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The Tin Man Always Had A Heart

In Basketball, Houston on July 5, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Tracy Lamar McGrady, Jr. was drafted 9th overall by the Toronto Raptors in the 1997 NBA Draft.  He came straight out of high school and mainly played a reserve role in his first two seasons.  A year after T-Mac’s arrival, the Raptors drafted his cousin Vince Carter with the 5th pick: The high flying duo instantly built expectations for the Canadian franchise.  They finally led the Raptors to a playoff berth in 2000 only to get swept by the Knicks in the first round.  Then, in order to escape the shadow of his older cousin, he forced the hand of the Raptors into a sign-and-trade that sent him to the Orlando Magic.

During the four years he spent in sunny Florida, he was consistently considered one of the top 5 players in the league.

In the summer of 2004, after McGrady successfully defended his scoring crown, the Magic agreed to send him and a slew of mostly forgettable players to the Houston Rockets for local favorite Steve Francis and another slew of forgettable players.  There, McGrady continued his statistical onslaught, averaging 24 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists in four relatively healthy seasons including a memorable comeback against the Spurs that may be his only Lone Star highlight.  But his body started to give out; amidst controversy, he was traded to the Knicks in what felt like a mercy transaction.  He finished the season, unwanted, and was signed by the Detroit Pistons last summer for a veteran’s minimum.  This past season, he had his first injury-free year in three years.  We even saw hints of the old T-Mac, though they were few and far between.  Now, with his eventual retirement looming, T-Mac will never again be in the discussion for the best player in the NBA.

For T-Mac, statistical success has not translated to critical praise: Players like Karl Malone and Charles Barkley all receive knocks as players because they never won a championship; T-Mac’s legacy is even more tarnished as he has never even advanced beyond the first round. Despite averaging 29.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.3 steals in the playoffs as the main star of his teams, his doughnut trips to the second round has led basketball experts and historians to scratch him off the all-time greats list.  He’ll always be remembered as one of those players who never lived up to their physical talents.

But that isn’t exactly fair…

First and foremost, McGrady was never given the personnel to go far into the postseason.  Even the greatest of players need a team that’s better than dead weight: Every championship team has been full of all-stars and above average role players.  Just compare the past 3 championship teams:

2011 Mavericks: Dirk Nowtizki, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry
2010/2009 Lakers: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest
2008 Celtics: Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins

In fact, I could list every single championship team and a plethora of names would jump out to even the most casual of basketball fans.  T-Mac has only been paired with one recognizable player in Yao Ming, and the rest of his teams never truly fit the bill of a genuine contender.  Here’s a basic list of his key contributors: an over-the-hill (OTH) Darrell Armstrong, OTH Horace Grant, OTH (and fat) Shawn Kemp, Rafer Alston, Tyronn Lue, OTH Bob Sura, OTH Juwan Howard, OTH David Wesley, OTH Clarence Weatherspoon, Derek Anderson, Luther Head, etc.  When I write OTH, I mean on the wrong side of 30.  Besides Yao Ming, none of T-Mac’s teammates could have pulled off being on the starting rotation of a true contender.  Great players are recognized by non-fans.  My fiancée knows who LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard are, but she couldn’t name more than five teams in the league.  Most argue that T-Mac’s so-called greatness should’ve at least carried him past the first round, but instead his lack of discipline and heart failed to get his teams over the hump.

In a recent interview, Jon Barry, NBA journeyman and a member of the Rockets during T-Mac’s stay, was asked about his biggest regret as a player: “I couldn’t help Tracy McGrady get past the first round. The whole team saw the talent, heart and dedication of T-Mac, but we just weren’t good enough to help him get over that hump.”  This comes from a former teammate, acknowledging that the Rockets, who had a better cast than the Magic, failed to surround him with the talent necessary for postseason success.  LeBron showed us in recent years that a subpar cast isn’t enough even when you’re the heir-apparent to Michael Jordan.  Even Karl Malone, paired with the all-time assists and steals leader in John Stockton, never won a championship.   In the same vein that Malone, Charles Barkley and crew had to compete in the Age of Jordan, T-Mac had to play in an era when the Western Conference was unusually stacked.

But T-Mac had Yao: That should mean something, right?  But those Rockets fans who’ve obsessed over our pitfalls know better.  There’s no need to discuss Yao’s fragility as that’s deserving of its own article.  Yao was (and still is) the Rockets’ cash cow, whether the organization admits it or not.  Retaining Yao, even into next year regardless of how much of a liability his injuries have become, is important if only because Yao is a significant financial asset.  But Yao’s body and game were never meant to be paired with someone like T-Mac. In his prime, T-Mac represented an ideal NBA body: 6’9″ with a 7’3″ wingspan, 42-inch vertical jump, 235 pounds with only 8% body fat and ran the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds.  He represented the perfect combination of height, weight, speed and strength to be successful in the league—a build like LeBron but with T-Mac’s quickness making up for his lack of similar upper body strength.  This quickness suited him a fast-paced system, not one that has to have a half-court set with Yao.  In addition, Yao’s game has always been easily neutralized: Too uncoordinated to catch quick passes, too tall to have true success with his back facing the basket, too slow and un-athletic to defend against players that would front him.  The list goes on.  I’m a fan of Yao only because the man always says and does the right thing and has a lot of heart.  But heart only gets you so far.  I’ve never met anyone who agreed that the two superstars’ games complemented each other, but everyone agreed that they were indeed “superstars” and would bring in the “kwan” and “show the Rockets the money.”  (Jerry Maguire quotes seem quite fitting when discussing money and heart together.)  The Rockets would’ve had more success if they had traded Yao for versatile and mobile big men, or if they had traded T-Mac for knock down shooters and defenders (something that Mark Cuban would have done without hesitation)—but the Rockets held onto their “superstars” as money in the pocket instead of building a better ball club to advance to the second round and beyond.  The failures of Team USA basketball in the early 2000s have taught us that you can’t just stick a bunch of good players together and expect to win.  They have to gel and complement each other.  Let’s put this into a statistical perspective: Until the end of the 2007 season, the Rockets won 59% of games with Yao on the floor and 70% without.

McGrady has been called the “Tin Man,” referencing The Wizard of Oz character who lacked a heart.  I spoke of a former teammate’s defense of T-Mac, but there are a couple of statistical arguments against this as well.  McGrady was always one of the most efficient players in the NBA (even leading the league in 2002-03 ahead of another monster season by Shaquille O’Neal).  But we often overlook this feat.  The more minutes you play, the more susceptible you are to reducing the quality of your play, and T-Mac averaged around 40 minutes per game from age 21 to 26.  As such, T-Mac’s efficiency always rose in the playoffs.  He literally averaged more of everything in every statistical category when the postseason arrived, and doing more of everything should show the effort and heart—except that you can only do so much sometimes.  McGrady also came back from multiple injuries.  If he truly lacked the heart and desire to win, wouldn’t he have called it quits and gone to Disneyland with his $100 million?  The long hours, the constant media ridicule and having to play with teammates that he simply couldn’t depend on—when you combine all this, “lack of heart and desire” is the easy, lazy criticism because there’s no way to really disprove it.  In football, Carson Palmer can only nod his head in agreement.  He was a top 5 quarterback in the league in his prime, had multiple injuries, never a great supporting cast to surround him—and now he’d rather face retirement rather than once again carry the weight of a mediocre franchise on his shoulders.

I’ve always found myself to be a staunch defender of T-Mac’s legacy.  While I’ve felt he was in the wrong sometimes, I’ve never doubted his ability, heart and desire.  If we replaced Kobe Bryant with T-Mac, would the Lakers have still won those championships?  I believe so.  Just look at the seasons where Kobe was going solo and failed to make it past the first round despite leading the league in scoring titles in back to back years (sound familiar?).  In fact, he didn’t become the Kobe that we will remember until Chris Wallace gift-wrapped Pau Gasol to the Lakers in February of 2008.  If T-Mac had been blessed with the same luck, I’m quite sure that all these knocks against him would’ve never existed.  Because when you win, history shows us that people let you get away with even rape.