Ball Don't Lie

Tracy McGrady wonders how many rings he would have won had he taken Kobe Bryant’s role in Los Angeles

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Tracy McGrady attempts to drive past Kobe Bryant in 2004 (Getty Images)

Recently retired Tracy McGrady can’t stop being asked about Kobe Bryant, which makes sense. Both players were spectacular swingmen that entered the NBA a year apart, straight out of high school, utilizing fantastic all-around skills to pile up the All-Star appearances. McGrady, however, started his career with an expansion team in its third season, while Bryant was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in the same summer that the team signed Shaquille O’Neal. He’s been there ever since, relatively healthy (read: Kobe Bryant plays through some nasty injuries) and with five rings, while McGrady bounced around with seven championship-less NBA teams while juggling serious back and knee injuries.

Recently, Tracy McGrady spoke with Jay Mohr (which is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone) to hypothetically talk up a switch-out between he and Kobe. Larry Brown Sports was nice enough to listen to Jay Mohr interview (which, again, is not something I would wish on anyone) and transcribe the back and forth for us:

“Numbers don’t lie. I was in the conversation of being one of the best in the league,” McGrady told FOX Sports Radio’s Jay Mohr Sports on Wednesday. “Whether I was better than Kobe, or he was better than me … I was in the conversation and it didn’t matter at the time. I was playing at a high level and was very confident when I was on the court.”

[…]

“We would have had a great run,” he said when asked about Shaq. “I don’t know how many but, I know it would have never ended like it did with he and Kobe. I have a great relationship with Shaq. We would have never clashed heads like that. Two Alpha dogs going at there will always be (something going on).”

To answer McGrady’s first point? Yes, in 2002-03, McGrady did turn in a better year than Kobe Bryant. It wasn’t by a huge stretch, and Kobe Bryant fans will never settle with the idea that a healthy Tracy McGrady was at times Kobe’s equal, but the production doesn’t lie.

If Bryant supporters want to bring up the fact that McGrady was allowed to shoot and dish at will on a team that was desperate for his scoring, they should understand that we’re looking at efficiency-based numbers – usually when a lone gunner has to go it all alone, their efficiency stinks. McGrady’s was through the roof, better than the production of Bryant, who had the luxury of Shaq’s presence to take a huge amount of pressure off.

With that already inflaming Team Bryant, understand that taking a one-sided look at the Bryant/O’Neal feud is a pointless exercise.

Mainly because Shaq screwed up, too.

Though he showed up for the 1999-00 season in sparkling shape, O’Neal’s final four years in Los Angeles saw him working his way into shape during training camp, while talking up some convoluted nonsense about how he wasn’t supposed to be in peak physical condition while not on company time. This carried over into O’Neal’s decision to have toe surgery in September of 2002, a full two and a half months after he could have gone through with the needed surgery following Los Angeles’ NBA Finals win over Philadelphia. All while Kobe was off somewhere, shooting 500 jumpers a day.

This, paired with the terrible shape Shaq showed up to camp in a year later, played just as strong a role in the poor relationship as anything.

Was Bryant without faults? Certainly not.

In his third season with Los Angeles (and first as a starter) he made a point to not defer to O’Neal in both games and practices, forcing a divide between he and O’Neal – who knew correctly that championships were won from the inside-out. With leader Derek Fisher injured for most of the 2000-01 season, Bryant played a weird game of chicken with close games, deferring at times in a way that resulted in very public criticism from Phil Jackson. O’Neal also had to deal with Bryant essentially selling his alleged marital infidelities out on record while in talks with Boulder, CO police during Bryant’s rape trial.

All this happened while Bryant was quite obviously champing at the chance to see if he could do it alone, to put up McGrady-like stats without having to dump the ball down low to a throwback player in O’Neal whose game he clearly didn’t respect at times.

Kobe got that chance, eventually, and while his 35.4 points per game in 2005-06 eclipsed McGrady’s totals in 2002-03, he didn’t shoot, assist, and rebound as well as Tracy during his famed year. Though he wasn’t far off. At their respective peaks, it really was a coin flip.

To point Kobe Bryant as some sort of hard-headed monster that got in the way of more championships for the O’Neal-era Los Angeles Lakers would be incorrect. Shaquille O’Neal had just as much to do with the dissolution in the summer of 2004. It wasn’t as brash as Kobe’s maneuver – letting Laker brass know that this was a “him, or me”-situation as Bryant entered free agency – but the years-long buildup from O’Neal had just as much impact.

Would sleepy-eyed Tracy McGrady have been a better fit than Kobe Bryant? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that three consecutive NBA championships from 2000 to 2002 are impressive enough. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal appear to have spoiled us by “only” winning three in a row.

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