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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


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tracy McGrady is Clearly a Hall of Famer

Tracy McGrady officially retired from the NBA on Monday. It seems like only yesterday that he jumped from high school to the pros, but McGrady put it in 15 seasons of work--and he worked over opponents, averaging 19.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg and 4.4 apg in the regular season, numbers that he bumped up to 22.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 5.0 apg in the playoffs. McGrady made the All-NBA Team seven times (including two First Team selections), he made the All-Star team seven times, he finished in the top six in MVP voting four times (including a pair of fourth place nods) and he won two scoring titles. I get the impression that many casual fans and media members do not perceive McGrady as a legitimate Hall of Famer. This article will set the record straight.

There are many different perspectives and opinions about Hall of Fame voting. I remember a Sporting News article that declared that the Baseball Hall of Fame should have a small, fixed number of members and that no one should be voted in without someone else being voted out. That is intriguing at first glance but asinine once you think about it in greater depth; a Hall of Fame should honor a sport's entire history and all of its greatest players, not set up artificial barriers to induction.

Before the PED users skewed Major League Baseball's record book, certain numbers--like 500 home runs for a slugger and 300 wins for a pitcher--were considered automatic Hall of Fame tickets. Basketball has never had a similar overt attachment to specific statistical plateaus but research indicates that players who register certain accomplishments are very likely to be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

McGrady ranks 60th on the all-time ABA/NBA scoring list with 18,381 points. That ranking and that total may not look impressive at first glance but almost all of the players who are ahead of McGrady are either already in the Hall of Fame or will be inducted as soon as they become eligible--and McGrady scored more points than several Hall of Fame guards, including Dave Bing, Calvin Murphy, Lenny Wilkens, Magic Johnson, Earl Monroe, Bob Cousy, Nate Archibald, Joe Dumars and Pete Maravich.

McGrady's seven All-NBA Team selections are tied for 31st-39th on the all-time ABA/NBA list. Every eligible player who is ahead of McGrady on this list is already in the Hall of Fame--and there are many Hall of Famers who did not earn seven All-NBA and/or All-ABA selections, including Walt Frazier, Elvin Hayes, Nate Archibald, Billy Cunningham, Clyde Drexler and Isiah Thomas.

There was a lot of outrage expressed when Reggie Miller was not voted in as a first ballot Hall of Famer. Miller played 18 seasons and he was much more durable than McGrady so he accumulated more total points but Miller only earned five All-Star selections and three All-NBA Team honors. Miller never finished in the top 10 in MVP voting and he never was the best player at his position or even an All-NBA First Team performer. From a skill set standpoint, he was a better three point shooter and free throw shooter than McGrady but McGrady was a much better all-around scorer, a much better rebounder, a much better passer, a much better defender and a much better ballhandler.

Despite McGrady's nagging injuries, he averaged at least 20 ppg in eight straight seasons--including 25-plus ppg for five years in a row--and he scored at least 2000 points three times. McGrady averaged at least 25 ppg, at least five rpg and at least five apg in four straight seasons. Miller never once averaged 25 ppg in a season, he never once averaged four rpg in a season and he only averaged four apg in a season once.

McGrady is criticized because his teams never made it past the first round (until last season, when he rode the bench for the NBA Finalist San Antonio Spurs) but McGrady carried several subpar teams to the playoffs and during his prime he was a tremendous playoff performer, averaging at least 30 ppg in four straight postseasons.

The point of this article is not to say that the validity of McGrady's Hall of Fame candidacy can or should be determined purely by using certain statistics and/or purely by comparing his numbers to any one particular Hall of Famer; McGrady's total body of work--his all-around skill set, his individual statistical accomplishments and the awards he earned--are more than sufficient to justify classifying him as a clear cut Hall of Fame caliber performer.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:48 AM


Monday, August 26, 2013

LeBron James Talks About Personal Growth, Lists his Top Three Basketball Players of All-Time

It would be easy for LeBron James to gloat and to defiantly assert that his detractors were wrong--but the very fact that James is not doing that is just one more example of how much he has improved his mental and psychological approach to life. In a recent interview, James refused to take the bait and say that his critics had been wrong about him. Instead, he declared, "No, I've changed. I've changed for the right. I've grown as a basketball player; I've gotten better. I've grown as a man. When you make mistakes or you have done something that you did not feel was the best choice to make, it's how you come back from adversity, it's how you come back from those pitfalls that define who you are as a man and as a professional athlete." Whether or not you root for LeBron James and the Miami Heat, his ability to recognize his flaws and implement positive self-change deserves respect. Such introspection is not easy to do, particularly for a person who has already achieved significant wealth and success.

The portion of the interview in which James talked about that personal journey has been overshadowed, though, by his response to a question about the greatest basketball players of all-time. James chose Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Julius Erving. The backlash against James' selection of Erving is unfortunate and it reveals how little those critics know about basketball history. It is also sad that Magic Johnson, who James added as a fourth choice after saying that it was too difficult to just mention three players, lashed out by bragging that he should be ranked ahead of Bird and Erving because he won more NBA championships. If Johnson wants to deal that card, then he should know that the deck is still stacked against ranking him in the top three: Bill Russell leads the championship pack with 11, John Havlicek won eight rings and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen won six championships together--to mention just four Top 50 players who won more championships than Johnson's five. It should also be noted that Johnson's teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six titles, including one without Johnson (Johnson never won a ring without Abdul-Jabbar).

All great players should be appreciated for their unique contributions to their sport and sometimes in our haste to rank players there is a tendency to diminish or demean one player in order to elevate another player. I included Erving in my 10 player basketball Pantheon in 2008 but I did not rank those 10 players, preferring instead to describe the qualities that made each of those players so great. I don't know if Erving is the greatest player of all-time or the third greatest player or the ninth greatest player--and no one else can definitively answer that question, either--but I know that Erving absolutely belongs on the short list of the very greatest players in pro basketball history. He played at an exceptionally high level for 16 seasons, winning four regular season MVPs, three championships and two Finals MVPs; his playoff career is one of the most distinguished--and underrated--in pro basketball history, as indicated by the impressive list of his postseason accomplishments appended to Part IV of my series about Erving's playoff career. In the 1976 ABA Finals--playing against a Denver team stacked with Hall of Fame players David Thompson and Dan Issel, Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown and the best defensive forward in pro basketball at that time (Bobby Jones)--Erving authored arguably the greatest single series playoff performance in the sport's history, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) as he carried his undermanned New York Nets to an upset win over the Nuggets.

If Erving had played his entire career in the NBA or if he had played in today's era of media saturation then his abilities and accomplishments would receive the full respect that they deserve. Check out some great articles that put Erving's career in proper historical perspective.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 AM