Tracy McGrady’s Legacy
While the debate has centered on HOF, how should we remember a dynamic career?
by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
Let’s start with Playoffs.
In a 2010 interview with SLAMonline, I asked Tracy McGrady to describe how he would like to be remembered as a basketball player. He answered, “Whatever they view me as. I mean, I think for quite so long I was able to carry teams in the regular season. Playoffs, I had individual success, but as far as team success, I didn’t have much of team success. I brought a lot of excitement to the game, I played it the right way, scored a lot of points. Just a guy that was very exciting to watch.”
McGrady reached the Playoffs nine times in his career, including last season’s bittersweet role as a benchwarmer with the Spurs. He never appeared in more than seven games in an individual postseason. That run with the Spurs was the first time an active McGrady got out of the first round, in stark contrast to his draft classmate, and then Spurs teammate, Tim Duncan. But even if Chris Bosh didn’t grab that rebound, and Ray Allen didn’t hit possibly the most memorable three of his decorated career, and the Spurs, instead of the Heat, had won Game 6, leading to Tracy McGrady’s first ring—how much would it have affected the conversations now?
A ring can be the shining emblem that represents the often elusive satisfaction of a Championship, especially after years of individual accolades and accomplishments. The metal can also ring hollow. For McGrady, who starred on so many teams, how much would a Championship mean that was won on the bench?
During those first-round exits, McGrady was often spectacular. In 2001 with Orlando, he averaged 33.8 points and 8.3 assists, but the team lost 3-1 to the Bucks. In 2005 with the Rockets, McGrady averaged 30.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.7 assists in a seven-game series against the Mavericks. In 2007, the Rockets again lost in seven games, with McGrady averaging 25.3 points and 7.3 assists against the Jazz. From 2001 to 2008, McGrady never averaged less than 40 minutes per game in his six playoff appearances.
To put it in perspective, the only players in NBA history that matched McGrady’s averages of 22 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in at least 50 career playoff games are Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. The retired players are all in the Hall of Fame. Every player on the list, sans McGrady, won at least one title. McGrady’s 50 career playoff games rank the lowest.
Onto the Regular Season.
Few players’ games have the inherent highlights and excitement of McGrady’s. He was dynamic. Even he mentioned this fact regarding the way he wants to be remembered on the court. Did his style of play limit success, enhance it, deserve a place in the Hall? Do injuries to him, and even his teammates, limit how great we can consider his career? Are we at liberty to judge another man’s potential based on the potential we saw, and wanted, for him?
The two-time scoring champion is rarely talked about as a passer, although he led the Magic twice in assists per game, and led the Rockets three times. McGrady’s career totals of 18,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists have been matched by 21 other players in NBA history. Every retired player has a spot in the Hall of Fame. The active players include Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce and LeBron James.
Injuries will always have a place in McGrady’s narrative. We’ll never know how successful he could have been with Yao Ming if both had stayed consistently healthy. The last few years of McGrady’s NBA career were hampered by knee surgeries and procedures, followed by several uniform changes during the chase for longevity. To really appreciate McGrady’s talent, one has to turn back from those last couple of chapters and pause to remember his prime as one of the NBA’s top shooting guards. If a few Game 7s had different results, there could be another dimension to the conversations. During those years, he was an exceptional player on teams that bowed out in the first round. Sometimes the NBA is a game of circumstances.
Back to 2010.
On a struggling Pistons team, as his career was winding down, I asked McGrady what he wanted out of that year and what would satisfy him as a player?
“Me as a player? Being healthy. Individually, I want to be healthy.”
And as a team?
“We want to make the Playoffs. Right now, we’re not even thinking about the Playoffs ‘cause it’s too early. I think the main thing for us is to recognize who we are and what we gotta do to turn this thing around.”
When looking at McGrady’s career, there are times when basketball lifted him up to the pinnacle of his profession, and other times when his body failed him, and the game he made look easy humbled him. He was untouchable and flawed, played for highlights and through rehab, showed us what could be and left us with what ifs. If his career was a novel, the best books often leave us with the same questions.