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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Tracy McGrady's Underrated Career

If you disagree with the assertion that Tracy McGrady is Clearly a Hall of Famer, consider these stories from the McGrady archives:

1) In the 2002-03 season, McGrady became just the fifth "five tool" player in pro basketball history, joining Julius Erving, Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen and Kevin Garnett by leading his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots. McGrady carried the Orlando Magic to a 42-40 record and helped them push the 50-32 Detroit Pistons--who won the championship the next season--to seven games in the first round of the playoffs. The next six players in Orlando's rotation after McGrady were (in order of total minutes played) Pat Garrity, Darrell Armstrong, Mike Miller, Jacque Vaughn, Shawn Kemp and Andrew DeClercq. That group is not as decrepit as the 2006 Lakers team --"featuring" Kwame Brown and Smush Parker--that Kobe Bryant pushed, pulled and dragged into the playoffs but Orlando's roster sans McGrady did not inspire fear into the hearts of genuine playoff teams.

2) In a 2006 article revisiting the Tracy McGrady-Steve Francis trade, I noted that the great Ralph Wiley had tremendous respect for McGrady's game:

Ralph Wiley, who wrote with tremendous verve, style and insight before his untimely passing in 2004 at the age of 52, referred to McGrady as the “Kwisatz Shaderac,” a slight alteration of the spelling of the term that Dune author Frank Herbert used to describe the novel’s central character, a savior figure who was the “shortening of the way”—a man who could go to places in space and time that no other man can go. In an April 23, 2005 column in the Houston Chronicle, John Lopez declared, “It’s easy now to understand that the reputation and frustrations that haunted McGrady in Orlando were badly misguided. That team didn’t get it. The Magic didn’t know McGrady is not the sullen or selfish type he was made out to be. He is one who internalizes emotions and is sensitive to resentment from teammates.”

3) McGrady was by far the key factor in one of the longest regular season winning streaks in NBA history, leading an otherwise very pedestrian 2007-08 Houston team to 22 consecutive wins. The only other NBA teams that won at least 20 games in a row are three NBA champions (1972 Lakers [33 straight wins], 2013 Heat [27] and 1971 Bucks [20]) plus a strong contender coached by Red Auerbach in his pre-Boston days (1949 Washington Capitols [20, spanning two seasons]).

In my recap of the Rockets' 18th straight win, I described McGrady's impact:

How have the Rockets been able to keep their streak going even after Yao's injury? It is important to realize that prior to this season the Rockets were just 11-39 in games that McGrady missed but 126-70 when he played; prorating those numbers over an 82 game schedule, that means that with McGrady the Rockets played like a legitimate title contender (a pace better than 50 wins per season) while without him they played like a lottery team. In general, the Rockets' record has been much more sensitive to McGrady's absence than Yao's absence. Last season the Rockets did very well even when Yao missed 34 games. McGrady is capable of playing at or close to the level that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James operate at regularly but in recent years he has not been able to sustain that level of performance for an extended period of time, largely due to recurring injuries. As I wrote earlier this season, "In plain English, with McGrady the Rockets are an elite team and without him they are one of the worst teams in the league. McGrady is rarely mentioned as a top five MVP candidate but if winning is the ultimate 'value' one could make a case that McGrady is the most 'valuable' player because his presence or absence has such a direct, immediate impact on whether or not his team wins. The flip side of this, the reason that McGrady is not often thought of as an MVP, is that McGrady has never taken a team past the first round of the playoffs. However, if you look at each one of the teams that McGrady has carried to the playoffs--and 'carried' is not too strong of a word for it, as the above numbers show--none of them were better or deeper than their opponents. Even last year's Rockets team, which lost a game seven at home to Utah, was not a better squad from top to bottom than the Jazz; McGrady--with help from Yao Ming--took a team with no point guard and a suspect bench much farther than it otherwise would have gone."

4) The Burden of Being Tracy McGrady is that, even though he never had a good enough supporting cast to make a deep playoff run, his critics will always compare him unfavorably to superstars who benefited from playing alongside other superstars and talented role players:

If he clearly had the better team (or even an equal team) to the squads that have beaten him and he still came up short in the fourth quarter then that would be on him--but if the Rockets rest him early in these games to keep him fresh then they will be trailing by huge margins in the fourth quarter. This is exactly the same problem that Bryant faced the past three seasons. Until McGrady has a better team around him he will carry the burden of being blamed for not advancing past the first round of the playoffs even though he has done everything in his power to lift his team. There is a bitter irony in the fact that McGrady carried the Rockets just far enough to get blamed for losing in the first round but that if he had not played so well then the Rockets would not even be in the playoffs in the first place.

5) In The Burden of Being Tracy McGrady, Part II, I compared McGrady's performance in the 2008 playoffs to performances by LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in the 2006 playoffs:

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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:31 AM

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2 Comments:

At Sunday, September 08, 2013 2:08:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

David,

I agree with all your points here. The lack of comments on this blog either reflects the doldrums of NBA summer or the lack of knowledge and experience some of these readers have had in watching McGrady play during his peak years.

I was fortunate enough to watch him in his prime Magic and early Rockets years and could definitely say that he held his own as one of the top 3 premier swingmen in the league. McGrady was such an underrated and gifted passer that it gets looked over because of his tremendous scoring prowess.

I look forward to reading your season preview very soon.

 
At Friday, September 13, 2013 5:51:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

The guy is clearly a hall of famer.

He was probably one of the top six players in the NBA in his prime years.

 

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