The T-Mac FAQ

Four years ago, Tracy McGrady officially retired from the NBA.  A bunch of articles were written reviewing his NBA career and some of his highlights.  To begin with, the story of T-Mac seems pretty straightforward and was well-covered the last few months:

-High school-to-NBA guy

-He scored a ton of points for Orlando

-He couldn’t win a playoff series but did once score 14 points in 35 seconds.

-Injuries knocked him down too young

-He might or might not have been Kobe Bryant’s equal at one point

At the time, I started a T-Mac piece and got pretty far along.  Then, it fell by the wayside.  I totally forgot about.  In yet another reminder that times flies, I looked up and saw McGrady was inducted into the Hall of Fame last week.  We didn’t touch on T-Mac at that time but he was good enough of a player to entitle him to our FAQ treatment.  Let’s go deep and see and what more insights we can provide.

Not much has been written about McGrady’s decision to skip college?  Any interesting tidbits to explore on that front?

Actually, there is a bit.  In 1997,T-Mac was only the fourth high schooler of the modern era to skip college (Kevin Garnett in 1995 and Kobe and Jermaine O’Neal in 1996).  KG had the compelling story of moving from South Carolina to Chicago to form a dream high school team and Kobe was the prodigy (O’Neal couldn’t make academic eligibility).

T-Mac didn’t really have any of these narratives.  He was from a poor town in Florida but academically and financially, he had no serious problems.  On June 23, 1997, Rick Bonnell of Knight-Ridder News Service wrote a nice article outlining McGrady as an 18-year old and his decision to go to the NBA.  McGrady merely did the math and said that if could he could be in the top 20 and be guaranteed about $2 million, it made sense to declare for the NBA.  McGrady also signed a $12 million shoe deal before the draft, which also helped allay any fear of not being ready.

Even more interesting, McGrady was not considered a top 500 recruit in the country at the end of his junior year in 1995-96.  In the summer of 1996, though, McGrady went against Lamar Odom (the consensus best player in high school) and T-Mac outplayed him handily.   For his senior season, McGrady transferred to Mount Zion Christian Academy, a boarding school that was a feeder to major college programs.  From there, McGrady kept playing well (he put up 27.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg, and 7.7 apg as a senior and led the team to a 26-2 record) and his stock soared enough that it appeared the NBA was a very viable option.

Where was T-Mac projected to be drafted?

McGrady had the potential to go as high as the sixth pick overall.  Rick Pitino had just become the Celtics coach.  Boston had the third and sixth picks and wanted to make a splash (remember when Pitino’s presence on an NBA franchise was considered a good thing?).   At the time, Sam Smith reported that the Bulls, fresh off of Michael Jordan’s fifth title, were considering trading Scottie Pippen for the Celtic picks to draft either Keith Van Horn or Ron Mercer with the third pick and McGrady with the sixth pick.

We couldn’t find many mock drafts from that time but the two we did find had McGrady going at the six slot to Boston.  Alas, Pitino flinched and instead took Chauncey Billups (good idea) and Ron Mercer (terrible idea).   Philly took Tim Thomas at 7, and Golden State took Adonal Foyle at 8, before Isiah Thomas and the Raptors grabbed him with the ninth pick.    According to Thomas, the Raptors were set on taking Olivier Saint-Jean (who would later change his name to Tariq Abdul-Wahad and wash out of the NBA with injuries) but Isiah had McGrady rated much higher and did not expect him to be available at that point in the draft.

As noted above, McGrady’s high school-to-NBA story has no heroic backstory or tortured decision making process but represented cost-benefit analysis at its least emotional.  McGrady valued college only to the extent that it might help him make the NBA and if he could make the NBA and millions of dollars right out of high school, then the NCAA offered little value.  In fact, McGrady was very correct in his decision.

He developed quickly and gave himself two or more extra seasons of prime earning that he might’ve missed on the back end because of his later injuries.  The decision to go pro can obviously be more complicated to some but McGrady’s decision represented a new brand of thought on the value of college to athletes—strict dollars and cents.  The NBA has since forced high schoolers to delay this decision and that was partly due to McGrady laying out the pros and cons in such numerical terms.

What was T-Mac’s development curve in Toronto as a teenage pro?

The story of T-Mac’s rooke year in 1997-98 is not a happy one.  He apparently immediately fell into coach Darrell Walker’s doghouse.  At the time, Isiah was in the process of negotiating a high stakes deal with Toronto ownership where he was going to either buy the team or leave the franchise.  Walker was a friend of Thomas’ and very loyal to his friend and GM.   The deal fell apart and Thomas was forced out as GM.  At the same time, the Raptors fell apart on the court.  Walker, perhaps out of solidarity with Isiah or perhaps because he was old school and tough on rookies, was particularly tough on McGrady.  Walker did not like T-Mac’s practice habits and both harangued McGrady and sat him.  I couldn’t find the original quote but Chris Palmer of ESPN later claimed that Walker stated that McGrady wouldn’t last three years in the NBA.

Sports Illustrated visited with T-Mac in December 1997 and reported that he was isolated and lonely in snowy Toronto, sitting in his apartment 18 hours each day.  The article even concluded with McGrady asking the interviewer “[d]o you think I made the right choice [in skipping college]?”

Walker resigned in February 1998 and things changed a bit for McGrady.  New coach Butch Carter, who would later make some rash decisions of his own, correctly figured that his future was tied to the young lottery pick.   According to a March 9, 1998 blurb by Jackie MacMullan, Carter promised to give McGrady additional playing time in games if he stayed after practice for work every day.  T-Mac ended up playing exactly 32 games under Walker and Carter (Walker DNPed McGrady 17 times and Carter did so only once).

McGrady’s numbers weren’t actually significantly better under Carter but the added playing time was enough to end the season on a more positive note.  In aggregate, McGrady ended up putting up a very impressive 17.4 PER, which is great for an 18-year old and actually led the team (Damon Stoudamire had a slightly higher PER of 17.7 but was traded after 49 games played).   Toronto was a miserable 16-66 (and 5-28 under Carter) but the happiness of McGrady got Carter a full time gig.   That off-season, the Raptors drafted Vince Carter and the core of a solid team started to coalesce.

How good could the VC/T-Mac Raptors have been?

In the first year with Carter and McGrady, Toronto jumped up to an almost .500 team (23-27).  Carter was the exciting young rookie who dunked but T-Mac actually was the most efficient player, leading the team with a 20.6 PER (VC had 19.6) and BPM (4.0 versus 1.9 for Carter).

In 1999-00, McGrady’s final in Toronto, the Raptors improved to a then franchise best record of 45-37.   Carter was now the best player (23.4 PER) and McGrady held steady at 20.0 and was the only really good defender on the perimeter.  They were backed by some big name vets, some of whom weren’t actually any good any more (Antonio Davis, Dell Curry, Muggsy Bogues, Kevin Willis, Dee Brown, and Charles Oakley).  The 45-37 record was somewhat deceptive too, as the team’s expected win-loss was a more pedestrian 41-41 (they were actually slightly outscored for the season by their opponents).  These underlying issues were exposed by the Knicks, who swept the Raptors 3-0 in the First Round.

After the season, McGrady bolted town to Orlando.  The Raptors replaced McGrady mostly with rookie Morris Peterson (14.1 PER) but got some nice contribution by Keon Clark and Jerome Williams up front (and Davis and Willis improved as well).  The Raps went 47-35 this time and beat a declining Knicks team in the first round before losing a tough seven-games series to the Allen Iverson 76ers in the next round.  Toronto did not win a playoff series until 2015-16.

Meanwhile, McGrady exploded as a player in Orlando.  His PER jumped to 24.9 and his usage rate went from 24.3% in Toronto to 31.2% in Orlando.  Would that have improved the Raptors?  Of course it would have.  If you replace Peterson’s win shares (3.6) with McGrady’s (12.2), the Raptors become a 55-56 win team.  Obviously the translations aren’t quite that simple (T-Mac couldn’t have been quite as dominant sharing the ball with Carter) but Toronto would have been a lot better.   Moreover, the early 2000s Eastern Conference wasn’t exactly dripping with great teams.  The eventual Eastern Conference champs from 2000-01 through 2002-03 were low-50s win teams (Iverson 76ers and Jason Kidd Nets).

Assuming Carter stayed healthy with McGrady (this is no sure thing because VC struggled with injuries and allegations of malingering) the Raptors would’ve have been contenders in the East and probably could’ve made the NBA Finals at least one of those seasons.  This was still not a great team and, like the 76ers and Nets, Toronto would’ve also probably been shredded by the Shaq Lakers or the Duncan Spurs.  So, McGrady leaving the town definitely cost the Raptors some excitement but probably not a title.

How good was T-Mac in Orlando?

Orlando had hoarded cap room in the summer of 2000 to land three stars.  The Magic landed T-Mac and Grant Hill and almost got Tim Duncan too.  In the end, it was the T-Mac and Hill Show.  Hill, unfortunately, had serious ankle problems that kept him out for years.  Even without Hill, McGrady played transcendent in Orlando.  McGrady’s PER in four years in Orlando was usually about 25, except for 2002-03 when he had a ridiculous 30.3 PER.  That PER was the 15th highest since the NBA started keeping track of turnovers.

McGrady’s peak in 2002-03 was better than Kobe Bryant’s best for the 2005-06 Lakers.  In fact, while Kobe obviously had the better career, McGrady’s peak is slightly more impressive (Kobe exceeded a 24.5 PER only three times in his career while McGrady did this four times).  Here’s a side-by-side comparison of McGrady’s peak 2002-03 season versus Kobe’s lone wolf prime in 2005-06 on a per/36 minute basis:

-McGrady 02-03: 10.1 FG, 22.1 FGA, .457 FG%, 2.1 3s, 5.5 3FGAs, .386 3FG%, 7.0 FTs, 8.8 FTAs, .794 FT% 5.9 Rbs 5.0 Asts, 29.3 Pts, 30.3 PER, 35.2 Usage%, 16.1 WS, 9.7 BPM, 8.7 VORP

-Bryant 05-06:  10.7 FG, 23.9 FGA, .450 FG%, 2.0 3s, 5.7 3FGAs, .347 3FG%, 7.6 FTs, 9.0 FTAs, .850 FT%, 4.7 Rbs, 4.0 Asts, 31.1 pts, 28.0 PER. 38.7 Usage%, 15.3 WS, 5.8 BPM, 6.5 VORP

This isn’t to say that McGrady was clearly better than Kobe at their best but he scored points more efficiently and was slightly better in the other aspects of the game.  In fact, John Hollinger wrote about this extensively in his 2003-04 Basketball Prospectus: “I wrote a year ago that McGrady was a better player than Kobe Bryant and would have thought that [T-Mac’s 2002-03 stats] proved it once and for all.  That’s why I was shocked and dismayed when the MVP voting came out and Bryant ranked third while McGrady was fourth.  Look, I don’t mean to keep knocking Kobe, but the difference between style and substance here is too big to ignore….Put the two side-by-side, and everything Bryant does, McGrady does as well or a little better….McGrady never turns the ball over….Basically, he created a zillion shots without any miscues, and that alone put Orlando into the top half of the league’s offenses.”

So, at worst, he was Kobe’s equal and there is a very good case that he was better.

Who is Britton Johnsen?

This is not really a direct question but a question posed to rhetorically answer why McGrady didn’t win any playoff series in his prime.  Johnsen was a middle rung forward in college for the Utah Utes.  The Magic was so lacking in forward that they inexplicably started him forward at the opening of the 2003-04 season.  Doc Rivers, who is now considered a star coach, told the press that Johnsen is “a ball mover, he’s an energy player, he’s a smart player, he plays hard, and, at times, he can guard the toughest offensive player.”  Oy.  Johnsen ended up playing 20 games for the Magic that season and shooting .288% from the field and putting up a remarkably bad 2.6 PER.  Other frontcourt starters in Orlando for the T-Mac years included Andrew DeClercq, the fat Shawn Kemp, Pat Garrity, Pat Burke, Robert Archibald, John Amaechi, and a very old Horace Grant.

This Magic team was not good enough to really make a playoff run.  They were good enough to possibly win in the first round but with the weak front court, they usually lost to better teams.  Nor can you really blame McGrady who put up a 26.6 PER and 32 points per game in 15 playoff games in Orlando.  Those numbers do indicate he really couldn’t have played much better.

It is fair to say that T-Mac’s frustration with the bad frontcourt forced his way out of Orlando.  Shortly after starting Johnsen, the Magic cratered and missed the playoffs in 2003-04.  While the team struggled, McGrady stopped playing any defense and visibly looked disengaged.  Orlando dealt him to Houston for Steve Francis and some other pieces for the 2004-05 season.  T-Mac left town with some feelings of resentment expressed on both sides.

But what about Houston?

The assumption was pairing T-Mac with a young Yao Ming would put the Rockets in mix as a contender.  Houston was pretty good but the West had tons of good teams and the Rockets couldn’t get out of the first round.  Here’s quick rundown of McGrady’s playoff record in Houston:

-2004-05: Lost in first round to Dallas, 4-3 (Houston lost Game 7 by 40)

-2005-06: Missed the playoffs and McGrady was hurt half the season

-2006-07: Lost in first round to Utah, 4-3 (McGrady played well but Houston lost at home in a close Game 7)

-2007-08:  Lost in first round to Utah, 4-2 (Yao missed the playoffs)

All this time, McGrady’s own injuries were wearing him down.  By 2007-08 (when he was only 28), he was no longer a star player, putting up a PER of 18.4 and 2.4 BPM.  This was McGrady’s first meh stat line since he was in Toronto.  McGrady wasn’t playing great in 2008-09 (16.3 PER in 35 games) and things got a little ugly.  Houston was looking to trade McGrady and he apparently underwent surgery without Houston’s consent to squelch trades.  Bill Simmons recounted this standoff: “[w]e don’t want to remember someone of McGrady’s caliber arriving out of shape for the 2008-09 season, holding the Rockets hostage for a few months, then screwing them by getting microfracture surgery right before the trade deadline.”

McGrady missed the rest of the season but the Rockets went on an epic winning streak, which, in a symbolic sense, cut off T-Mac from Houston forever.  McGrady wanted minutes in 2009-10 and the Rockets were done with him, figuring that he was not a team player and that they were as good without him at that point.  After only a few games, management told McGrady to stay away from the team until a trade could be found.  Houston eventually traded McGrady to the Knicks but his career was basically over.  T-Mac bounced around as a bench player for two more seasons and retiring at age 33.

For his final season, McGrady did not play in the regular season of 2012-13 but was signed on April 16, 2013 and made the playoff roster.  With the Spurs, McGrady finally was on a team that won in the playoffs (San Antonio lost to Miami in an epic Finals).  McGrady was mostly a spectator that whole time.  He played only 31 minutes over six games in the playoffs and shot 0-7 from the field.

Adding it up

T-Mac’s career had quite a bit of bad luck.  Had he been paired with a healthy Hill and/or Duncan in Orlando, McGrady would be talked of today as one of the greats.  Instead, McGrady’s peak was wasted by the Magic.  Then, the tough Western Conference and injuries derailed T-Mac even further.  He is a worthy Hall of Famer and was as good as any guard in the NBA for about four seasons.

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