The Burden of Being Tracy McGrady, Part IIThe Houston Rockets once again lost in the first round of the playoffs and a significant portion of the blame for this will no doubt be put squarely on the shoulders of Tracy McGrady, whose teams have never won a playoff series--but it is wrong to act as if these losses are mostly McGrady's fault because, as I previously noted, McGrady owns the fourth highest playoff scoring average in NBA history and he has performed well in his three game sevens (25.7 ppg, 8.7 apg, 5.7 rpg). True to form, McGrady carried a heavy load in Houston's 113-91 game six loss at Utah, leading the Rockets in scoring (40 points), rebounding (10) and assists (five). He shot 13-26 from the field while his teammates bricked their way to 17-51 field goal shooting (.333)--and it is worth taking a closer look at exactly who his teammates were in game six. With All-Star Yao Ming out due to injury and point guard Rafer Alston sidelined for good in the second quarter with a sprained ankle, McGrady went into battle with a 41 year old center (Dikembe Mutombo), a rookie power forward (Luis Scola) and a 34 year old shoot first point guard (Bobby Jackson) who shot 2-12 from the field and had one assist in 26 minutes. The theme of this year's playoffs for me is "guns versus butter knives," which is how Kobe Bryant described the difference between the team he leads now and the team he had to go into battle with in recent seasons; McGrady went into battle versus Utah with some broken plastic spoons while the Jazz countered with bazookas, rotating various fresh defenders at McGrady and regularly double teaming him because the Rockets had no post up threats or spot up shooters who could punish the Jazz.
McGrady scored 28 first half points in game six but the Rockets still trailed 58-54 at halftime. The Jazz shut McGrady out in the third quarter as they blew the game open, taking an 85-65 lead by the end of the quarter. McGrady scored 12 points in the first 6:28 of the fourth quarter but Houston could get no closer than 99-83. McGrady's game six performance actually echoes a pair of 2006 game seven performances by Bryant and LeBron James. Bryant's undermanned L.A. Lakers lost in the first round to the stacked Phoenix Suns on the road, 121-90. Bryant scored 23 points in the first half but was roundly criticized for attempting only three field goals in the third quarter; that criticism completely misses the point that the Lakers were down 60-45 at halftime, that no one else on the team was playing well and that Coach Phil Jackson spent the third quarter trying to get contributions from other players because one man is not going to beat a good team all by himself. Two weeks later, James scored 21 first half points against the two-time defending East champion Detroit Pistons in a second round series but his Cleveland Cavaliers still trailed 40-38 at halftime. Like Bryant, James scored one third quarter point on 0-3 shooting from the field and his team eventually got blown out (79-61). The media constructs a storyline for every player and team and then twists the facts and numbers to match those storylines, so Bryant's second half performance was said to prove that he is selfish and that he quit on his team to make a statement. James, who is viewed much more positively by the media, was not criticized very much even though he essentially played an identical game to Bryant's and his team suffered the same outcome; James is praised for his unselfishness and sometimes critiqued for allegedly lacking a killer instinct (one trait that even Bryant's critics acknowledge that he has), so any criticisms of James' playoff performances are always framed around the allegation that he defers to much to his teammates. Notice how the same numbers are interpreted completely differently: when Bryant shoots 0-3 in a quarter that supposedly means that he "quit" but when James shoots 0-3 in a quarter that supposedly means he defers too much. The storyline for McGrady is that he is not a truly great player because his teams have never won a playoff series, so everything that he does in the playoffs is framed in that context: he will not be called selfish (as Bryant has been) or too deferential (as James has been) but rather his very worth as a player will be called into question as critics snipe that he should not be considered a franchise-level player.
The reality about James and Bryant's 2006 performances, as I explained in this post and this post, is that they simply did not have good enough supporting casts to beat the Pistons and Suns respectively. I concluded, "If their teams improve their rosters just a little bit, Kobe and LeBron will be battling for MVP trophies and championships for years to come"--and that is exactly what has happened: the Cavs added a shooter (Daniel Gibson), developed a solid frontcourt rotation and made it to the 2007 Finals, while in 2008 the Lakers developed their young big man (Andrew Bynum), traded for a solid, versatile big man (Pau Gasol) when Bynum got hurt and finished with the best record in the West, which--according to a recent L.A. Times report--will lead to Bryant finally winning a regular season MVP award.
That same reality holds true for McGrady; if he gets a better supporting cast--and stays healthy, which has been a bigger problem for him than it has been to this point for Bryant or James--then he is certainly capable of battling for an MVP trophy and leading a contending team on a deep playoff run. McGrady has led the Rockets to at least 51 wins in three of the past four seasons and during that time the Rockets' winning percentage with him on the court averages out to roughly 54 wins in 82 games but when McGrady is out of action the Rockets' winning percentage prorates to approximately 24 wins in 82 games. In other words, the Rockets are close to being an elite level team (55+ wins is elite level in the NBA) when McGrady plays but they are a Draft Lottery quality team when he does not play--and in case you are wondering, the Rockets' winning percentage during those years is much more sensitive to whether or not McGrady plays than it is to whether or not Yao plays, as we saw this season when the Rockets continued their winning streak and went on to win 55 games even after Yao's season-ending injury.
The lesson here is simple: don't believe the hype that is spewed by so many big, mainstream media outlets and don't buy the pat storylines that hack writers and commentators put forth instead of delivering the serious, objective analysis that they are either unwilling or incapable of producing.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM