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Dan Devine

Tracy McGrady, 'freakish' talent and the peril of ease

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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I walked into the 2011 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference thinking I needed to be quick on the draw with a graphing calculator and had to know my way around a scatter plot to keep up with the next-lev chatter whizzing past my ample Irish melon. At Friday's first session, though, I quickly found out that I mostly just needed to be willing to ponder Tracy McGrady's(notes) place in basketball's space-time continuum. Done and done!

Well, that, and two other things. I needed to be willing to consider that being AMAZING at something — like, tallest letters on the marquee, top five in the world, stunningly and nigh-on-unfathomably gifted — could be not only bad, but also a massive impediment to becoming the best version of yourself.

Huh and huh?

Best-selling author and noted hairsman Malcolm Gladwell introduced the concept while moderating the opening session of this year's Sloan conference. The talk dealt with how the "10,000 hour rule" that Gladwell discussed in his 2008 book "Outliers" — that the key to success in any field is the purposeful practice of a specific task for 10,000 hours — relates to an athlete's development.

In considering that notion, Gladwell asked the panelists what value should be placed on pure natural talent — the innate genetic gift that we often view as the line of demarcation between the elite and the merely professional — in relationship to, say, work ethic and the capacity to accept instruction.

As often occurs when discussing abstract ideas, talk turned quickly to a physical example — in this case, McGrady, whose combination of size, speed, power and grace beguiled the NBA in the last years of the 20th century and made him one of the league's most dominant offensive forces in the early years of the 21st.

But while McGrady's abilities were awe-inspiring, his willingness to further cultivate them wasn't, according to panelist and ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who coached the Florida-born star with the Houston Rockets from 2004 through 2007.

Van Gundy estimated McGrady at "probably 1,000 hours of practice," just one-tenth of Gladwell's rule, a figure that elicited laughter from the crowd. Noting that McGrady was as close to he's ever seen as a basketball natural, Van Gundy went on to say that T-Mac "should be a Hall of Fame player."

"His talent was otherworldly," Van Gundy said.

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Van Gundy's tone was echoed by his fellow panelist and former employer, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who inherited McGrady when he took the Rockets' reins in 2007.

After praising McGrady's talents, Morey said, "I do think [that ability] got in the way of Tracy's development."

"Much of the game was so easy — you see this in the AAU level, where they have freakishly talented players," he continued. "When it's that easy to dominate at that young age because of your physical tools — his wingspan was freakish, his size was enormous, his IQ — my sense was, all that did get in the way of Tracy reaching his highest heights."

The basic principle makes some sense. If you're bigger, stronger, faster and more talented than the competition you're playing against, you're not forced to develop the finer points of your game, because when push comes to shove, you can just rely on your superior gifts to give you the edge you need. And when those gifts start to fade, if you haven't been developing new skills (or sharpening old ones) for a rainy day, you'll find yourself soaking wet in a storm that might just wash you away from the league.

A fastball pitcher coming back from major arm surgery should be working to make sure he's got secondary pitches and doesn't have to rely on the old No. 1 all day. I get that part.

And the sentiments that McGrady has, to some degree, squandered his gifts and failed to make the most of his talent aren't new — they've been covered in the press for at least the last decade, and they play a key role in the narrative of the chapter on McGrady in the first FreeDarko book. While it was pretty surprising that two of McGrady's former bosses would so willingly throw dirt on him in a public forum, apropos of nearly nothing, it's not alarming information or breaking news.

Listen, Jeff Van Gundy's forgotten more about the game than I'll ever know. If he tells me that McGrady could have ramped up his practice habits to a level that would've increased his body's ability to stay healthy and execute the directives delivered by his sharp-as-a-tack on-court mind, I'm not going to sit here and call him a liar.

Still, I can't help feeling like selecting McGrady as the poster boy for wasted chances is at least partially a function of our own propensity as writers, observers, executives and fans to jam talented players into a hyperbolic chamber, imbue them with whatever dreams may come and then get all pissy when they don't pop out, pure and perfect, exactly the way our imaginations envisioned.

Maybe more diligence would have enabled McGrady to avoid the lower back, left knee and left shoulder injuries that have cost him wide swaths of playing time over the past nine years, first with the Magic, then with the Rockets and, in a playing-out-the-string sequence, the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons. Maybe adhering to a better class of regimen would have mitigated the fallout of the injuries, or would have gotten a healthier version of T-Mac back on the court sooner. These are reasonable possibilities.

But all that said, it would be ludicrous to act like McGrady hasn't turned in what one can argue is still a Hall of Fame-caliber career, even with the allegedly abysmal habits and all the time he's spent on the shelf, especially considering that this is a Hall of Fame that includes the likes of myriad college and foreign players that never attained nearly the level of individual notoriety that T-Mac has.

McGrady has led the league in scoring twice and finished in the top 10 six times. He's made seven All-NBA teams (two first-team, three second-team, two third-team) and produced a 2002-03 season for the Orlando Magic that Zach Lowe of SI.com's The Point Forward blog calls "perhaps the most under-appreciated great season in NBA history." And according to the Hall of Fame Probability Rankings on Basketball-Reference.com, McGrady has the 13th-best shot for enshrinement of any active ballplayer, right between Chris Paul(notes) and Amar'e Stoudemire(notes). (The top 10 are virtual locks for Springfield. Vince Carter's(notes) 11, and he'll be the subject of some debate when his time comes, I'm sure.)

The most famous knock against McGrady is that he's never made it out of the first round of the playoffs — he reached the second round in 2009 with the Rockets, but wasn't playing — but that critique is somewhat softened when you remember that the teams he was supposed to take to greener pastures often featured sidelined or compromised primary running buddies like Grant Hill(notes) and Yao Ming(notes). Tracy McGrady was one of the baddest man on the planet from 2000 through 2006, but because he frequently had to go to war as a one-man gang against opposition that had better arsenals, he lost. Are his practice habits to blame for that, too? Do we offer context for the losses, or merely count them as a black mark on his permanent record, as well?

Part of what makes this difficult to digest is the word "freakish," which both Van Gundy and Morey used to describe McGrady's talents — in fact, that particular adjective was tossed around pretty liberally during the session. I know it's become popular parlance, but its use is sort of uncomfortable — right off the bat, it casts McGrady's athleticism as rare, monstrous and possessed of a stylistic resonance that's oppositional to the establishment. T-Mac's game always seemed too lazy for the squares anyway, even when he was just getting ready to slice to the rim and detonate.

"Freakish" sets McGrady's talent apart, but not necessarily in a positive way; it makes him an undefined "other," a dude capable of feats beyond our ken. In most walks of life, we tend to regard such others skeptically, looking for what makes them somehow wrong and us somehow right. We look past the 18,000-plus points McGrady has scored and see only the 10,000 more we feel pretty confident he should have pocketed if only he wasn't screwing around, because what can't superheroes do, right?

Later in the session, when discussing the acquisition of new players via the draft or free agency, Gladwell asked whether sports teams tend to overvalue potential while undervaluing what skills players actually have. In McGrady's case, it feels like Van Gundy, Morey and their likeminded folk are overvaluing what they perceived his absolute ultimate ceiling to be, agreeing that he didn't reach it, and waxing wistful about what could have been, all the while undervaluing how lethal a force McGrady was when he was right and had it all cooking.

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