Tracy McGrady is the headliner of the 2017 Hall of Fame class, and his career is one of the NBA’s biggest cliffhangers.
Don’t be friends with people who try to tell you that Tracy McGrady wasn’t great at basketball. It’s just not true. The 15-year NBA veteran was incredible for an incredibly short period, and that’s the biggest talking point of his career. It’s not McGrady’s fault that his body started to fail him, so I’d be an injustice for us to use it negatively. Instead, we look at a small stretch and use our imagination to extrapolate it into an entire career.
It’s not erroneous to say that McGrady would’ve gone down as an all-time great if he were healthy. Even he believes it. “I’m damn proud of going into the Hall of Fame,” said McGrady to the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen. “When I see myself play, there was no doubt I was one of the best players playing. There’s no doubt about that. Now, if you take what I did and put me on a winning team, now you’re talking about one of the best of all times. So yes, I was one of the greats.”
I never watched McGrady play live (sad face). However, the information age is great. Thanks to YouTube and NBA TV, I’ve seen enough of T-Mac to form a valid opinion. (The NBA released McGrady’s career mixtape on their YouTube account earlier today, and it was an excellent refresher course on how breath-taking he was.)
Tracy McGrady had all the physicals to be a great basketball player. He stood about 6-8 and spent most of his playing years weighing around 210 pounds. He was stupid bouncy and played like he laced up Moon Shoes. If you wanted to go ahead and proclaim McGrady as one of the most athletic players ever, I’d have no problem listening to your debate. Night after night, a young T-Mac would go and just defy gravity, bending the laws of physics at his will. When he took off, there was so much power generated that jumping with him was futile.
Whether it was off of one foot or two, McGrady’s leap looked like he was jumping off the trampoline they use during halftime. It was — and still is — magical. His athleticism made him a huge threat on defense because he was quick enough to disrupt passing lanes but could also jump and swat shots into the third row. For the first five seasons of his career, McGrady averaged 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals a night, and he finished 10th overall with 151 blocked shots in 2000. (Here’s a fun fact: McGrady is one of five players that are 6-8 or shorter and have blocked at least 150 shots in a season.) As T-Mac began to enter his prime, the overall impact on defense began to diminish, and that’s because he was emerging as one of the NBA’s most dominant offensive players.
He won the Most Improved Player award in 2001 and looked entirely different compared to the year before:
- 1999-00: 79 games, 31.2 minutes, 15.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.9 blocks, 1.1 steals, 45.1/27.7/70.7 slash line
- 2000-01: 77 games, 40.1 minutes, 26.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 blocks, 1.5 steals, 45.7/35.5/73.3 slash line
It was a huge jump. Looking back at it, I’m sure the Toronto Raptors are very sad that all they got for McGrady a first-round draft pick in 2005. That pick turned into Fran Vazquez. He never played in the NBA. Hindsight’s always 20/20.
Orlando Magic McGrady was unlike any version of him we had seen before. He was still the explosive wing who soared above all of his contemporaries, but now he was rising to stardom. McGrady spent four seasons in central Florida and was an All-Star each year. He also had his two best campaigns with Orlando, and those were 2003 and 2004. During those years, nobody was stopping Tracy McGrady. He scored at an unconscious rate and averaged 32.1 and 28.0 points a night, respectively, while consistently shooting around 45 percent from the field. Both of those scoring clips led the league and maintaining a percentage like that while launching more than 20 shots a night is a marvel. Overall, McGrady finished his time with the Magic averaging 28.1 points on 44.6 percent, but other parts of his game developed at an incredible pace.
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At the expense of his defense, T-Mac made an impact on the boards and was almost forced to double as the Magic’s point guard; he led the team in assists per game in 2003 and 2004 at 5.5 a night. McGrady’s rebounding prowess made it easier for him to double as a facilitator because he could hustle the ball up court after cleaning the glass. Additionally, his usage was already sky high. More times than not, it came down to him making the right basketball play. In 2003, while leading the league with a usage rate of 35.2 percent, McGrady assisted on 30 percent of his teammates’ field goals while committing less than nine turnovers for every 100 plays. He was an exceptional point forward.
The Magic cut ties with McGrady in June of 2004. They shipped him off to Houston, where he’d put in three more quality years before quickly becoming a shell of his former self. Those campaigns, 2005-2007, saw McGrady maintain averages of 25.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.8 assists, and he managed to remain a stellar athlete over that span. However, his efficiency dipped a bit (42.5 percent), and McGrady was approaching chucker territory. Despite that, he was still dazzling to watch.
Most would argue that McGrady’s signature moment came with the Rockets. I’m sure you already know what I’m talking about. Yup, that’s right! On Dec. 9, 2004, T-Mac poured in 13 points in 33 seconds and shocked the basketball world with a clutchness and refusal to die that only a few have possessed. I can’t see anyone replicating that. It was just too bizarre. Back in 2013, SB Nation’s Jon Bois pointed out that McGrady scored 0.39 points per second during those 33 seconds. If he kept up that pace for an entire 48 minutes, he’d finish with 1,134 points; during that season, McGrady averaged 40.8 minutes a game. On any given night, T-Mac was on the floor for about 2,400 seconds, and that would’ve dropped his nightly point total to a measly 936. Multiply that by the 78 games he played that year, and McGrady would’ve ended that season with 73,008 points. Math is simultaneously amazing and stupid.
Because of efforts like this, we forget the final four years of McGrady’s career. By then, injuries sapped everything. He was no longer T-Mac. Looking at the numbers is heartbreaking after knowing what he was.
Aside from injuries, the biggest blemish on McGrady’s resume is his constant failure in the playoffs. He reached the postseason nine times. Of those trips, he made it out of the first-round just once, and that has a huge caveat to it. McGrady was a member of the San Antonio Spurs when they lost to the Miami Heat in the 2013 Finals. He suited up for just six games during that run.
Does all of the blame get placed on McGrady? No. His teams weren’t good. There have been only a few instances where a player has advanced deep in the postseason without having a strong supporting cast. Come to think of it, LeBron James in 2007 may be the only one.
During his prime, McGrady eclipsed the 30-point plateau in the postseason four times, including 33.8 in 2001. Although it was short, the four games T-Mac played against the Milwaukee Bucks were outrageous. In addition to the scoring, McGrady averaged 8.3 assists, 6.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals as a 21-year-old. He’s the only player that age or younger to amass a stat line like that. If we remove the age restriction, one other guy accompanies McGrady, and it’s 2016-17 Russell Westbrook. As fun as it was to watch, I can imagine how exhausting it was to produce that volume with Darrell Armstrong as your second-best player.
Any discussion on McGrady’s postseason failure wouldn’t be complete without the time he blew a 3-1 lead to the Detroit Pistons (no, the Pistons weren’t a record-setting 73-win team with the unanimous MVP). After four games, the Magic had all but secured a second-round appearance. Following Game 4, a reporter asked McGrady how the victory felt. “It feels good to get in the second round,” replied McGrady. Things escalated quickly. Rip Hamilton scored 24 in a commanding 98-67 Game 5 victory. Chauncey Billups would drop 40 and 37 in Games 6 and 7, respectively.
Tracy McGrady was a unique player. His on-court talent was tantalizing in every way possible. He had few limitations, and, even if one surfaced, the aerial acrobatics and smooth scoring hid them like a solar eclipse. There’s no denying that McGrady belongs in the Hall of Fame, even though he didn’t display the longevity or playoff success that most would’ve like.
Instead, those inhibitors raise questions — what if his prime lasted 10 or 11 years? What if he had a supporting cast that he didn’t have to carry every year? What if injuries never happened? No one will ever be able to answer those. And it doesn’t matter. Those years from 2001 to 2007 give us all the evidence we need, and speculation is what helps keep basketball debates from stagnating.
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