Tracy McGrady drives past Ray Allen in 2001 (Getty Images)
McGrady worked his way through a star-crossed career after being selected ninth overall in the 1997 NBA draft by the Toronto Raptors. His pairing with cousin Vince Carter on the Raptors should have led to years of Eastern Conference dominance in the wake of Michael Jordan’s retirement, but coaching tumult, Toronto’s inability to send a max contract his way, and the lure of playing at home in Florida alongside Grant Hill sent him to the Orlando Magic as a free agent just three years into his career.
Hill, sadly, would never recapture the All-NBA First Team levels of athleticism after suffering a series of crippling ankle injuries, and McGrady (with the Magic capped out) was forced to go it alone. For a while there, though, acting alone led to some jaw-dropping bouts of brilliance.
In nearly 40 minutes a game with the Magic, McGrady averaged 28.1 points per game, all in an efficient, slashing matter that saw plenty of free throws and quick hits from the mid-range. In 2002-03, he produced his masterpiece – turning over 32.1 points per game along with a combined 12 rebounds/assists, with 2.5 steals/blocks a game. Somehow, these stats may have all been trumped by the ridiculously low 2.6 turnovers in 39.4 minutes per game. For a player to have the ball in his hands so much, with such lacking teammates around him and the defenses geared in, and only turn it over 2.6 times in almost 40 minutes of play? Outrageous.
Weirdly, despite dragging an alternately injured and not-good Orlando Magic team to the playoffs while coming through with the best statistical season an NBA player would produce in between the Michael Jordan and LeBron James eras (better than Shaq in 2000, better than Kobe in 2006, better than Duncan), McGrady would finish fourth in the NBA voting. And to this day, the thing he’s best known for during the 2002-03 season is forgetting (after a Magic win over Detroit that took the series to 3-1) that the NBA had abandoned the best-of five first round format the previous offseason, and that you needed four wins to advance to the second round in 2003.
In an era where very few of us had NBA League Pass or ran non-mainstream NBA websites, it was up to the early evening cable TV yuk-yuks to define McGrady’s legacy, and those yuk-yuks dove in head first after seven months of ignoring McGrady’s magnificent season, or bothering to look at the Orlando Magic roster (much less an Orlando Magic game) to see why the team eventually lost to a deep Detroit Pistons squad that had won eight more games than Orlando that year.
McGrady’s averages in that series? He hit for 31.7 points per game, with 11.4 combined assists/rebounds and nearly three combined blocks steals.
His fellow starters in that series? Jacque Vaughn, Andrew DeClercq, Drew Gooden, and Gordon Giricek. And remember, this was a No. 8 seed taking the top seed in the East to the hilt.
But, yeah, let’s focus on Tracy thinking he’d made it to the second round.
T-Mac would not make it to the second round as an active player (he was injured during Houston’s visit in 2009) until 2013, when he tagged along as the 12th man on the eventual Western-winning San Antonio Spurs. To these eyes, I can’t think of a single first round ouster that didn’t see McGrady’s teams being taken down by the better team. Some can argue for their seven-game losses to Dallas in 2005 or Utah in 2007, but at best those were pushes.
Worse, he rankled then-Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy with reported poor practice habits, because apparently Van Gundy wanted Michael Jordan-level practice work from a guy that was dealing with significant back woes as a player since before he could legally buy a beer. Jordan wasn’t faced with such obstacles, but this was what McGrady’s potential and production did to him – he would be held to the standard of the greats, even if his body wasn’t doing all that great.
Tracy was sent to New York in 2010 as a cap-clearing maneuver for the Knicks, not as some asset to be re-signed. From there he bounced to Detroit, Atlanta, and then to the Qingdao Eagles of the Chinese Basketball Association before the Spurs signed him as insurance before the 2013 playoffs. McGrady played 31 minutes in the postseason, pulling in eight rebounds with seven assists and three blocks, but he missed all seven shots from the field. His strongest contribution to the team was playing an approximation of LeBron James in Spurs practice, something that could have led to San Antonio coming within minutes of dethroning the defending champion Miami Heat.
In the end, McGrady will probably be judged for what he couldn’t do. Couldn’t wrest a team into the second round. Couldn’t sustain the sort of health and production that marked his last few seasons in Orlando. Couldn’t save the jobs of his coaches. And Tracy couldn’t ever make it look like the game came incredibly easy to him, a trait that won him a top ten selection in the 1997 NBA draft, but one that immediately set to damn him in the eyes of veterans, coaches and eventually media once his rookie year began.
An induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame probably won’t make all of this go away, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
And it’s probably been earned.
Do yourself a favor, and take in the top ten plays of Tracy McGrady's too-often overlooked NBA career:
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