Reuters/John C. Hillery
A picture is worth a thousand words.
In this case, it’s a photo of failure and unfortunately for Tracy McGrady, it’s perhaps the lasting image of his time with the Orlando Magic. The players sitting next to McGrady, aside from Darrell Armstrong, are none other than Pat Garrity and Shawn Kemp — each embodying the word that defined the McGrady era in Orlando for three seasons until the bottom fell out in 2004. Average, if not worse.
And no Grant Hill.
McGrady will forever be criticized as someone that didn’t lead “his” team past the first round of the playoffs, even though the Magic were always the underdogs and never the favorites in each of their matchups (granted, the first round series against the Charlotte Hornets in 2002 was a toss-up).
This isn’t about the Houston Rockets, mind you. This is about Orlando and this is about McGrady playing in his hometown. This is about a player that did everything humanly possible to make the Magic a competitive squad, despite a supporting cast that was a joke and the lack of help from Hill due to his injuries.
Given McGrady’s situation, it seems like people forget how good he was in his prime. McGrady was a top five player in the league with Orlando, without a doubt, and Magic fans were truly blessed to witness him at his zenith. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but McGrady knew how to put on a show.
How good was McGrady and how bad was his supporting cast?
Let’s start with the bad.
A band of misfits
McGrady didn’t play with a lot of talent during his tenure with the Magic. McGrady’s best teammates were Darrell Armstrong, Drew Gooden, Mike Miller, Bo Outlaw, and not much else. Armstrong was the best of the bunch and a very good point guard, but he was on the decline as soon as McGrady arrived in Orlando.
The Magic packaged Miller in a deadline deal for Gooden and Gordan Giricek, a trade that did pan out at the time. Yet Miller emerged as the Sixth Man of the Year in 2006 with the Memphis Grizzlies and remains one of the most efficient shooters in the NBA.
And one of the moves that stands out like a sore thumb from general manager John Gabriel, that would slowly set in motion the rise and fall of McGrady, was when Outlaw was traded early in the 2001-2002 regular season, along with a first round draft pick, to the Phoenix Suns for Jud Buechler to free up cap space. That pick became Amar’e Stoudemire.
Other issues that arose was the Magic’s inability to make good draft picks, which robbed the roster of young talent that was desperately needed. Prospects like Jeryl Sasser, Steven Hunter, and others became synonymous with the word “bust” in the dictionary. When Orlando did have a rookie of worth, like Matt Harpring, they traded him away. The Magic needed big men, which is why they traded Harpring for Andrew DeClercq, but still.
As for Orlando’s free agent signings, not many of them panned out very well. If it was 1994, the signings of Patrick Ewing, Horace Grant, and others would have meant something significant but they were quick fixes, not long-term solutions. When the Magic did sign someone of worth, like Juwan Howard in the off-season prior to the 2003-2004 regular season, it was too late. The damage was done.
Excluding Hill, who was sitting on the sidelines during most of McGrady’s tenure with the Magic, this was the supporting cast. It needs to be stated. McGrady’s prime was wasted. It’s hard to fathom how awful McGrady’s supporting cast was.
It absolutely, clearly, and positively speaks to McGrady’s gifted abilities that Orlando was a .500 team. Given the amount of talent on the roster, or a lack thereof, McGrady did the equivalent of turning water into wine. Make no mistake about it, the Magic were trotting out players on the floor that had no business being in NBA rotations. The numbers are hideous to look at, but they show an inconvenient truth. It was McGrady, Armstrong, and little else for four years. A shame.
Also, it was due to Orlando’s incompetence — at the time — that head coach Doc Rivers was fired during the 21-61 debacle in 2004 when the bridge finally came crumbling down. The talent pool was shallow as a result of poor personnel decisions that piled up on top of each other.
Yes, Magic fans criticize McGrady for how he left and what he said. McGrady is not a saint by any means, but he shouldn’t entirely be blamed for wanting to leave a situation that was deteriorating around him rapidly. McGrady’s best years were being washed away by first round flameouts. Given the time and situation, McGrady had almost no choice but to leave and do what was best for his career.
Former stars for the Magic are infamous for burning bridges when they depart but if there’s one figure that deserves some sympathy, it’s McGrady. For three years, McGrady gave everything he had to make Orlando a competitive team until his body literally gave out. It’s true that McGrady didn’t give a full effort in his fourth and final year with the Magic, and he deserves to be criticized for that but it is what it is.
There will be some that foolishly criticize McGrady for not making his teammates better in Orlando, but that’s a statement wrapped in flawed logic. McGrady did elevate the play of his peers and proved that for four seasons with the Magic, especially in the playoffs, as he consistently played with rosters littered with replacement-level players.
It makes no difference how good you are. You’re as good as your teammates and coaches around you, and that was one of the downfalls of McGrady’s stint with Orlando. The lasting memory of McGrady with the Magic was besmirched because of the inadequate amount of talent that he had around him. Let the record state that McGrady was one of the best players in the league for several years, but was undermined by a supporting cast that had their moments but was not very good to begin with.
A man among boys
Orlando was fortunate to be a .500 team because of McGrady. It speaks to how good McGrady was that the Magic were in the position to win games, culminating in the near-upset of the Detroit Pistons in the 2003 NBA Playoffs as a No. 8 seed.
It can be argued that McGrady deserved to win the MVP in 2003. Tim Duncan won the award, and rightfully so, because the case can be made for him that he was statistically the best player in the league. However, the same argument can be given for McGrady but the difference between the two players was, you guessed it, their supporting casts.
McGrady put up one of the most dominant seasons ever by a player not named Michael Jordan, yet it wasn’t good enough in the eyes of the voters because they were caught up too much in team accomplishments that were out of McGrady’s control at the time. These are some of the same issues that remain with MVP voting, by the way. McGrady finished fourth in the voting, behind Kobe Bryant, despite the fact that most of his numbers were superior across the board. A minor tragedy, no question.
In his prime, McGrady was unlike anyone had ever seen before. McGrady was silky smooth on the floor and when he played, it was like watching a Mozart symphony taking place every night. McGrady was the composer, the court was his stage, and the audience was there to witness his genius.
McGrady had the complete package you’d want in a franchise player. McGrady was a point forward that could score anywhere on the floor. McGrady’s range was unlimited, it seemed like, and he could put up points at will. However, it was McGrady’s court vision and unselfishness that really set him apart in terms of his playmaking abilities. McGrady’s passing will forever remain as one of the most underrated aspects of his skill-set, even though he didn’t amass higher assist totals because he was too busy scoring all the time. Plus, when McGrady set his mind to it and put in the effort, he was a good wing defender as well, using his frame and wingspan to make life very difficult for players matched up against him.
Not only was McGrady an elite scorer that could score at a high volume, but he could do it without sacrificing efficiency.
Another thing that was really impressive about McGrady, when taking a look back at his statistics, was that his turnover rate was extremely low for the amount of possessions he used up. It’s amazing that McGrady took fantastic care of the basketball like his life depended on it. In a way, it did.
Without McGrady doing everything at the highest level, Orlando would have been lucky to win 20 games with the supporting cast that was being featured.
McGrady should be remembered as a legend, yet he won’t be because many of the circumstances surrounding his success on the team level were out of his control. The harshest reality, when looking back at McGrady’s career, was that he was a product of his environment.
Statistically, at his absolute peak in 2003, McGrady rivals anyone — even Jordan. Yet the perception will forever remain that McGrady was a loser with the Magic. That is what people will remember about McGrady in Orlando, and it shouldn’t be that way.
McGrady was a gifted player and should be remembered for what he did do, rather than what he didn’t do with the Magic. That is McGrady’s manifesto.
*all the numbers that are shown were during the regular season