Photo by Fernando Medina/Orlando Magic
Tracy McGrady’s career contains a plethora of “what ifs.” What if he just stayed in Toronto? What if Grant Hill’s ankle wasn’t mangled? What if Tim Duncan came to Orlando instead of Hill? What if Yao Ming stayed healthy? And, of course, what if McGrady made it past the first round?
In the swirl of those persistent questions, while simultaneously fighting the constant pressures of creating an instant evaluation of a player’s entire career the split second he retires, it’s easy to forget just how special a player McGrady was at his peak.
Especially during the 2002-2003 campaign, when McGrady was at the height of his powers and playing at a transcendent level commensurate to a prime Michael Jordan.
And the way he took his game to that plane of existence was wholly unique. He wasn’t an uber-efficient big man like Shaquille O’Neal, and he wasn’t an inefficient gunner like Allen Iverson. McGrady was somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, posting the league’s highest usage rate yet remaining very efficient in the process.
To show how unique of a player he was, I compared McGrady’s statistics to every other player that participated in 2002-03 and calculated similarity scores for those players. I won’t go into the specifics of the calculation, but the metric spits out a number out of 1,000. Above 950 is great, 930 is good, and below 920 it starts getting iffy. McGrady’s two most similar players that season were Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce, who both scored in the 800s. Other than those two, no other players even sniffed matching his statistical profile.
Looking back now, we can see how utterly historic McGrady’s season was offensively. He’s one of only six players in NBA history to put up a season with a usage rate above 35 percent (35.2) and a True Shooting percentage above 56 percent (.564). And he’s one of only four players in NBA history to have a usage rate above 35 percent and turnover percentage below 9 percent (8.4).
And overall, he’s only the eighth player in NBA history to post a PER above 30.0 for a season (30.3). He was in rarified air that year, where only players like Jordan and Shaq were his statistical equal (this is before LeBron James came crashing to the party).
But it wasn’t just the historic numbers that made McGrady’s season so special, it was the way he went about churning out those numbers that really stood out. He was arguably the most aesthetically pleasing player of his generation.
Case in point: Shaq was dominant, but when he was playing for the Boston Celtics at the end of his career, nobody was screaming for Doc Rivers to put him in the game to see a few last flickers of prime Shaq.
On the other hand, that’s all we heard when McGrady was sitting at the end of the bench during the 2013 Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat. People wanted to see McGrady entertain the crowd with a flash of his brilliant prime. What McGrady did at the apex of his career was beautiful, and that’s what makes us look so fondly back on it.
McGrady was like the top scorers of his era in that he had an affinity, sometimes a borderline obsession, to shoot jump shots and fadeaways off the dribble that, efficiency be damned, were a hell of a lot of fun to watch when they were going in. And in 2002-03, it felt like T-Mac’s shots were going in more often than anybody else’s. T-Mac’s length allowed him to shoot jumpers over anybody, whether it be in the high post, at the top of the key, or wherever else on the court.
The pure effortlessness with which he executes these challenging plays added to the artistry of it all. He wasn’t Tim Duncan, catching the ball in the post and going to work in a methodical manner. McGrady’s shots were just a natural occurrence, something that was bound to happen a number of times throughout the course of the game. It wasn’t a surprise when he pulled up for a shot, but that didn’t make it any less extraordinary.
For a player his size, McGrady’s handle was awesome. Only 32 percent of his 2-pointers and 36 percent of his shots overall were assisted in 2002-03. The smooth handle was the perfect complement to his sweet shooting. T-Mac could get to anywhere on floor and instantly rise up for a shot with such incredible ease. I’ve written separate paragraphs about his shooting and his handle, but in reality the way the two intertwined was part of what made him such a phenomenal scorer. His shot wasn’t a separate motion, it was only an extension of everything else he was doing leading up to it.
And watch McGrady get to the rack in just a few steps or put on a few nasty dribbles and instantly transition into a shot while being met with a weak, hurried contest from an outmatched defender.
While known for his scoring ability, McGrady was a pretty nifty passer too. And this, I’d argue, is probably McGrady’s most overlooked aspect of his game. Yes, McGrady’s scoring ability was breathtaking to watch when he got into a rhythm, but he always seemed to take extra pleasure in setting up his teammates. He could see the floor extremely well with his height and could whip passes to the farthest corners of the court.
In the moment, McGrady’s dominance and beauty may have been taken for granted, but looking back on it now, we can see how incredibly lucky Magic fans were to be graced by him in his absolute prime. T-Mac’s legacy will always be tricky to decipher, but we can look back on the 2002-03 season and see quite possibly the best player in the league doing everything at the highest level in the most elegant way possible.