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Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
[Previously: Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki • Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter • Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan • Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas • Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili • Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson • Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon • Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson • Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell • Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash • Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller • Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone]
THE MATCHUP: Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady
There were few players less likely to play until age 40 than Grant Hill, whose ankle injuries cost him most of three straight prime seasons before claiming his entire 2003-04 campaign. His apex can really be narrowed down to his first six seasons with the Detroit Pistons, even if he was twice named an All-Star with the Orlando Magic — his first season there, which consisted of just four games, and his fifth year there, a comeback campaign after a life-threatening MRSA infection in 2003.
From 1994-2000, Hill averaged 21.6 points (47.6 FG%, 25.6 3P% on 0.5 attempts per game and 74.6 FT%), 7.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.2 combined blocks and steals in 39.1 minutes per game. He made the All-Star team each season, save for 1999, when the game was not played in a shortened lockout season. The Pistons made the playoffs in four of those six seasons, losing in the first round each time.
Hill’s only All-Star teammates during that time were an aging Joe Dumars and a young Jerry Stackhouse. Several other future and former All-Stars came through Detroit during his tenure, but none of them were performing at their peak abilities.
The summer of 2000 was supposed to be a boon for the Magic, who signed both Hill and McGrady in an attempted return to glory after the loss of Shaquille O’Neal. But Hill’s ankle issues limited him to four games in his first season and 281 games over his first four seasons in Orlando. During that time, McGrady rose to stardom, winning two scoring titles. We never truly saw them as a duo in their primes, which cost us some great basketball and a chance to determine who was the alpha dog.
A 25-year-old McGrady left for the Houston Rockets the same season a 32-year-old Hill made his All-Star comeback in Orlando, and T-Mac enjoyed four more prime seasons before knee injuries sent his career into a steep decline before age 30.
During an eight-year stretch from 2000-08, McGrady averaged 26.3 points (43.6 FG%, 34.0 3P% on 4.9 attempts per game and 75.3 FT%), 6.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.2 combined steals and blocks per game. An All-Star in seven of those eight seasons, McGrady’s teams made six first-round exits in six playoff showings.
McGrady’s only All-Star teammates in his prime — Hall of Famers Hill in Orlando and Yao Ming in Houston — were injured for four of those six playoff appearances.
Who you think was better in his prime probably comes down to whether you prefer high scoring or the ability to do all things for all people, but either way most teams would probably take T-Mac’s eight-year stretch from 2000-08, if only because he was able to squeeze two extra prime seasons from his body. Advanced statistics from player efficiency rating to win score per 48 minutes also support McGrady.
Hill finished top-10 in MVP voting five times in his six seasons with the Pistons, peaking with a third-place finish at age 24 in 1996-97. He averaged 21.4 points (on 50/30/71 splits for a 55.6 true shooting percentage), nine rebounds, 7.3 assists and 2.4 combined blocks and steals in 39.3 minutes per game, leading the Pistons to a 54-28 record and the fifth seed in a pretty solid Eastern Conference that season.
Hill posted 13 triple-doubles during his peak campaign. At the time, only Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Fat Lever and Michael Jordan had ever recorded more in a single season. Unfortunately, Hill’s Pistons lost a five-game set to the fourth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the 1997 playoffs, robbing us of a chance to see the ascendant Hill against Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the second round.
In the first-round series against the Hawks, Hill averaged 23.6 points (43.7 FG%, 71.8 FT%), 6.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.8 combined blocks and steals in 40.7 minutes per game opposite All-Stars Dikembe Mutombo, Steve Smith and (former Duke teammate) Christian Laettner. In the deciding Game 5, Hill registered a 21-8-6 on 9-for-24 shooting with three steals in an 84-79 loss on the road in Atlanta.
McGrady finished top-10 in MVP voting on six occasions from 2000-08, peaking with a pair of fourth-place finishes in 2002 and 2003. The second of those seasons was his famed 32.1 points-per-game campaign (on 46/39/79 shooting splits for a 56.4 true shooting percentage) — a single-season scoring average achieved at the time by only 10 players in history. He also posted averaged of 6.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.5 combined blocks and steals in 39.4 minutes per game in 2002-03.
The Magic finished 42-40 in 2002-03, eighth in the East. Hill played 29 games for Orlando that season before injury ended his year in January, leaving midseason acquisition Drew Gooden as T-Mac’s top teammate. Still, the Magic pushed the top-seeded Pistons — a year prior to their 2004 title campaign — to seven games in the first round, with McGrady averaging 31.7 points (on 45/34/77 splits), 6.7 boards, 4.7 assists and 2.9 combined blocks and steals in 44.1 minutes per game.
In the decisive Game 7, McGrady posted a 21-5-6 on 7-for-24 shooting in a 108-93 loss opposite All-Stars Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace.
Once again, who was better at his apex is a matter of preference, and advanced stats favor McGrady. For me, it comes down to this: Only Jordan had averaged 32 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in a single season when T-Mac did it, while four players (Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and John Havlicek) had averaged a 21-9-7 when Hill did it. Both were historic, one was slightly more so.
Mitigating factors or not, Hill and McGrady never proved they could single-handedly carry a team to contention, and few players in history could. That neither player ever advanced past the second round in their primes will forever be a knock against their legacies, but it did not stop either from entering the Hall of Fame.
Hill averaged 19.6 points (on 46/40/79 splits), 6.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.7 combined steals and blocks in 36.6 minutes over 15 playoff games in his prime. He played in two advance-or-go-home playoff games — first-round Games 5 losses in 1997 and 1999. In those games, both on the road, Hill averaged 21 points (19-51 FG, 0-1 3P, 4-8 FT), 8.5 assists (against 2.5 turnovers), 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals.
McGrady averaged 29.5 points (on 43/30/75 splits), 6.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.5 combined blocks and steals in 42.6 minutes over 35 prime playoff games. He played in three first-round Games 7 in his playoff career — all losses, including one at home as a No. 4 seed. In those games, he averaged 25.7 points (29-75 FG, 3-17 3P, 16-21 FT), 8.7 assists (against 3.3 turnovers), 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks.
Both Hill and McGrady played past the first round in the twilight of their careers. Hill started at age 37 for a Phoenix Suns team that reached the conference finals, averaging 9.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 28.3 minutes per game. In a six-game conference finals loss to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers, he scored 23 points (10-17 FG) in a Game 2 loss, 10 points (3-7 FG) in a devastating 103-101 series-tilting Game 5 loss and six points (2-7 FG) in the Game 6 loss.
McGrady’s lone playoff games beyond the first round came in 2013 with the San Antonio Spurs, who signed him after a stint in China in time to put him on the playoff roster. He played a total of 31 minutes of garbage time over six games for a Spurs team that reached Game 7 of the Finals, missing all seven of his shots and failing to register a point, and still came within a Ray Allen miracle of getting a ring. His biggest contribution was playing the role of LeBron James in playoff practices.
Neither player covered himself in playoff glory, and both never got a long enough run in any given postseason to submit a signature clutch playoff performance. T-Mac gets a slight edge here, because he had bigger games in big playoff moments and once miraculously scored 13 points in 33 seconds to beat the 2004-05 Spurs in the regular season, even if Hill did throw a perfect pass on Laettner’s 1992 miracle.
• Hill: Seven-time All-Star; five-time All-NBA selection (1x First Team, 4x Second Team); 1995 Co-Rookie of the Year; 1996 Olympic gold medalist
• McGrady: Seven-time All-Star; seven-time All-NBA selection (2x First Team, 3x Second Team); 2001 Most Improved Player; two-time scoring champion
Would you rather have a Rookie of the Year trophy or a Most Improved Player award? I think the former, since the latter implies you started from a lower standard.
Hill’s gold medal does not apply here, since we are talking about NBA careers only, which makes you wonder why I even included it. At any rate, even given Hill’s ROY, I still think you have to lean McGrady here — the two extra All-NBA nods, including one more First Team bid, and two scoring titles fill out the résumé a little better.
For the culture
Hill and McGrady leave behind two of the NBA’s greatest “What if?” legacies of this century. They were among the defining players of a relatively imperfect basketball era, helping bridge the gap between the Jordan and LeBron eras. Either might have been truly an all-time great had ankle and knee injuries eaten into their prime years.
Fair or not, T-Mac is considered more of a playoff failure in the abstract NBA consciousness. The chronic nature of Hill’s injuries during what should have been his absolute apex overshadows his pre-injury postseason shortcomings, and we often ignore the fact that McGrady’s playoff legacy was also impacted as a result.
At their peaks, Hill was probably more attractive to major, although that too is a more complicated conversation. They both had sitcom cameos during their careers, and they have both served as NBA analysts in retirement. McGrady is a little more entertaining in that regard, and I am not sure what it says about Hill’s level of fame that he appeared in Nickelback’s “Rockstar” video along with Wayne Gretzky, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gene Simmons, Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, Eliza Dushku and others.
A Duke University legend, Hill is considered one of the most successful college basketball players in history, and his response to Jalen Rose of the Fab Five calling him an “Uncle Tom” is worth mentioning in this context. This is about their NBA careers, but Hill’s reputation as one of the classiest players ever holds water.
McGrady, a champion for humanitarian efforts in Darfur, should be lauded, too.
In the end, their longstanding impact on the game boils down to this: McGrady is an investor in the Biloxi Shuckers, a Double-A baseball affiliate, while Hill now serves as part-owner of the Atlanta Hawks. He is among only a few former players in NBA ownership groups, and his post-career path there is a shining example.
THE DAGGER: Tracy McGrady is better.
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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