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Earlier this month, a video emerged of Tracy McGrady elbowing a player in the chest during a Chinese Basketball Association game. It was a fitting peep into where McGrady stands at this point of his career: distant from both mind and heart, violently clinging on to a shred of our consciousness for the wrong reasons.
At the tender age of 32, when most superstars are gracefully descending into a final chapter, T-Mac is already years removed from relevance, for all intents and purposes a basketball pariah.
The expectation game is a fickle and cruel one, one which McGrady has clearly lost. His immense talent raised the bar to heights that only few have ever reached and McGrady couldn’t clear it for whatever reason — his bad back, his bad teammates, his bad psyche, whichever one you choose. He couldn’t even get close. For all intents and purposes, history will look back at McGrady’s career as a “could have, should have, wasn’t” ordeal.
Which is a shame because that misses the point entirely. Yes, T-Mac didn’t win rings or even a single playoff series; yes, his prime ended so swiftly that there wasn’t even a farewell tour, just an immediate disconnect; yes, he wasn’t everything that he should have been. But these points are irrelevant.
In 40 years, when we are feeble and old and our grandchildren demand stories of the greats, we won’t wax poetic about consistency throughout 10-year stretches. What sticks with our memory over all is singular points of transcendence, those special nights when something just goes right for a guy who happens to be on television as we go ballistic on our couch.
And for that short, marvelous period that was Tracy McGrady in an Orlando uniform, those experiences came nightly. The man had a control over the game of basketball that was virtually unparalleled, one that was enhanced by his nonchalant demeanor and those darn eyelids that looked like he was asleep at all times.
M.J. and Kobe worked maniacally to be at the points where they would overwhelm the opposition; Shaq bothered to be in shape for that one special 1999-00 season; Duncan was always smarter; Magic and Bird clearly loved and cared about the game more than anything else.
But with McGrady, transcendence was inherent and almost coincidental, like a guy who just woke up and happened to step in a pool of divinity before he put his socks on, cursing about how his feet got wet while proceeding about his way in reluctant magnificence.
That 2002-03 campaign was as dominant a statistical campaign as we’ve seen. The man was the beginning, middle and end of everything the Magic did. The raw numbers (32.3 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game, and 5.5 assists per game) and the advanced stats (a 30.3 Player Efficiency Rating, one of just 8 players to cross the 30 threshold in PER, and a True Shooting percentage of 56.4 percent) are mind-blowing even without the YouTube archives. It had to be watched to be believed. He was a unique combination of other-worldly athleticism and every single skill the basketball court offers.
He was special. So inherently special that he couldn’t put forth the effort to maximize that skill-set, so good just by walking into the gym that he couldn’t put in the work to translate his gift into the accolades by which common perception measures greatness.
And then the guy, whose best teammates were a constantly injured Grant Hill and a declining Darrell Armstrong, loses to the Pistons in the first round of the 2003 NBA Playoffs after expressing relief that “it feels good to get in the second round” after going up 3-1 in the series. Then the guy’s body breaks down and he’s a failure for eternity. It’s fair, given the results-oriented nature of our society. It’s also completely misplaced.
It is impossible to separate greatness from wins, but it is impossible to use any other adjective to describe whatever it was that Tracy McGrady was doing through his short prime. McGrady’s own talents reached such magnitudes that they overblew what he had to accomplish to outgrow his own shadow; at that, he failed. Miserably so.
It doesn’t matter. He was transcendent all the same.
Voter breakdown for Tracy McGrady
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Magic Basketball ranks the top 10 players in Magic franchise history. #ORLrank is the Twitter hashtag to use if you want to get involved in the discussion or just follow along.
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Thanks to Daniel Myers, Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference, and Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus for contributing to the project.