In late August, Tracy McGrady retired from the NBA. The seven-time All-Star then set to making the press rounds regarding his somewhat-disappointing career, talking up hypotheticals along the way, wonderin’ what life would have been like had he been able to switch places with Kobe Bryant in the summer of 2000, tryin’ to see where his NBA life went pear-shaped.
With talk of injuries excluded, of course. Injuries and lacking teammates were the only reason McGrady’s career went off the rails. Still, that hasn’t stopped Tracy from trying to determine why he finished his NBA run without an NBA ring. It’s why he’s attempting to put himself in Kobe’s place, or ruing the move he made from Toronto to Orlando in the summer of 2000, leaving ex-teammate and always-cousin Vince Carter behind.
“In hindsight, looking back, obviously I wish I had stayed in Toronto,” McGrady was saying in a recent telephone interview from his home in the Houston area. “There’s no doubt we could have contended for a championship. I think about that often. But if ‘if’ was a fifth, you know?”
“There’s no doubt we would have won that series if I would have been there,” McGrady said. “We had incredible camaraderie. You can’t duplicate that, man. Big brothers, little brothers — we had a mix. And me and Vince were in the perfect situation. You’ve got the two young superstars and you’ve got these old vets. They were our force field. They protected us from anything that happened on that basketball court. They did all the dirty work. And all we had to do was just concentrate on putting the ball in the hoop and guarding who we were guarding. It was just such a great time in my career.
“Had I been a little older and wiser and knew what was ahead of me, I would have stayed, no doubt, with those guys. But that was some of the best times of my life, man. Being with (Charles) Oakley and Kevin Willis and Antonio Davis, Muggsy (Bogues), Dell Curry, Dee Brown. Man. I still talk to a lot of those guys to this day. Because I appreciated how they looked out for me. They were all professionals.”
“If ‘if’ was a fifth,” T-Mac might be drunk on the back and forth between him and VC, lobbing and finishing their way toward Eastern Conference crown after crown, taking what would soon be Canada’s only NBA team to Final after Final with that “incredible camaraderie.”
The word “if” doesn’t show up in the box score, though. And though we were around, with jaws agape, to take in Vince Carter’s first few years in Toronto, understand that Vince Carter at his peak wasn’t nearly as good as Grant Hill in 1999-00. And Tracy McGrady, even after his third year and still with a whole lot to figure out, made the right move in leaving Toronto to join the NBA’s third-best player (Kobe Bryant fans? Look up what Hill did in 1999-00) in the summer of 2000.
McGrady could not have known that Hill was playing through a bum ankle in the 2000 playoffs, he had his own drama to deal with, and there was no way of knowing that the man who averaged 25.8 points and a combined 11.8 rebounds/assists for Detroit in 1999-00 would fall swiftly off the All-Star map due to those ankle woes. He couldn’t have known that Orlando would strangely decide to sign-and-trade Ben Wallace for Hill – despite having the cap space in place to sign Grant and Tracy to a maximum contract even with Wallace set to re-sign – and he couldn’t have know that the awful 2002-03 Magic outfit would be the best team he’d ever play with in Orlando.
The Raptors, in 2000, decided to sign Mark Jackson and hire Lenny Wilkens in response to McGrady’s departure. That team, sans Jackson (who was traded to New York midway through his first season in Canada for Chris Childs) lost in a game seven in the second round of that year’s playoffs. It was a boring squad, slowed down by Wilkens’ request, and hardly the sort of up-tempo swingman-led crew that seemed fit for a player like Vince Carter. Or Tracy McGrady. Or Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady.
As you well know, with Hill playing only a percentage of the possible games scheduled by the NBA due to the ankle woes the Detroit Pistons guilted him into trying to work through, the Magic never made it out of the first round of the playoffs. This is where the “if” and the “fifth” come in. More telling, on midnight of the first day of the 2001 free agent period, Magic coach Doc Rivers visited McGrady’s ex-teammate Antonio Daniels on his doorstep in an attempt to woo him to sign with Orlando. Davis, who was living in Florida at the time, chose instead to stay with the Toronto Raptors. As did Carter, an unrestricted free agent that summer. The Raptors seemed like a team on the move.
They didn’t move. Carter’s indifferent play and the onset of age with the players McGrady listed in his interview with the Star took over, and the Raptors have yet to make it out of the first round in the years since 2001. McGrady bounced around from team to team before retiring in August, and Carter (who joined the Magic in 2009, before moving on to Phoenix and Dallas) has yet to win a championship of his own.
That said, Tracy McGrady was right to flee Toronto.
The Magic had cap space, a sound core (had former general manager John Gabriel not sent Wallace and guard Chucky Atkins to Detroit in a completely unnecessary move), Grant Hill, and the space to sign someone like Davis the following summer. Hill was a superior player in 1999-00 to Carter’s top seasons, and the team should have done fantastic things had Grant’s ankles held up. Toronto’s aging core was not the best fit, even with the presence of Vince Carter. Fans – McGrady included – tend to forget about the other ten players on the roster, while they think up how marvelous VC and T-Mac might have been.
It’s the sort of thing that you tell a Toronto newspaper in the days following your retirement, I suppose. It doesn’t mean it’s the right thing. Off the record, I’m sure Tracy would say as much.