to be at the level he needs to be at unless he is selfish. He’s got to be selfish to invest in himself.”
After McGrady’s rookie year, the Raptors paired him with his distant cousin, Vince Carter. With his endless repertoire of highlight-reel dunks, Carter fast became a star and overshadowed McGrady’s steady progression into an all-around player who could defend, rebound, pass, and score. “Ultimately, Butch was right,” Smith said. “The way Butch was bringing him along, Butch was right. I was wrong. He wasn’t playing. But with a young talent like that, a young player like that, you’ve got to bring him along.” The team struggled to a 23-27 record in the lockout-shortened season. But progress was brewing.
The following year, they finished 45-37, good for a sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. McGrady and Carter’s Raps were young and brash and seemed primed for the 2000 playoffs. They faced Van Gundy’s Knicks in the first round. “We had had a big meeting and we said, ‘Y’all are the captains, Vince and Tracy, and we’re the flight attendants and we’re going to make y’all happy,” Oakley said. “My thing is, I’m a grown man and I’m going to treat you like a grown man. Like when you sign up for the army, you’ve got to go do the job.”
Then things got weird. Butch Carter sued former Raptor and then Knick Marcus Camby for defamation (Camby had called Carter a liar because he was told the Raptors planned to build around him) only to drop the suit between Games 1 and 2. Carter later publicly questioned the leadership skills of his veteran players. The Knicks swept Toronto in a narrow best-of-five series, outscoring the Raptors by a mere 12 points in the three losses. Vince Carter, blanketed by Latrell Sprewell all series, shot just 15-for-50 from the field. McGrady started valiantly, foreshadowing the latter series in his career. He had 25 points and 10 rebounds in his first playoff game before tapering off to games of 13 points and seven rebounds and 12 points and four rebounds.
“Let’s get this straight, Tracy played awesome in the series,” Butch Carter said. “Vince could not make a shot. At that time of that season, Tracy McGrady was the best defender and the best player on the court for three quarters. He just did not have the physical maturity. There are two things in the fourth quarter a good player needs: Vince had the physical maturity, and also Vince trusted everything we ran. Tracy was more of a one-on-one player in the fourth quarter, which means when you’re that way, you end up getting stuck by the officials sometimes … He just wasn’t strong enough to make a play in the fourth quarter the way Vince was.”
“When Sprewell locked up Vince — Sprewell did a great job on Vince — that was the difference in that series,” Carter said. “If you go back and look, we lose two games at the buzzer. And that was with us shooting less than 40 percent.”
That offseason, after three years in Toronto, McGrady entered free agency with three viable options. He debated staying in Toronto to play Pippen to Carter’s Jordan. “I don’t know this to be true, but I feel that if Tracy would’ve been recognized for some of the other things that he was doing, I wonder if that would have affected whether he stayed in Toronto,” Stoudamire said. “Because everybody was so caught up in Vince Carter and the athletic ability, and America got enamored with Vinsanity, but then you had this kid that had been there, who was there a year before him, who really was putting up All-Star numbers in Toronto.”
McGrady considered becoming the face of the post-Jordan Bulls. Jerry Krause initially wanted to draft McGrady in 1997, but backed away at the last minute. Signing with Chicago would mean more exposure, more endorsement dollars, and probably more success.
“That’s where he should have went,” Smith, his AAU coach, said. “He should have went to Chicago. There’s no question. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Instead, McGrady signed with Orlando to team up with Grant Hill, one of the game’s brightest stars. He also hoped Tim Duncan, a free agent who was weighing his options, would join them to form a kind of pre–Big Three.
“Tracy made one really bad decision,” Butch Carter said. “Going to Orlando was a really bad decision for him. The issue at the end of the day is Grant wasn’t better than Vince.”
But most important to a young McGrady: He was going home.
“Well, I was  years old, from the Orlando area,” McGrady said. “Nothing was really going to take me away from signing back home. Hindsight looking back? Yeah of course, it would have been a perfect situation to stay right there.”
McGrady continued to hold court on Miami’s floor, surrounded by eager reporters. He revisited his Orlando years, when he became one of the game’s elite scorers. “I had to, because no Grant Hill,” McGrady said. “It was more of the burden on my shoulders to carry the team. It’s just what I had to do.” Hill had played in 74 games his last season in Detroit, but an ankle injury derailed his career after he signed with the Magic. He played in only 18 games during his first two seasons in Orlando.
McGrady was left to contend for the playoffs with a supporting cast that included Darrell Armstrong, Mike Miller, and Troy Hudson. Meanwhile, Duncan had eschewed Orlando and remained in San Antonio. “I told him he better get me [a championship],” McGrady said of his new San Antonio teammate. “Shit, all the stuff I went through in my career? Shit. I’m probably one of the only quote-unquote stars in this league that had to go through a lot of shit.”
It’s true that McGrady’s teammates were not among the league’s best supporting casts. But some were critical of his work habits in Orlando. “T-Mac had so much more talent than most guys,” said Michael Doleac, McGrady’s teammate in Orlando. “He didn’t have to work hard all the time. Sometimes he did. Sometimes he didn’t. That’s the thing that’s hard to find. Jordan has amazing talent and he worked so hard. That doesn’t come around every day.”
McGrady averaged a staggering 33.8 points against Milwaukee in his first playoff series with the Magic in 2001. And his swagger had grown — he referred to Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson as “Puppy Dog” throughout the series. “Tell him to be ready Tuesday,” McGrady told reporters after scoring 42 points in Orlando’s Game 3 overtime win. But the Bucks sent fresh defender after fresh defender at McGrady all series and eventually he crumbled. He went without a field goal in the fourth quarter of Milwaukee’s clinching Game 4 win. And a ticked-off Robinson bit back, going for 17 points and eight rebounds in the final game of the series.
The next year, McGrady faced the Charlotte Hornets in the first round. Baron Davis recorded consecutive triple-doubles in a seesaw series that featured two overtime games and a one-point loss. McGrady still declared himself the best player in the series. “Baron has it easier,” he told the Charlotte Observer. “He has lots of help. Look at his team. Look at my team.” McGrady’s teammates brushed off the comments. Charlotte brushed aside Orlando, despite McGrady’s average of 30.8 points in the four games.
That was just a taste of the scoring onslaught that awaited. McGrady scored a league-high 32.1 points in 2002-03. A legitimate debate emerged over the league’s perimeter talent: McGrady or Kobe Bryant. But the sleepy-eyed McGrady was never intense like Bryant. He rarely seemed tortured by the game.
“You never, ever come out of a game questioning Kobe Bryant’s effort unless there was something going on you didn’t know about,” said Johnny Davis, an assistant to Doc Rivers when McGrady played in Orlando and, later, the Magic’s head coach. “When he was not shooting that night he was trying to get others involved or something like that. But you never had to question his work ethic. And arguably, Tracy was more talented and you could make an argument for that case. But you could never make the argument that he worked as hard as Kobe.”
Davis and Rivers sought ways to wrest the most from McGrady’s talent.
“I’m sure there were times when he wondered, Well, why are you questioning my work ethic? I just gave you 37 points,” Davis said. “But, had he worked harder, maybe that was a 47-point night. Maybe there was no need for him to try to make one at the buzzer. Had he done this the whole game it wouldn’t have even been close. Only he knows that. We look at it and we say, ‘Man, he’s not working hard enough.’ But sometimes guys have an easiness about them that makes it appear that way, and again only Tracy can answer that.”
Coaches wondered how McGrady might have fared in a structured system — like the Triangle or the Princeton offense — where he would be forced to share the ball and balance the scoring duties. Perhaps he could have raised his assists and refined his rebounding. They wouldn’t find out. McGrady’s aim was true: consistently put the ball in the basket. He could do that, at the time, better than anyone else.
“In terms of demanding and requiring a work ethic, somewhere in that process — and I don’t know where — but somewhere, someone who recognized his talent didn’t demand the work ethic that goes along with that,” Davis said. “So somewhere he was talented and someone said, ‘That’s enough for us. The fact that we’ve got the most talented player.’ When he got to the NBA, he was getting by just on ability, not ability and work ethic. He didn’t have the combination. It wasn’t natural for him.”
Smith said McGrady was let down in his professional career, not as a youth.
“Tracy was a very young player,” Smith said. “You’ve got to have a coach that’s going to develop the player and develop the talent. My honest opinion is Butch Carter was the only coach that really put the time into Tracy and I feel that he got Tracy prepared the best out of all the coaches that he dealt with. When Butch took over, either he came down himself or he had somebody from his staff to come down during the summer and work Tracy out. None of the other organizations did that.”
The professional coach thinks his youth coaches failed to get the most out of McGrady somewhere along the line. The youth coach thinks the professional coaches failed to do the same. McGrady, meanwhile, continued to score and his teams continued to be swept out of the playoffs.
In 2002-03, the Magic took a surprising 3-1 series lead over the top-seeded Detroit Pistons. McGrady had games of 43 and 46 points. He told reporters how great it was to “finally be in the position to advance to the second round.”
But in the previous offseason, the NBA had reformatted the first round as a best-of-seven series instead of five. The series was far from over.
“I thought that he might not even know that it was a seven-game series,” said Jon Barry, a member of the Pistons. “That’s kind of what we all thought.”
Detroit stormed back. The Pistons blew Orlando out in the next three games, advancing to the second round. “To put down this series to T-Mac or anybody else would be wrong,” Rivers told reporters. There are five players on the floor. Don’t put it on Tracy. Put it on me.”
But Rivers couldn’t deflect the attention aimed at McGrady. “You do everything you can to get your team to the second round and then you fail,” McGrady told the Detroit News during the series. “If you win, everybody gets the credit, but if you lose, people start criticizing you as a player, saying you should have done more. You get blamed for everything. I don’t want to be put in that situation anymore.”
His reputation, right or wrong, fair or unfair, had been established. T-Mac couldn’t cut it in the playoffs.
“From that point forward, every time he’s evaluated by people who follow basketball, they always point to that as being the starting point for what he didn’t accomplish versus the things that he did,” Davis said.
Orlando traded McGrady to Houston in 2004 in a seven-player deal that sent Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley to the Magic. McGrady and Hill played in just 43 games together in four seasons as teammates.
Jeff Van Gundy told McGrady that the Rockets would go only as far as he could take them.
That destination appeared to be out of the first round, at least, when the Rockets and Mavericks squared off in the 2005 playoffs. The Rockets won the first two games of the series in Dallas, highlighted by T-Mac’s memorable posterization of Shawn Bradley. “I was sitting right there,” said Carroll Dawson, Houston’s general manager, at the time. “Tracy came down on him like he was riding a horse.”
But the Rockets fumbled the middle three games away to Dallas before claiming the sixth and establishing a win-or-go-home seventh game. Dallas clubbed Houston in that game, 116-76.
McGrady averaged 30.7 points, his fourth consecutive series of 30 points or more. “He couldn’t have played any better,” said Barry, then a teammate of McGrady’s in Houston. “And every single guy on my team just felt awful for him because he put on an unbelievable performance, every single game, guarding Dirk Nowitzki.”
Dawson had promised owner Leslie Alexander that he would deliver a championship-caliber team before he retired. The moment finally seemed at hand as Yao posted averages of 21.4 points and 7.7 rebounds in the series. But the following season, McGrady began deferring to the ascendant Chinese big man as he began a long battle with back spasms. “Yao was a big part of our team, but he wasn’t a dominating guy like Shaq, a 25-and-15, a 25-and-14 guy,” McGrady said. “I don’t even think he averaged 20 points, so it was still a lot for me [to handle] because I’ve got to get him the ball.” Houston suffered another first-round Game 7 loss in 2007, this time to the Utah Jazz. They collapsed again after taking the first two games of the series. Afterward, Yao said he should shoulder the criticism and did not rebound to his capabilities. “That was one that really could have gone either way,” said Matt Harpring, who spent much of the series guarding McGrady. “It was just a couple of bounces here and there. I saw and heard Tracy after the game and saw that he was emotional. He should definitely know that he couldn’t have done anything more to have helped his team win.” McGrady went down fighting. He had 29 points, 13 assists, and five rebounds in the 103-99 Game 7 loss.
“This is why I understand why great players leave good situations and try to find great situations,” Van Gundy said. “Because the media has such an impact on your perception, and they have a tunnel vision for [how] championships equate greatness instead of situations — who you play with, who you play against — hav[ing] a big impact on how much you win. And this is where I think McGrady’s being short-changed a little bit.”
Houston faced Utah again in the first round in 2008. Playing without Yao, sidelined with a stress fracture while dealing with his own knee and shoulder injuries, McGrady must have had Orlando flashbacks. His body started to wear under the burden of carrying a team night after night. Utah won in six games. McGrady poured in 40 points during Utah’s closeout game, the most by a Utah playoff opponent since Michael Jordan’s historic 45 points in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.
“Tracy is one of the great talents this league has seen,” said Shane Battier, a teammate of McGrady on the Rockets. “We didn’t stay healthy enough to get to this level with Houston. I thought we had the talent. We just couldn’t put it together. We had injury problems.”
The knees are typically the first to go for the basketball players who depend on them the most. The microfracture surgery limited McGrady to 65 games the next two seasons. When the Rockets finally got past a team in the first round — defeating Portland in 2009 — McGrady was sitting on the sideline.
Forgettable stints in New York, Detroit, and Atlanta followed. McGrady became a useful role player on the Knicks and Pistons, but seldom left the bench in Atlanta. He said he had been misled about his role with the Hawks. After the 2011-12 season, T-Mac was gone from the league.
“The last few years in the NBA, I didn’t enjoy it,” McGrady said. “I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy it because I felt like a lot was taken away from me. I felt like the ability that I could display, I wasn’t allowed to do that. I felt like I was lied to.”
Years after they parted, Van Gundy verified the knock against T-Mac. On a panel at the 2011 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, Van Gundy, and the best-selling author (and Grantland contributor) Malcolm Gladwell expounded on a central theme in Gladwell’s book, Outliers, which surmised that the key to success in any field often coincided with at least 10,000 hours of practice.
“Tracy McGrady was [only] 1,000 hours of practice,” Van Gundy told the audience. “[But] he should be a Hall of Fame player. His talent was otherworldly. He was given a great leg up in the race against other players. He’s as close as I’ve ever seen to someone with a perfect body and a good mind.”
Van Gundy went on to later praise McGrady and say that he only wished he could have changed his practice habits. But what if McGrady had stuck with Vince Carter? What if Duncan had joined him in Orlando? What if he had stayed in Orlando and played with Dwight Howard?
“That’s really the story of my career,” McGrady said, not with regret or resignation, but with clarity. “What if. What if Grant Hill was healthy when we were in Orlando and what if the Magic would have signed Timmy as well? What if I was healthy when Yao was healthy and when we played a Game 7 against the Lakers in the second round? What-ifs. That’s what you can put on my career. ‘What If: Tracy McGrady’s Career.’”
Those scenarios obscure what may be the most important question of all: What if Tracy McGrady had pushed himself harder in practice? Would he have elevated the play of his teammates? Would he be in Miami for Game 7 still seeking his first championship?
“Karl Malone, John Stockton, Alex English, Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley, there have been some great individual players who’ve never achieved a championship in their careers,” said Davis, McGrady’s coach in Orlando. “But they’re not defined by what they didn’t achieve because it was perceived that they gave everything they had toward that goal. Tracy, on the other hand, is judged differently because, even though he also never won a championship, they questioned his ability to elevate a team because they perceived him as not having the same sort of work ethic. So when people think you’ve tried as well as you can try and you fail or you come up short, they’ll forgive you a whole lot quicker and faster and more than if you fail and they perceive that you didn’t give it everything you had. That’s just the way society is.”
“It’s all about numbers now,” Oakley said. “Number of rings. If you can get to the Finals and win, it’s a pass for the next 20, 30 years. If you don’t, like myself, Patrick [Ewing], Barkley, I’m not on the level with them, but people are going to say, ‘You’ve never won the big one, you’ve never won a ring.’ But hey, we were trying.”
McGrady was trying, too. “If Tracy McGrady didn’t have the knee problems that he had, he probably would’ve ended up being one of the top 15 players to ever play in this league,” Isiah Thomas said. McGrady spent this season with China’s Qingdao Eagles. Fans mobbed him everywhere he went, his popularity in China bolstered by his partnership with Yao in Houston. He regained some of his confidence, and his flair for scoring, averaging 25 points and 7.2 rebounds and for the first time playing comfortably with his surgically repaired knee.
But the Eagles finished 8-24. McGrady’s team failed to make the playoffs.
Back in Miami, a reporter asked how McGrady wanted to be remembered. “A hell of a player, a prolific scorer, a guy that could score in a variety of ways,” he responded. “When I was in my prime, I put everything on the table. I tried to better myself in the playoffs. I tried to do more in the playoffs than I did in the regular season. If you look at my numbers, they don’t lie. I gave it my all.”
His time in the spotlight had ended and McGrady walked away from the scrum, back to a practice for a Finals game that he had little chance of influencing.
This article has been updated to correct what season the Magic-Pistons playoff series featuring McGrady occurred.