Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

The Tin Man Always Had A Heart

July 5, 2011

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.

  • Pmunive

    Tracy McGrady will always be considered a great in my book. Some of the most raw highlights you’ll ever see is by watching on of tracy mcgrady. The man was simoky unstobbale. Quick , Jumper , penetration , high flying , GREAT passer , exceptional defender, got the line, made others better!! Buit damn! Even Jordan had Pippen , Shaq had Kobe , Kobe had Pau, The Great to ever really do without another star helping him was Hakeem Olajuwon, the only other player better than TMAC to ever don Rocket Red!

    -PcR-

  • Pmunive

    Tracy McGrady will always be considered a great in my book. Some of the most raw highlights you’ll ever see is by watching one of Tracy McGrady. The man was simply unstobbale. Quick , Jumper , penetration , high flying , GREAT passer , exceptional defender, got to the line, made others better!! Buit damn! Even Jordan had Pippen , Shaq had Kobe , Kobe had Pau, The last Great to ever really do without another star helping him win a title was Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994, the only other player better than TMAC to ever don Rocket Red!

    -PcR-     

    • http://twitter.com/dequinix Rahat Ahmed

      Great point regarding Olajuwon in 1994. Not counting the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, the last team to win the NBA Championship without two players who have a greater than 50% chance of making the Hall of Fame according to Basketball Reference was indeed the 1993-94 Rockets whose second best player was Otis Thorpe (at least according to Win Shares per 48 minutes).

      • Doug Chau

        I’d argue that the 2011 Mavericks also were a one-man show.  While Jason Kidd will one day be in the Hall of Fame as well, he wasn’t playing like a Hall of Famer this year.  Dirk really was the powerhouse of that team, albeit with a bunch of good role players. 

        • http://twitter.com/dequinix Rahat Ahmed

          Incidentally, Marion has a 33% chance according to Basketball Reference, which is a bit sad when you realize how talented he is.  He went under the radar in Phoenix for way too long (with the pre-Nash years being a blur and then being overshadowed by Nash himself).

          • http://twitter.com/cupovnoodles Mike

            One thing is certain.  Marion’s jumpshot is one of the ugliest in the NBA.

          • http://twitter.com/dequinix Rahat Ahmed

            Marion, Kevin Martin and Larry Bird: Impossible to use in NBA2K.

          • http://twitter.com/cupovnoodles Mike

            Completely agree.  Marion and K-mart esp.. can’t get their shots down.  I have some trouble with Paul Pierce too because he has a set shot and a jump shot and both have strange timing to it.  Dirk’s shot is garbage in the game too.  He takes 2 seconds to set his shot up in the game.

          • http://twitter.com/dequinix Rahat Ahmed

            Key to Dirk has always been to post him up, so the timing isn’t as big of an issue.  But the Martin thing is especially frustrating because it limits how much I can use my Rockets.

          • http://twitter.com/cupovnoodles Mike

            Well what I usually do is go into live practice mode (freestyle) and just shoot jumpers with these guys until i get the timing real close.  In-game you should be able to hit at least 40% of their shots if you get close enough in practice.  I just never use the Rockets so I can’t speak on K-Mart, but I got Marion’s shot down pretty good.

        • http://twitter.com/cupovnoodles Mike

          I somewhat agree with this but at the same time defensively, Tyson Chandler was the star.  In a few of those games, Barea and Jet took over in some key stretches whether it was getting a lead, holding a lead, or mounting a comeback.  Jason Kidd’s defense on Kobe in that series was remarkable considering his age and diminishing lateral quickness.

  • Kooshie

    Great article until you reach the very last sentence. Its a complete slap and disrespect to Kobe. The guy is one of the hardest workers in the game and goes to every length to improve his game “working with dream, going through experimental surgery in Germany to continue his legacy, playing through injuries”. His will for the game is unmatched, and that comment essentially throws all of that under the bus. 

    If it was truly rape, the young lady would have had no problem fighting the case in court. There is an “obvious reason” that she dropped the case and decided to settle out of court. Extortion at its finest

    • http://twitter.com/dequinix Rahat Ahmed

      Thanks for the comment, Kooshie.  In Marcus’ defense (and he can key in later), I don’t believe he meant any disrespect towards Kobe specifically.  It has more to do with our culture as a whole where we justify past transgressions once an athlete and/or team wins.  We had an internal discussion on whether to keep that sentence as it was originally written, and we decided that it was necessary to emphasize the nature of a sports fans’ near-blind devotion that allows us to forget our moral boundaries as long as trophies are brought home.  While not always true, I’d argue that it happens more than we like to admit.

      • Kooshie

        The article was very well written and I’m glad to see such immediate correspondence. I’m a Houston Rockets fan tried and true. However, I do appreciate great talent, hard work, and devotion which has led me to have great respect for Kobe and the last sentence just struck a chord with me. 

        I understood very clearly the point that was being made, and I do entirely agree with you on the motive behind such sentiment. I just feel that the last sentence really spoiled what was truly a great article up until that point. 

        • Marcus Bui

          Let me start off by saying “I am a fan of Kobe Bryant”. His desire to be the best really is unmatched. The point I tried to make (as Rahat pointed out before [thanks Rahat]) was that no matter the circumstance, people will not acknowledge our faulty idiosyncracies all the way to forget our biggest mistakes, as long as we bring home the grand prize. Such as Michael Vick and the whole dog fighting issue. He went from one of America’s most hated to top 10 in jersey sales in a few months. As such, if T-Mac had success, there wouldn’t be all this negativity towards him.     

          • Koo

            I also agree to the point about what you’re saying, but even as a contributor, I agree with Kooshie (not to mention his name is eerily similar to mine). Winning and time helps everyone forget past things, but not always. People still fight Michael Vick about the dog fighting – there’s boycotts of Subway stores because they sponsored Michael Vick as the BET Sportsman of the year, and I’m sure for Nike its a financial decision to take the PR beating, but still be able to market Vick to everyone else. For Kobe, I think its completely different. People forget about the rape trial, because one he was acquitted, and two he had the spot light on him the whole time and killed it while he was flying from court room to court floor.

            For this article the connection to Kobe is that his winning makes people forget about his couple of years of first round exits. Not the rape trial.

          • Doug Chau

            As a contributor to the site, I’m also going to agree with Kooshie.  That line really had zero to do with the main point of the article.  It went from “McGrady has terrible luck and was only favored in one of his playoff series” to “by the way, if you win, you can get away with anything/people forget all about the bad stuff you did” which isn’t a logical progression of thoughts. 

            However, since that is a valid point of view, may I suggest that as your next topic?  Examples: Michael Vick and the dogs, Kobe and the sexual assault allegations, Tim Allen and being a convicted drug dealer before Tool Time, Mark Wahlberg and his racially-motivated assault on Vietnamese-Americans, etc.  America sure loves a comeback story, huh?  And perhaps, contrasting it against OJ Simpson, who can’t achieve on the field anymore to “restore” his reputation and R. Kelly, who hasn’t had a hit since Dave Chappelle impersonated him. 

          • http://twitter.com/dequinix Rahat Ahmed

            Nick feels quite strongly about Michael Vick, so it’s possible that I can ask him to put something together.

    • Marcus Bui

      Let me start off by saying “I am a fan of Kobe Bryant”. His desire to be the best really is unmatched. The point I tried to make (as Rahat pointed out before [thanks Rahat]) was that no matter the circumstance, people will not acknowledge our faulty idiosyncracies all the way to forget our biggest mistakes, as long as we bring home the grand price. Such as Michael Vick and the whole dog fighting issue. He went from one of America’s most hated to top 10 in jersey sales in a few months. As such, if T-Mac had success, there wouldn’t be all this negativity towards him.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=619154119 Rajan Patel

    I disagree with the part saying that T-Mac would be better suited to a fast-paced team.  T-Mac rarely pushed the ball in transition when he had the ball, and when he didn’t have the ball in transition, he ran the floor even less.  T-Mac was more of a walk it up, half-court type of guy.

    • Marcus Bui

      Thanks for your comment Rajan. One of the knocks about McGrady and the Rockets during his tenure here was that when T-Mac got the ball, the rest of the team just kind of stood around and watched him try to do his thing; I never saw T-Mac as a black-hole cause he has always been a gifted passer (i.e. ESPN has written that he was probably the most gifted wing passer in the league). Watching the games that he played with Orlando (games…not highlights), the Magic were a faster paced team than the 04-08 Rockets, and in those videos, it looks like the team and McGrady are more comfortable. I am not saying that T-Mac is not effective in a half-court team, I simply believe that given his athleticism, athletic players generally are more effective in full-court faster paced teams (i.e. LeBron James this past year in Miami).

    • http://twitter.com/cupovnoodles Mike

      To be honest, if I had teammates that couldn’t run the floor and fill the wings or push the ball, I wouldn’t push for transition offense either.  There would be no point if he’s running by himself as he would be on most of those Rockets squads.

  • aakata

    T-mac has it all, but almost never had the luck to teamed with great players and be in a good team.
    He in a team, made him the UNDERDOG. But one of the great player as an individual.

  • http://twitter.com/cupovnoodles Mike

    I appreciate this article.  T-Mac never really got his due as far as how great of a player he was and how great he could have been.  If management did the right thing and put a team around him that could compete, we would likely be talking about T-Mac’s championship season at this point.  I truly believe if T-Mac had just a couple more pieces, they would have won a title.  I don’t think they needed to have 6 guys who are very good, I think T-mac was legitimately 1 really good player and 1 good player away from a title, assuming the other guys in the rotation would not be OTH veterans on the way out of the league. 
     
    Although his Orlando teams weren’t very good, those days were exciting to watch since he was in his prime. 
     
    I admit, I did play one season of NBA2K11 with a T-Mac in his prime as my starting 2Guard, it brought back memories of his dominance.