In an ideal world superstars would always go out on top—they would end their careers dropping 50, or scoring the winning bucket in an NBA Finals game. Unfortunately in reality things are a lot messier, a lot more complicated. Life doesn’t play out like some cheesy Hollywood sports flick, and McGrady’s career is proof of that fact
But that’s not how anyone should remember Tracy McGrady.
The zenith of McGrady’s career may have been much too brief, but it was memorable. People forget now, but between 2003-2007 there was a real debate among NBA fans, and some in the media, as to whether McGrady was a better player than Kobe. This may seem strange in retrospect—Kobe, at 35, is still dominating offensively and remains one of the top-15 players in the league. But during McGrady’s prime this was a legitimate debate. And if you go back and watch some of McGrady’s greatest moments, it isn’t hard to understand why.
T-Mac had everything. He was a huge shooting-guard, with fantastic length (he could block the ball like a centre), and was more than big enough to be an effective forward. But he could also handle the ball like a point-guard. Watching him go coast-to-coast, accelerating past hapless defenders and finishing with a thunderous dunk, was a sight to see. In fact, no defender wanted to get in the way of McGrady when he was driving through the lane. T-Mac’s responsible for one of the greatest in-game dunks ever, slamming the ball home over a hapless Shawn Bradley in the Rockets’ playoff series against the Mavericks. He also invented the ridiculous, but ridiculously fun, ‘alley-oop to yourself’ move, tossing the ball onto the backboard in transition and charging through the lane for the dunk.
Of course, when McGrady started his career with the Toronto Raptors, he was all dunking and raw athleticism. In his 3rd year in the league, the 1999-2000 season, McGrady finally broke-out, averaging 15 points per game, and along with his cousin Vince Carter, making the Raptors one of the must-see teams in the NBA.
But much to the chagrin of Raptors fans, T-Mac felt like he could never truly be the man in Toronto—never truly reach his potential in the shadow of Vince—and in 2000 he left to play in his home state of Florida, for the Orlando Magic. And this is when Tracy McGrady became T-Mac.
In his time in Orlando T-Mac established himself of one of the premiere players in the NBA. In the 2002-03 season he averaged 32 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, scoring 40 points or more in 10 games during the year. He won his first of two scoring titles that year, and although it wasn’t being recorded at the time, McGrady’s season ranks as the 16th greatest of all time, as measured by John Holliger’s Player Efficiency Rating. It truly was his annus mirabilis. And the highlights kept on coming. The following season T-Mac scored a career-high 62 points against the Washington Wizards.
But all was not well in Orlando. Although McGrady was a genuine superstar, the Magic were decimated by injuries in 2003-04 and finished the season as the worst team in the league. Orlando earned the number one pick in the 2004 draft (which turned out to be Dwight Howard) and T-Mac was traded to Houston in a multi-player deal.
In his first season with the Rockets T-Mac probably had his finest moment in an NBA uniform. He scored 13 points in the final 33 seconds against the Spurs—4 three-pointers, including one 4-point play—to lead his team to an improbable comeback. It was a moment that perfectly illustrated how deadly T-Mac could be in his prime. He could score from anywhere on the court and when he got hot the opposition was in big trouble.
That McGrady’s greatest moments—his 2002-03 season, 62-point game, and that comeback against the Spurs—were all great regular season moments, is something that many T-Mac detractors point out, time and again. The fact is, McGrady never got out of the first-round of the playoffs (the Spurs don’t count), the closest he came was with the Magic in 2003, when his team blew a 3-1 lead and lost to Detroit in 7.
Almost as soon as he announced he retired on Monday, the debate over whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame began. Those who think he doesn’t point to the fact that he never made it past the first-round of the playoffs, and that ultimately he never reached his full potential.
That is all true, but nevertheless, Tracy McGrady belongs in Springfield.
For 6 seasons he was a top-5 player in the NBA, and no other player who’s led the league in scoring twice has failed to be enshrined. What’s more, while he may not have had the kind of playoff success that many stars players do, he really didn’t have the help required in order to achieve that success. Basketball is a team game, you can’t win it all on your own. In Orlando, Grant Hill was constantly injured and T-Mac dragged an average team to the playoffs practically on his own. In his early years with the Rockets it was Yao who couldn’t stay on the floor. McGrady was forced to do most of the heavy lifting. Ultimately T-Mac failed to reach his potential because his teammates couldn’t stay healthy, and eventually, because his own body refused to cooperate.
T-Mac’s prime was all-to-brief, but it was great, and 5 years from now he may have a chance to discuss it at the podium in Springfield.