As the summer passed, everything I witnessed during the 2013 NBA Finals blurred into one colorful, eclectic memory. Tony Parker chewing up 23.999997 seconds of the shot clock before clinching Game 1 with an outrageous leaner. Spurs fans clogging downtown San Antonio after Game 5, relentlessly honking their horns and creating a festive gridlock. LeBron’s headband getting symbolically knocked off in the second half of Game 6, right before he summoned his immense powers to save Miami’s season. Ray Allen making the single greatest shot I’ve ever seen in person to steal San Antonio’s championship away. Tim Duncan bent over in the last minute of Game 7, his hands pushing against his knees, totally distressed, unable to fathom how he missed a game-saving bunny that he’s probably made a million times.
Somewhere in that Finals memory morass sits Tracy McGrady, once considered the de facto equal of Kobe Bryant … only now, he was toiling away as an overqualified benchwarmer for San Antonio. The role was so far beneath him, nobody even knew how to fully process it. This was like Gene Hackman slumming it as an uncredited policeman in Lincoln. Poor McGrady had no impact on the series, but one T-Mac moment stood out for me. About 75 minutes before Game 4 in San Antonio, I was standing on the court waiting for Duncan to warm up — one of my favorite Finals moments, if only because everything that has happened in Duncan’s extraordinary career makes sense after you’ve seen him warm up. It’s like what Glenn Frey revealed about the secret of Jackson Browne’s brilliance in the Eagles documentary.
Elbow grease. Time. Thought. Persistence.
Duncan only takes shots that he plans on using in games. No joking around, no casual conversing, no stopping, no smiling. Just an aging artist honing his craft. It’s beautiful to watch. On this night, Duncan hadn’t emerged from the locker room yet. So I started watching McGrady — a future Hall of Famer like Duncan, only someone who had never even won a playoff series until he joined San Antonio in April. I was standing there wearing a suit and tie, my face covered in makeup. McGrady was wearing practice clothes, halfheartedly hoisting 3s with a half-smile spread across on his face. I knew he wasn’t playing that night unless they were up 20 or down 20. So did he. I knew his career had been over for a while. So did he. Only he kept jacking up those 3s, and he kept kind of smiling, and the moment meant nothing and everything.
So I wasn’t shocked when McGrady retired this week. He hadn’t resonated with NBA fans since the 2007-08 season, when a good-but-not-great Rockets team stunned everybody by ripping off 22 straight victories. If you want to remember that astonishing winning streak as T-Mac’s Last Stand, that’s fine. He bounced around like a McGrady impostor for these past five years — first in New York, then Detroit, then Atlanta, then China, and finally San Antonio. The final third of his career meant absolutely nothing, for what happened on the court, anyway.
In Hollywood, movie stars keep working after their careers cool off. They reinvent themselves as character actors, join television shows, find Off Broadway roles, maybe even release excruciatingly awful movies like The Killing Season. (Note to John Travolta and Robert De Niro: You still owe me $4.99.) It always feels worse when it happens in sports, particularly basketball, when only eight or nine guys truly matter on every team. Once you can’t crack that group, you’re confined to cheerleading and garbage time. But you’re still there. We see you during every timeout and every layup line. Almost always, you’re somewhere in your thirties, so you don’t look dramatically different than you did when you mattered. It’s almost like you threw on a Halloween costume of yourself.
We don’t care if this happens to the Juwan Howards and Richard Jeffersons of the world. When it’s someone like McGrady? That’s when we care. That’s when we wish they could see what we’re seeing. That it’s over, basically. “Show some dignity,” we want to tell them. We always feel relieved when they retire, allowing their memories to prevail on YouTube and NBA TV’s Hardwood Classics. We don’t want to remember someone of McGrady’s caliber arriving out of shape for the 2008-09 season, holding the Rockets hostage for a few months, then screwing them by getting microfracture surgery right before the trade deadline. We don’t want to remember him participating in a mutiny against his coach in Detroit, backing up the immortal Marvin Williams in Atlanta, or slumming it in China for a few extra million bucks.
We want to remember 22 straight and 32.1 points per game. We want to remember seven All-Star Games in a row. We want to remember McGrady dropping 62 on the Wizards, trash-talking his way to a 42-10-8 in Game 3 against the 2001 Bucks (his superstar audition tape), nearly beating the ’03 Pistons in the playoffs by himself, combining with Dirk Nowitzki to score 103 points in 2005, or exploding for 36 points in 27 minutes at the 2006 All-Star Game in Houston. We want to remember him in may-they-endure-forever videos with titles like “Tracy McGrady’s Top 10 Posterizations” …
… and “Tracy McGrady Dunks on Shawn Bradley” …
… and T-Mac’s Internet masterpiece, “Tracy McGrady: 13 points in 33 seconds.”
We want to remember the eight-year stretch from 2001 through 2008, when McGrady’s production was barely different from Kobe Bryant’s production. Here, look.
Player A (reg. season): 26.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 5.5 apg, 44-34-75%, 21.8 FGA, 7.4 FTA, 24.2 PER, 32.7 usage
Player B (reg. season): 29.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 5.3 apg, 45-34-84%, 21.9 FGA, 9.0 FTA, 25.0 PER, 32.6 usage
You probably figured out that Player B was Kobe. (True.) But you had to think about it. This goofy exercise gets harder when you compare T-Mac’s playoff averages from 2001 to 2008 (35 games) with Kobe’s playoff averages over that same stretch (102 games).
Player A: 28.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.3 apg, 43.4 mpg, 45-33-81%, 22.6 FGA, 8.3 FTA, 22.5 PER, 31.1 usage
Player B: 29.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 6.5 apg, 42.6 mpg, 43-30-75%, 24.5 FGA, 9.1 FTA, 25.4 PER, 35.3 usage
You probably figured out that Player B was Kobe. Wrong. It was T-Mac. Those 35 playoff games became part of his legacy, for better or worse — superduperstar numbers for someone who obviously couldn’t be a superduperstar because (hold on, I’m grabbing my sports radio voice) let’s be honest, folks, superduperstars should make the second round! We judge these guys by playoff wins first and everything else second. Most of the time, it’s totally fair. In T-Mac’s case, it’s not totally fair. Kobe had Shaq and Phil, and later Gasol and Odom, with a slew of Horrys and Fishers and Rices mixed in. T-Mac’s best teammates were Yao Ming, Grant Hill (played 46 games in four years with McGrady), Mike Miller, a washed-up Dikembe Mutombo, a really washed-up Patrick Ewing, and a really, really, really washed-up Shawn Kemp.
Remember when we kinda sorta felt bad for Kobe after he drove Shaq out of Los Angeles, when the Black Mamba was saddled with the Kwame Browns and Smush Parkers for a couple of years before Pau Gasol miraculously arrived? Here’s a complete list of every teammate who started a playoff game with Tracy McGrady during his aforementioned 2001-08 peak …
Darrell Armstrong (three years), Bo Outlaw, Andrew DeClercq (two years), Mike Miller (two years), Pat Garrity (two years), Horace Grant (36 at the time), Monty Williams, Jacque Vaughn, Gordan Giricek, Drew Gooden, Yao Ming (two years), David Wesley, Bob Sura, Ryan Bowen, Scott Padgett, Shane Battier (two years), Rafer Alston (two years), Chuck Hayes, Luis Scola, Dikembe Mutombo (somewhere between age 40 and 52 at the time), and Bobby Jackson.
You knew it was a roster car crash, but you didn’t know it was THAT bad, right?1 No modern superstar had worse teammate luck than Tracy McGrady. He’s a casualty from a bizarre era that, for the most part, worked against the success of the league’s most talented players from 1993 through 2007. Overexpansion badly diluted the league’s talent pool during that time, so too many young stars (T-Mac, LeBron, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Allen Iverson, Hill, etc.) were asked to carry inferior supporting casts. Teenagers like McGrady and Kobe started jumping into the NBA right from high school, with wildly mixed results. Contracts spiraled out of control — in the 1990s, lottery picks were either guaranteed big bucks immediately (endangering their incentive to improve), or given three-year outs from their rookie deals (giving them too much power at the wrong time of their lives, even if some of them handled it well). And for whatever reason, we had an inordinate amount of incompetent general managers and owners making a staggering number of shortsighted decisions.2
We spent the first 12 years of Kevin Garnett’s career wishing he had better teammates in Minnesota, and yet he played with Stephon Marbury, Terrell Brandon, Chauncey Billups, Joe Smith, Latrell Sprewell, Wally Szczerbiak and Sam Cassell.
It would be so much tougher to have an Atrocious GM Summit in 2013.
Just call it the NBA’s WTF era. And McGrady symbolized it. He landed in Toronto as an 18-year-old lottery pick right out of high school, spent his rookie season playing garbage time, wasted his second season in the disgusting 50-game lockout debacle, then unexpectedly blossomed in Season 3 as his cousin Vince Carter’s running mate. I remember seeing them in person during that 1999-2000 season, then getting retroactively bitter that Rick Pitino had picked Ron Mercer three spots ahead of T-Mac in the ’97 draft. Out of nowhere, that became one of the biggest draft-day blunders in Celtics history. Ron Mercer over T-Mac? So what if Garnett, Bryant, and McGrady taught us that we shouldn’t underestimate the potential of a high schooler, something that would have been absolutely impossible to know for sure in 1997. Ron Mercer over T-Mac?????????
Heading into that summer, McGrady’s name suddenly started landing in the same sentence with fellow free agents Tim Duncan and Grant Hill. How much was a budding All-Star worth who had just passed the legal drinking age? Even though the Raptors were building something special, McGrady bolted for seemingly greener pastures in Orlando. If 2013’s contract rules existed that summer, T-Mac would have been forced to spend an extra two years in Toronto … and probably would have made the Finals in 2001 or 2002. We would have regarded him as the Evolutionary Pippen, the 6-foot-8 freak athlete who could do everything that Scottie did … only the dude could get buckets, too. We would have discussed T-Mac and Vince like we discuss Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant now. We would have argued about “Shaq and Kobe or Vince and T-Mac?”
But McGrady wanted his own team, wanted to get out of Vince’s shadow, and wanted to play closer to home. In that order. He didn’t really want to be Pippen 2.0. Those are the conclusions you make when you’re 21. In the months following his Toronto departure, an underrated McGrady-Carter beef developed that would have been 10 times more fun in the sports blog/Twitter era. (They finally made up.) All these years later, McGrady admits that he should have stayed in Toronto. But had Grant Hill just stayed healthy, and had Orlando never stupidly given away Ben Wallace in Hill’s sign-and-trade,3 there’s a 100 percent chance that Orlando would have made the Finals at least once. Ego + boneheaded management + bad luck. That’s the Kobe/KG/T-Mac/Iverson era in a nutshell.
Orlando was so desperate to sign Hill that the Magic allowed Detroit to fleece them in a sign-and-trade — just to guarantee Hill a little more money, they gave away Chucky Atkins and Wallace (who had blossomed after the All-Star break, averaging nearly 10 boards a game). Within 18 months, Wallace was the best rebounder/defender in the league. Think about what teams get now when they’re sign-and-trading superstar free agents — you’re lucky to get a second-rounder and that’s it. So so so so stupid.
Four years later, Orlando could have teamed T-Mac with incoming rookie Dwight Howard; instead, they dumped him to Houston in a classic “two quarters for a dollar” trade for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, and Kelvin Cato. (Make no mistake — we knew this trade was dreadful even when it happened.) T-Mac spent the rest of his prime awkwardly meshing with 7-foot-6 lane-clogger Yao Ming, a wonderful teammate and insanely hard worker who was probably the most overrated good player of that era. Howard would have been a much better fit.
Poor McGrady never caught a break. Not one. And once his back started betraying him, that was that. Garnett has that rollicking ’04 Timberwolves run, then everything that happened in Boston. Iverson has the 2001 Finals. C-Webb has those fantastic Sacramento teams. Ray Allen has the 2001 Bucks, then everything in Boston, then The Shot. Kobe and Duncan have nine rings and 12 Finals appearances between them. Dirk has the 2007 MVP and the 2011 title. Nash has two MVPs and the ridiculously entertaining Seven Seconds or Less era. Jason Kidd has two straight Finals. Pierce has the 2002 playoff run and the 2008 Finals MVP. Even Vince has that one unforgettable playoff duel with Iverson.
Tracy McGrady? He’s the guy who never made it to the second round. And yet, just two weeks ago, Kobe Bryant told Jimmy Kimmel in front of 5,000 people that McGrady was his toughest opponent ever. Not LeBron, not Wade, not Pierce, not Durant. T-Mac. Was that a passive-aggressive dig at LeBron? Did Kobe really mean it? After McGrady retired this week, I couldn’t resist texting Kobe to ask him. Was it true? Was T-Mac really the most talented player Kobe ever played against?
His response: “No question.”
You know how every car wash offers escalating prices for different packages? I’ve used this analogy for NBA players before, but the best one is usually called the “everything” package. It’s self-explanatory: You get everything that car wash offers. And in my lifetime, God has given only one basketball player the “everything” package. That’s why we’ve spent the past seven years grading LeBron James on a curve. When you’ve been given the “everything” package, we cannot allow you to mess that up.
Well, you know the slightly less expensive package right before the “everything,” the one that makes you say “Shit, if I’m getting that one, I might as well spend three extra bucks and just buy the ‘everything'”? That’s the package that God awarded to T-Mac. In Toronto, we assumed McGrady would follow Pippen’s path as an über-athletic perimeter stud who could handle the ball, play four positions, defend just about anyone, carry your offense a little, and make his teammates better. You win with guys like this. And if they’re your second-best guy, you win titles with them.
Then he jumped to Orlando and … I mean, Jesus. Nobody saw THAT coming.
Age 21: 26.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 4.6 APG, 40.1 MPG, 46-36-73%, 3.0 stocks,4 24.9 PER, 12.2 WS
Age 22: 25.6 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 5.3 APG, 38.3 MPG, 45-36-75%, 2.6 stocks, 25.1 PER, 11.5 WS
Age 23: 32.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 5.5 APG, 39.4 MPG, 46-39-79%, 2.5 stocks, 30.3 PER, 16.1 WS
That’s steals plus blocks.
That last season (for the 2002-03 Magic) doubles as one of the single greatest statistical seasons ever submitted by a modern perimeter player. If you’re only allowing one “best” season for every player, here’s the short list of monster seasons we’ve seen since the ABA/NBA merger in 1976.
’89 MJ: 32.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 8.0 apg, 40.2 mpg, 54-28-85%, 4.8 stocks, 31.1 PER, 19.8 WS5
’09 LBJ: 28.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 7.2 apg, 37.7 mpg, 49-34-78%, 2.8 stocks, 31.7 PER, 20.3 WS
’09 Wade: 30.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 7.5 apg, 38.6 mpg, 49-32-77%, 3.5 stocks, 30.4 PER, 14.7 WS
’03 T-Mac: 32.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.5 apg, 39.4 mpg, 46-39-79%, 2.5 stocks, 30.3 PER, 16.1 WS
’06 Kobe: 35.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.5 apg, 41.0 mpg, 45-35-85%, 2.2 stocks, 28.0 PER, 15.3 WS
’87 Bird: 28.1 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 7.6 apg, 40.6 mpg, 53-40-91%, 2.7 stocks, 26.4 PER, 15.2 WS
’87 Magic: 23.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 12.2 apg, 36.3 mpg, 52-21-85%, 2.2 stocks, 27.0 PER, 15.9 WS
I could have picked four different MJ seasons here. I’ve always been partial to the ’89 season just because we’re probably not seeing a 32-8-8 with 54 percent shooting again. I’m almost positive.
Total number of rings on that list? Twenty-four. So how could someone THAT good not drag a single playoff team to a second round? It’s too easy to blame McGrady’s supporting cast, right? Didn’t this have to go deeper? Since Rockets GM Daryl Morey crossed paths with McGrady for three-plus years in Houston, I called him to pick his brain. Morey can make the statistical case for McGrady as easily as you’d expect — in 2007, Morey even believes T-Mac could have won the league’s MVP6 — but years later, what still stands out for Morey was the day-to-day distance between McGrady’s gifts and his teammates’ gifts. McGrady’s best possible game was significantly better than everyone else’s best game.
Not nearly as crazy as you think. I had him ranked fourth — he dragged a mediocre Rockets team to 52 wins, even though Yao missed 34 games with a fractured kneecap. The Rockets were 50-21 when T-Mac played that year. To put that record in perspective, Rafer Alston was their third-leading scorer, Luther Head averaged 27.6 minutes a game and a fairly washed-up Juwan Howard played 26.5 minutes a night.
But McGrady wasn’t a natural leader. His personality never matched his talents, Morey believed, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. For his first three Houston seasons, it fell upon coach Jeff Van Gundy to supply that leadership — by default — and as Morey accurately points out, you never want your team drawing its entire personality and toughness from someone wearing a suit. (Even in Chicago, where the Bulls assumed Tom Thibodeau’s rugged personality over these last three years, that wouldn’t work if lunch-pail guys like Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler weren’t involved.) After Morey fired Van Gundy before the 2007-08 season, new hire Rick Adelman was hoping McGrady would take on a bigger leadership role. Adelman was a more laid-back coach, Morey explains, someone who’d rather delegate to his players. So they met with McGrady to tell him that they needed his help.
What happened? McGrady politely turned them down. He just wasn’t wired that way, he told them.
“So who did everyone consider the team’s leader during your 22-game winning streak?” I asked Daryl.
“Probably Chuck Hayes,” Daryl said.
Chuck Hayes???? Now we’re getting somewhere. So many of McGrady’s superstar contemporaries were wired a certain way: Kobe, Garnett, Duncan, Iverson, Shaq, Kidd … all alpha dogs whose teams assumed their personalities, for better or worse. Can you succeed in the playoffs if your best player isn’t wired like that? I couldn’t resist calling Van Gundy, one of McGrady’s staunchest defenders and the copresident of the unofficial Tracy McGrady Was Absolutely Fantastic Club. Van Gundy received his PhD in basketball leadership during his extended tenure with the Knicks, first with Pat Riley’s rough-and-tumble teams, then with his own group of veterans that sneaked into the ’99 Finals. You’d think Patrick Ewing was their leader, but it was actually Larry Johnson — a broken-down alpha dog who still carried himself like he was in his prime, winning everyone’s respect by competing with a debilitating back injury. Ewing still carried a ton of weight for them, obviously. Kurt Thomas, Charlie Ward, and Chris Childs gave the Knicks a nasty streak, and new arrival Latrell Sprewell brought enough brashness for a 60-man roster.
Van Gundy loved coaching them — they would have fought through a wall for him, and for each other, too. And as we were talking, we both realized that it would have been an absolutely perfect team for Tracy McGrady. Switch him with Allan Houston and T-Mac’s entire prime would have been different. “Either your best player has to cover up the non-strengths of the others,” Van Gundy says now, “or the others have to cover up the non-strengths of the stars,” and ideally, you’d want both things happening at once. The ’99 Knicks would have done that for McGrady, and vice versa.
“Your best player has to set the tone, without question,” Van Gundy explains. “If he doesn’t do that, then it has to be the head coach. But it’s better if the player has it. Tracy was never a leader, but he was a helluva basketball player. If you coached him or coached against him, you would have a much different view. McGrady made people better — he was a great, great passer. Wasn’t a great shooter, but he was a great scorer, could guard, pass, was smart, rebounded. He could do everything. I mean, even Bryant came out and said some nice things … it’s not like Kobe Bryant goes out and blows smoke up people’s ass.”
Van Gundy wishes people didn’t overrate playoff success when they evaluated players, pointing out that Kevin Garnett was the exact same player in 2007 (32 wins) and 2008 (82 wins, including playoffs). He believes the line between success and failure is much thinner, and much more random, than anyone wants to admit. The ultimate example: Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, obviously. But in 2007, Van Gundy’s Rockets squandered a Game 7 at home, blowing a late lead to a fairly young Jazz team.7 Like always, everyone blamed McGrady for not coming through, even though he scored 29 points and added 13 assists. Had Houston prevailed, it would have played the no. 8 seed Warriors in Round 2, then San Antonio in the Western finals. Let’s say it made the conference finals and lost in six. Would you feel differently about T-Mac’s career then?
Six years later, he can still remember the crucial sequence (3:30 mark) — with the Rockets leading by five, T-Mac found Alston for a wide-open 3, only Alston passed it up, drove to the basket and turned the ball over. Utah scored, then Juwan Howard short-armed an open jumper, then Andrei Kirilenko inexplicably tried and made a wide-open 3. “I guarantee that’s the only 3 he made in the game, and maybe all series,” Van Gundy says now, and he’d be right.
You would … right?
“Easy to coach,” Van Gundy gushes about McGrady. “Smart as hell. Not the greatest practice player of course. He understood he had to give X amount of level in practice to avoid confrontation with the coach, and that’s what he did. But he was totally unselfish in the way he played the game. TOTALLY unselfish. I was there every night. Was I looking forward to coaching him in the second game of a back-to-back against a bad team? No, not gonna happen. But if you put him against a great team? He always showed up. Look at his playoff numbers versus his regular-season numbers. How many guys had better playoff numbers? Seriously, how many?”
Van Gundy believes T-Mac’s Orlando experience was the worst thing that could have happened: getting thrown into the superstar fire during his formative years,8 getting deprived of Grant Hill, being forced to carry a woefully subpar team and, worst of all, having to play selfishly when, again, the best thing about McGrady was his unselfishness. That’s when I realized that I had to call Doc Rivers,9 T-Mac’s Orlando coach for three-plus years and Van Gundy’s copresident of the unofficial Tracy McGrady Was Absolutely Fantastic Club.
T-Mac’s worst habit, picked up during those Orlando days: He shot way too many 3s for someone who just wasn’t a good 3-point shooter. In his first four Houston seasons, he averaged 4.9 3-point attempts per game and made just 31.7 percent of them. Trust me — every team went into a T-Mac game hoping he would shoot 3s instead of drive to the basket.
I know, you didn’t expect this wrinkle.
“He was so much better than his numbers in a crazy way,” Doc says. “I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. Tracy had to score for us — if Tracy didn’t have to be a scorer, he would have been even better. I really believe that. He was so unselfish, that was the best thing about him. He was good at everything … he was a great playmaker, he could really pass. If he could have had a chance to play with another great player, he would have been even better.”
That’s the irony, right? McGrady had that chance not once but twice. After McGrady bolted for Orlando, the Raptors won 47 games, made Round 2 and eked a career year out of Vince (27.6 PPG, 46% FG, 25.0 PER). Both cousins made second-team All-NBA that year, but they would have been more potent in tandem.10 Vince loved scoring, T-Mac loved doing everything else. The 2001 Raptors were built like Van Gundy’s beloved ’99 Knicks team, with respected veterans like Mark Jackson, Charles Oakley, Dell Curry and Antonio Davis leading the way. Wouldn’t they have made it easier for the cousins to become Poor Man’s MJ and Rich Man’s Pippen? Wouldn’t they have smoothed over any alpha dog issues? Wouldn’t they have allowed the cousins to dominate a comically weak Eastern Conference? We’ll never know.
Van Gundy raves about Vince back then, pointing out that Vince HAD to be doubled late if he had it going.
As for Orlando, Rivers admits to thinking “What if?” about Hill and McGrady just about every day — even now, even after all these years, even after all the success Rivers had in Boston. That’s just what coaches do — they always dwell on the losses and the injuries and the bad breaks and the what-ifs. That’s just how they’re wired.
“We only had a couple of games of Grant, Tracy and Mike [Miller] playing together,”11 Doc remembers now. “I kept feeling the whole time like we could be unguardable. And then we actually saw it. All three guys could handle the ball, pass and rebound. It would have been a nightmare matchup every night. At the time, I thought we could win the title with those three guys. I really did, I’m not just saying that. And then it was gone.”
Hill played the first two months of the 2002-03 season before getting injured again, overlapping with T-Mac and Miller (also battling injuries) for only a dozen games or so. Here’s a good example of what it looked like when all three of them were cooking: A five-point loss to Boston in December ’02 with the three of them combining for 80 points, 31 rebounds and seven 3s.
Rivers realizes now how difficult everything was for McGrady, especially when it became more and more clear that Hill was never coming back. “Tracy wasn’t a leader at all,” Doc says, “and unfortunately for him, he had to be. He was too young and suddenly it’s like, ‘This is your franchise.’ That’s a lot to ask. And we were always in a holding pattern because of Grant. We never knew when he was coming back.”
Doc played with Dominique Wilkins in Atlanta, a phenomenal talent (like McGrady, actually) who was never considered an inspirational leader or anything. That’s not why the Hawks never made the Finals; Bird, Isiah and MJ had everything to do with that. But ‘Nique had a bigger personality than McGrady — both on and off the court12 — and loved nothing more than getting embroiled in mano a mano duels with the other team’s best guy. You could say he played with a contagious ferocity, even if he was never someone who technically made teammates better.
By all accounts, only Magic surpassed ‘Nique on the list of teammates you would have wanted in the 1980s if you wanted to be around good-looking girls every night.
T-Mac’s brilliance was never infectious like that. He always looked half-asleep. He didn’t have a nasty streak. He wasn’t larger than life. He was just really, really, really great at playing basketball. That’s it. If you want to pick McGrady’s career apart historically, or even make the case that he’s not a Hall of Famer, this is the easiest argument to make against him. When you’re playing with a superduperstar, you should be heading to practice every day thinking, I can’t let this guy down.
McGrady never made anyone feel that way. We spent the past decade wondering if Kobe was too tough on his teammates, if he pushed them too far, if he called them out too much, if he was so overwhelmingly competitive that it actually worked against him sometimes. (And it probably did.) McGrady sits on the other side of the spectrum. In that respect, he was the anti-Kobe. His teammates played with him; they didn’t go to war for him. Maybe that was the difference. Or maybe not everyone’s meant to lead a team that way, and that’s OK, too.
When I mentioned Van Gundy’s desire to retroactively stick T-Mac on the ’99 Knicks, Rivers countered that T-Mac also would have killed it on Doc’s ’93 Knicks team, flanked by Riley, Oakley, Ewing, Anthony Mason and everyone else, saying, “He would have had protection. He would have had some idiots getting his back — we were REALLY nasty that year. Yeah, he would have fit in there.”
And that’s the thing — you can never look at any team Tracy McGrady ever played for, with the possible exception of the ’08 Rockets, and say the words “What a great fit for Tracy McGrady!” When Iverson retired, like everyone else who adored watching him, I found myself thinking back about his greatest triumph: not just dragging a limited 2001 Sixers team to the Finals, but single-handedly preventing the Lakers from going undefeated in the playoffs. They built that Philly team specifically for him: tough defenders and role players who didn’t care if Iverson took 30 shots a game. They fed off his personality, his intensity and everything he liked to do on a basketball court. They didn’t care if he went 10-for-35, just that he kept shooting and kept bringing it. Even THAT situation was better than anything Tracy McGrady ever had.
So remember that when you remember T-Mac. Remember that we’d never seen a 6-foot-8 freak who could score as easily as any 6-foot-8 guy not named George Gervin, only while covering the court like Scottie Pippen once did. Remember him guarding everyone from Dirk Nowitzki to Kobe Bryant, and remember those playoff scoring barrages when he was playing with a bunch of seventh and eighth men. Remember 32.1 ppg and 22 straight, and don’t forget to do a T-Mac YouTube sweep every so often. Remember that it’s not just about landing a superstar, but building the right team around him, too.
Is Tracy McGrady a Hall of Famer? Considering we stuck Joe Dumars in there, in the words of Mr. Big, absahfuckinlutely. Dumars peaked for seven seasons (eight for T-Mac) and made six All-Star Games (seven for T-Mac, and he was a marquee attraction in all seven). Dumars made one second-team All-NBA and two third-team All-NBAs; T-Mac made two first-teams, three second-teams and two third-teams. Dumars was a better defender, but McGrady ran laps around him offensively — his career PER of 22.1 is almost seven points higher than Dumars’s (15.3). But Dumars got to play for Chuck Daly, and he got to play with Isiah Thomas (a top-25 all-time guy), Dennis Rodman (Hall of Famer), Adrian Dantley (Hall of Famer) and terrific role players like Rick Mahorn, Vinnie Johnson, Bill Laimbeer and John Salley. I’m pretty sure T-Mac could have made it work with those guys. And by the way, if we’re sticking Bernard King in the Hall of Fame based on a stupendous peak and a slew of “What ifs?,” then how the hell are we leaving out Tracy McGrady?
If you’re looking for the real T-Mac legacy, sift through Basketball-Reference.com and check out his teammates again. It’s incredible — not just the lack of help, but the way he intersects with a truly bizarre era of professional basketball. Littered on his rosters are two of the biggest Injury What-If Guys ever (Yao Ming and Grant Hill); two of the most wildly overpaid players ever (Juwan Howard and Joe Johnson); one of the many stars from MJ’s prime who could never get past him (Patrick Ewing); two of the most famous draft busts ever (Darko Milicic and Marvin Williams); two of the biggest talent wastes ever (Shawn Kemp and Vince Carter); three of the biggest casualties of the Too Much Too Soon Too Fast era (Vin Baker, Steve Francis and Kenny Anderson);13 one of the ultimate high school–to–NBA cautionary tales (Eddy Curry); the guy who started the biggest melee in NBA history (Ron Artest); and the swingman who always played better than his stats and helped usher in the league’s Moneyball era (Shane Battier).
T-Mac and Kenny never actually played together because Kenny refused to report to Toronto after Portland traded him there in 1998. That led to Rick Pitino’s Celtics swooping in and getting Kenny for Chauncey Billups — the no. 3 overall pick, who only played 51 games for Boston — followed by Pitino’s historic quote, “It wasn’t giving up on a young player because we thought he was fantastic!” So I guess T-Mac intersected with Rick Pitino, too! Even if it was only for 15 seconds. (Thinking.) I will let you make the follow-up joke here.
You could recap just about every relevant NBA story line from 1993 through 2007 by using those 15 guys, then bring in Tracy McGrady to really hammer it home. The league hasn’t been in this good of a place since the early ’90s — the right players on the right teams, the right financial structure in place, more than enough quality players to go around — but it only happened because of the mistakes the league made, and eventually fixed, as T-Mac’s prime came and went. Had he come along 10 years earlier, or 10 years later, we’d be remembering him differently. Instead, our last memory will be Tracy McGrady halfheartedly warming up for those 2013 Finals games. One of the finest players of his generation had finally made it past the first round. But not really.