Photo by Fernando Medina/Orlando Magic
Disclaimer: I’m about to poke a few holes in Tracy McGrady’s 62-point game against the Washington Wizards. No doubt it was one of the most impressive individual outings of his career, but this was a volume shooting session. A Nick Young lucid dream. T-Mac had the green light and he fired away every time he was in range. My only beef is that when you’re going to shoot the ball every time you touch it, maybe we should expect you to score closer to, say, 81?
We’re actually going to touch on the hot hand theory here in a bit, but first, let’s take a brisk walk through this legendary game from nine years ago.
Pretend you’re a coach for a minute. Your team is playing in Orlando and, by far and away, the biggest offensive threat is a 6-foot-8 maestro with a silky smooth jumper. Objective A is to do what? Yes, make sure he doesn’t get into the paint. Objective B? Don’t give him any open jump shots.
You’ve heard the coach speak before. “If they’re going to beat us with difficult, contested jump shots, then they’re just going to beat us.”
In the case of Washington vs. Orlando on March 10, 2004, we need to slightly adjust the aforementioned jargon. “When Tracy McGrady shoots the ball 37 times, and more than 30 of those shots are contested but he still makes 20 of them, we’re probably going to lose.”
We can’t take anything away from T-Mac in this outing, because even upon reviewing the game nine years later, it was an outstanding effort. But let’s take a look at some context. Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a game in 2006. If you had to guess, how many shots do you think he took? The answer is 46, just nine more attempts than McGrady in his 62-point game. That’s comparing apples and oranges, but the way that the two players got their buckets in these respective games were similar.
Take a handoff pass, drill a 3. Back down, fadeaway, buckets. Hand in the face? Don’t care. Still shooting. Net. Take it to the rack? Why? I’ll just shoot from the perimeter. Money.
T-Mac’s 62-point game was a classic case of a guy who was “feeling it,” a concept that we know isn’t entirely sound. When you sit around with your buddies talking about that game, you can’t help but think about how amazing it was. I’m sure phrases have been thrown around like, “he couldn’t miss!” Sure, that’s how we remember it.
And honestly, shooting 20-for-37 from the field (5-for-14 from deep) isn’t horrible, it’s just not en fuego. Right? Because we’ve seen guys make almost all their shots in a game. This was a volume performance, and a truly strong one, but still far from amazing.
What was amazing to me was how little McGrady took the ball into the paint. Only three of his buckets came in the lane, in fact. The rest were fadeaway jumpers or contested 3-pointers. Again, this is a product of “feeling it,” the same way it was for Kobe Bryant (though Kobe shot 60 percent from the field in his performance).
One can’t help but wonder how the game would have unfolded if T-Mac decided to target Christian Laettner more often in the paint than trying to shoot over the top of people. Think about if he took less jumpers and concentrated more of his possessions on doing exactly what LeBron James does now — barrel into the lane. He had the size, no? And he certainly had the skill-set to finish in traffic. But I digress. And yes, hindsight is 20-20.
Ok. Here comes the smart stuff. I’m going to let Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim, authors of Scorecasting, take it away for a minute as they discuss hot hand theory. In talking about John Huizinga and Sandy Weil, who investigated such matters, Moskowitz and Wertheim made some interesting conclusions:
“Despite there being no greater likelihood of accuracy, shooters making their last several attempts act as if a hot hand exists. After making a shot, they take harder shots–and shoot about 3.5 percentage points below their normal field goal percentage. They also shoot 16 percent sooner than they do after a missed jump shot and are almost 10 percent more likely to take their teams next shot if they made their last shot than if they missed it… The authors concluded that if everyone on the team behaved this way… it could ultimately cost a team 4.5 wins per season on average.”
The authors go on for a while discussing the hot hand theory. Of course, they contend, that streaks exist, but in no way are streaks, made shots, or even wins predictive of the next set of actions. This is an immensely larger conversation, but Tracy McGrady most certainly fits in here somewhere.
As a coach, this is probably a bit frustrating. Your star is filling it up, but also shooting a little too often, and shooting bad shots even more often. You can’t really coach him out of that since he has more than half of your teams points. So what do you do?
I wonder how often this happens and how related it is to the hot hand theory, and the fact that players have historically felt different than their actual performance. Perhaps we should start defining “hot” as “making more than your normal amount of shots that you probably shouldn’t have taken.” In that sense, yes, Tracy McGrady was on fire!
Even McGrady himself showed slight disappointment in his performance. In a story published in The Washington Post after the game, T-Mac was quoted as saying that he should have had 70 if he had just made his free throws.
Never mind the free throws, Tracy. Those would have been great too, but the way that you settled for the outside shot (and missed several of them) leaves me to believe that you might have left upwards of 20 points on the floor, meaning a 70 or even 80-point game was feasible for you, Tracy. Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve … I know.
But let’s be totally clear about two things. First, 62 points is amazing, and he was one of only three players in the last 11 years (at that time) to accomplish such a feat. But secondly, T-Mac left a lot of points on the floor, and this could have been one of the most incredible individual efforts of all time.
And maybe it’s this “amazing, but not astonishing” brand that aptly sums up T-Mac’s career. The guy was prolific. He posted LeBron-like numbers in multiple seasons. The guy was a beast, and will probably go into the Hall of Fame (at least he should). But he always fell short. And that is the bigger story of his career. This game was just a brief summation of that.