Three months into Kobe Bryant’s rookie year, the skeptics were suddenly on the fence. The wisdom before Bryant entered the NBA in 1996 was high school only guards didn’t have the maturity, the body, or the game to be productive at such a young age, and frankly, NBA coaches weren’t keen on teaching or babysitting, which is how they often described it. But Bryant’s talent, his exceptional play in limited minutes and his confidence was a watershed moment that changed the NBA structure. Talented high school scorers were suddenly being scouted for their potential and explosiveness. Enter the 6-8 senior from Mount Zion Christian Academy, the lanky Florida kid with forever arms who was the USA Today High School Player of the Year. He had prescient timing and was thought of by scouts as better than Bryant. If Bryant, at 6-6, displayed a flair for the dramatic as he adjusted his scoring talent to the NBA game, McGrady, who was two inches taller and a more selfless and versatile player, would dominate all facets.
12 teams slept on Bryant in the draft, only 8 passed up McGrady, which was progress. He was drafted ninth by the Toronto Raptors and like Bryant rarely played as a rookie. McGrady was disappointed in his lack of playing time and when there was a coaching change he was relieved but he had to shake off his depression and up his work habits to be able to meet the demands of a professional basketball team and their structured habits. It is this narrative of less is more that would follow McGrady his whole career. Because he was always compared to the fanatical Bryant, many would consider McGrady’s approach lazy but effortless, smooth but lacking hunger, efficient but not dominant. He carried with him a should have been more but wasn’t pathology.
The Hall of Fame is not a stakeholder in the McGrady- is he or isn’t he- debate.. He was inducted last night and will forever be known as one of the games elite scorers in a magical era of talented perimeter guards. But none of the teams McGrady played for will retire his number.
His elite years were as a member of the Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic. But in Houston, currently, Trevor Ariza is wearing McGrady’s #1. Orlando is even more complicated.
The Magic only have one jersey retired and that is symbolism for the fans, not a specific player. Orlando, however, does have a Hall of Fame which may include McGrady. It is reserved for players and executives. Of the players, McGrady would join Nick Anderson, Shaq and Penny Hardaway.
It is unusual and rare for a Hall of Famer to not be honored with a jersey retirement and adds to the McGrady debate. If he can’t get his jersey retired is he a legitimate Hall of Famer?
Tracy McGrady’s career took him high and low. It spanned 15 years and 7 NBA teams and to his detriment he played for 9 coaches. More to the point, McGrady played for so many teams, he wasn’t able to establish himself with one franchise, attach to them and their fan base as a player of deep significance.
It leaves McGrady here. Demanding respect. Saying he deserves his induction which felt oddly desperate, like asking the NBA family to please accept him. It felt awkward last night because of the backstory debate, the McGrady question mark. In the eyes of many, he still is an elusive figure, more Hall of Fame myth than real.
This is real. McGrady never scored 20,000 points. But. His career average of 19.6 points per game only tells half the story. The numbers don’t reflect that from 2000-2008 he averaged 26.1 points a game. He was purely spectacular in his early years before injuries dissected his career into before and after. He was never the manic scorer and compulsive freak that Bryant was who was both driven and desperate to match his idol Michael Jordan in championships. McGrady just wanted to win.
He was a seven time All-Star, two time All-NBA first team, two time scoring champ. He won Most Improved Player in 2001. Of all the iconic scorers Bryant had to guard in his career-Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce. Dwyane Wade- Kobe Bryant said Tracy McGrady was the toughest of them all to defend.
There are some players who wake up on the right side of the genetic lottery but the wrong side of luck and McGrady was one of them. McGrady and his cousin Vince Carter were the first to take the Toronto Raptors to the playoffs. But they were swept in the first round by the New York Knicks. McGrady left that year for Orlando as a free agent so he could be a starter.
If only- it has begun many a sad song. If only Grant Hill had never been injured. If only Tim Duncan had gotten off the airplane. If only Tracy McGrady didn’t have to do everything for the Magic. A McGrady-Hill duo was salivating to think about. McGrady was long, could beat his man off the dribble, could finish, was athletic and explosive on the wing. He was a prolific scorer who could play multiple positions. Hill was dominant inside and out and was a great defender and rebounder and had monster dunks. He was supposed to be the Jordan heir apparent when he was drafted in 1994. But Hill only played four games that first season with McGrady in a tortured roller coaster of ankle injuries leaving McGrady as the sole star to carry a team, which wasn’t his desire or his talent. Over time, it was mentally exhausting and wore him down.
McGrady’s first scoring title was in 2003. 32.1 points. He added 6.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists and his PER was 30.3, a hallowed number in NBA analytics. That was as much celebration as McGrady would get in Orlando, other than a 62 point career high against the Wizards. Coach Doc Rivers was eventually fired, there wasn’t a second star to help with the burden and McGrady was traded to Houston to play with a bona fide star, Yao Ming.
The Rockets trade is a trivia question: name a terrible trade off the top of your head. Oh, Tracy McGrady for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato. Stevie the Franchise was only in Orlando for a cup of coffee while McGrady was an All-Star in Houston. (Cuttino Mobley was in Orlando one year. Kelvin Cato lasted two years, the same length as Francis).
McGrady’s classic Rocket cult moment was when he scored 13 points in 35 seconds, draining four 3-pointers, a free throw, a steal, a game winner with 1.7 seconds left. The Rockets won 51 games that year but in the first round, in game 7, they were annihilated by the Mavericks, a 40 point loss. That game would provide the evidence of what McGrady’s biggest flaw was, according to his critics. He couldn’t lift a team up and push them through a wall of ice. He had great talent but lacked the selfish-arrogant gene. It was never the Pat Riley theme: winning or misery.
Injuries began his second year in Houston. First to McGrady, then to Yao. During one Yao injury, the Rockets won 22 games in a row but when it was playoff time, injuries to McGrady’s shoulders and knees titled the axis. In a game 6 loss, McGrady flipped the script of an ineffectual playoff scorer. He dropped 40 on the Jazz but the Rockets still lost. It was McGrady’s last great moment on the playoff stage. Injuries took their toll in the coming years as he tried to regain his career but the body was out of gas.
In the 90’s, there were three high school players drafted in the lottery. Kevin Garnett, 1995. Kobe Bryant, 1996. Tracy McGrady 1997. Talented, explosive, athletic, they began a revolution: high school to the NBA.
How special was young Tracy? His third year in the league he was 10th in blocks. He was 20 years old. His fourth year in the league he was third in field goals scored and sixth in points scored. He was 21 years old. The next year he was Most Improved Player and it was his first All-Star appearance. He was fourth in field goals made and points scored. He was 22 years old. When he was 23 years old, he was 4th in MVP voting after a great year: second in field goals made and fifth in three pointers made and he won the scoring title. When he was 24 years old, he was 4th in MVP voting again. He was 4th in field goals scored and 4th in three pointers made and he won the scoring title.
He led the league in usage rate the year he won the scoring title for the first time, 2002-03, and then four years later, he had the highest usage rate again.
With a lot of great players, once their careers are done there is satisfaction and a sense of closure because you were witness to the beginning, the middle and the end. But with McGrady, the middle was truncated, it was lopsided, it had its troubled spots. He never was able to exhaust all of his talent because injuries got in the way. You never got to see what you wanted to see. His 52 points against the Bulls when he was with Orlando followed by 46 the next game against the Nets, as a 23 year old, was the clue to something special. Five years later in the playoffs he shot 50%, dropped 40 points, took 18 free throws, had 10 rebounds and 5 assists. But you never got to see his gradual decline as he aged. The basketball loving public was robbed. Tracy was great. And then he wasn’t. It was feast or famine. It was ecstasy and the abrupt end, all frozen in time.
A Tracy McGrady jersey is not iconic enough to be shelved, preserved, deified. While wearing it, he never carried a franchise anywhere. So it remains in circulation.
All talent isn’t equal even as it is superfluous, as was the case with McGrady. He didn’t cross the finish line as much as he limped towards the blinking light. He was pushed there by a broken body too tired to give it one last run. He gave all he had.
Bryant played 20 years. Vince Carter is still playing. It’s fair only in the sense that in this career you are in a race against time. The race is still going. Or your time is over.
McGrady’s career, at its apex, was jaw dropping. He was a beautiful player with a smooth shot that looked as timeless as a Ken Griffey home run swing. There were countless sports arguments over drinks: who would you take Kobe or McGrady? Who is more explosive, McGrady or Carter? Who has had worse injury luck, McGrady or Hill?
For the analytics crew, the Hall and the first time ballot McGrady is specious. Slice it up or down, this can’t be dissected: McGrady was a superstar. He delivered on the court until he couldn’t and even then he tried multiple come backs. His career belongs to the history books and to that special NBA era when wings dominated the landscape, as did high school players. He is the first of that group to enter the Hall of Fame.
Debate over for all intent and purposes. Tracy McGrady is in the Hall of Fame. But his number is still available.
photo via llananba