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.
The Hall of Fame says otherwise.
The worst thing that happened to Tracy McGrady was that in a career that spanned 15 years and 7 NBA teams, he played for 9 coaches. Jeff Van Gundy was the longest tenured coach at four years [Rockets].
McGrady never scored 20,000 points. 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. He was sixth in points scored. He was 21.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. When he was 23 he was 4th in MVP voting. He was second in field goals made and fifth in three pointers made. He was third in free throws and won the scoring title. When he was 24 he was 4th in MVP voting. He was 4th in field goals scored and 4th in three pointers made and he won the scoring title again.
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.
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 clock is always ticking.
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? It was a no-brainer about the Hall and the first time ballot with McGrady’s name on it. 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 shooting guards dominated the landscape, as did high school players. He is the first of that group to enter the Hall of Fame.
photo via llananba