Photo by Fernando Medina-NBAE via Getty Images
There really isn’t a fresh angle to take when writing about the impact that Tracy McGrady had in Orlando that hasn’t already been covered.
He’s being honored tonight at Amway Center, and the Magic faithful will likely roar like a pack of lions for one of the most unbelievable talents to ever suit up in an NBA uniform. And if you’re attending the game but not planning on roaring, I suggest you read this piece as I cover the broad strokes of T-Mac’s career. Who knows? Maybe you’ll change your mind and let out a roar yourself.
McGrady was LeBron
When I was first learning about advanced statistics, Eddy Rivera had a pretty simple way of explaining PER to me: 15 is the league average, 20-24 is All-Star level, 25-29 is MVP level, and anything over 30 is LeBron territory. For the most part, he’s been right in that basic assessment.
So let’s compare apples-to-apples. In his transcendant 2002-03 season, the third year that T-Mac was with Orlando, he averaged 32.1 points to go along with 6.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. By comparison, LeBron James averaged 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game in 2012-13 — regarded almost unanimously as the finest statistical season of his career.
Oh, and McGrady’s 30.3 PER in 2003 was a hair behind LeBron’s 31.6 PER in 2013. But perhaps the most ironic comparison is that T-Mac was LeBron before LeBron. McGrady was a 6-foot-8 maestro that bent the game to his will on the court with incredible ease. Sound familiar?
And in case there is any question about this, allow me to put it to rest. At his zenith in 2003, Tracy McGrady was the absolute best player in the league — better than Shaquille O’Neal, better than Tim Duncan, and better than Kevin Garnett. McGrady was a king among giants.
You have to ask yourself how a team coached by Doc Rivers, with a superstar like Tracy McGrady, could get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs in three straight seasons? The easy answer is that T-Mac’s supporting cast was awful.
How did that team even compete on a nightly basis? The second-best player on those teams was an injury-ridden Grant Hill, and then you had some kind of four-way battle royale going on between Bo Outlaw, Drew Gooden, Mike Miller, and Darrell Armstrong to find out who would round out the “Big Three.” Not exactly championship material.
In fact, in 2002-03, McGrady averaged more than twice as many points as the next-highest scorer on the team. And if you take away Grant Hill and Drew Gooden, who each played less than 30 games that season, no players on the Magic roster had a PER over 15.
To further emphasize the talent gap, and show that McGrady was a god playing alongside mortals, through seven playoff games against the Pistons, only one other Magic player averaged more than 10 points per game (Gooden).
There’s no “I” in team, gang, and McGrady’s peak season is proof of that. Despite putting together one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history, Orlando’s greatest team accomplishment was building a 3-1 series lead against the top-seeded Detroit Pistons before losing in seven games.
It’s often overlooked how explosive Tracy McGrady was, but that athleticism helped him turn into one of the most dynamic scoring threats of all time. One of the big reasons T-Mac could score (seemingly) at will was his ability to torch defenders off the dribble, come off screens like lightning, and finish in a multitude of ways at the rim — like throwing the ball off the backboard to himself for dunks.
I hate when people refer to players as “pure scorers,” because to me it translates into “all he does is score” and is a lazy descriptor of one’s talents. But T-Mac was indeed a pure scorer in that he could score from everywhere on the court with such grace. Oh, and he was capable of playing great defense too (though he didn’t do it often since he carried such a heavy load offensively), unlike other “pure scorers” throughout NBA history.
Ok, ok. Kobe Bryant has rings on rings on rings, but at McGrady’s peak, he was statistically better than Kobe in many categories. We’re talking points per game, PER, True Shooting percentage, and so on.
There is no taking away the fact that Kobe won championships in the early 2000s, in large part because he played next to the most dominant player in the game at that time (Shaq), but from an individual standpoint, for a brief moment in time, the better player between the two was in Orlando.
The Magic went to the playoffs three times in McGrady’s four years. In 15 postseason games with Orlando, he averaged over 32.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game, and had a 26.6 playoff PER. Up from his regular season averages of 25.7 points, 4.7 assists, and 6.4 rebounds per game, and a 26.4 PER in four seasons with Orlando.
Players typically see their numbers decline in the postseason as the competition gets harder and the intensity reaches DEFCON 1 levels, but those rules didn’t apply to McGrady. When the lights were at their brightest, he rose to the occasion. No, T-Mac famously didn’t get past the first round, and some Magic fans will forever hold that against him, but he held up his end of the bargain in the playoffs. His teammates did not.
In an era where Dwight Howard can sound off from Houston and pout about Tobias Harris taking his number, T-Mac should get bonus points for letting Magic fans do the praising for him. Humility is rare in this league, and frankly, it’s kind of nice having a diva like Howard around to compare McGrady to as the Magic gather to honor him.
Leading up to the event, McGrady has been very appreciative of being the first former Magic player to be honored as the franchise celebrates their 25th year anniversary. One can only hope that Magic fans are equally appreciative when T-Mac steps onto the floor tonight to be formally recognized as one of the Magic greats.