- T-Mac and 62, by Nate Drexler
- Tracy McGrady and unaccountable greatness, by Spencer Lund
- 2003: A magical odyssey, by Jacob Frankel
- The dunk heard ’round the world, by Eddy Rivera
Photo by Getty Images
Before his dunk on Shawn Bradley, before 13 in 35, before 62, and before 2003, Tracy McGrady wowed everyone with his self alley-oop dunk in the 2002 NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia. It was an iconic play that will forever be remembered every All-Star weekend as one of the defining moments of the McGrady lore.
The irony is that T-Mac showcased the dunk in a game against the Boston Celtics in the 2000-01 season — his first with the Orlando Magic after leaving the Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2000. It drew the “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd. His teammates were awed. But it occurred in front of a half-empty Fleet Center on local television in a preseason game. In other words, it didn’t really happen.
It was equivalent to McGrady conducting a soft opening before unveiling a store to the public for real. He was working out all the kinks. What was the path of least resistance to attempt the dunk? Where on the backboard did he have to throw the ball to? Where on the court did he have to throw the ball from? Once T-Mac ironed the creases of the dunk just so, he was ready to debut it on a bigger platform.
Fast-forward to 2002. Coming off a breakout year in 2000-01, where he was voted in as a starter as a first-time All-Star and was named the league’s Most Improved Player, McGrady was selected to his second-consecutive All-Star team but this time as a reserve. Michael Jordan coming out of retirement had something to do with that.
But unlike the 2001 All-Star Game, where he had a quiet performance (two points in 21 minutes), T-Mac made his presence felt the moment he stepped on the floor at the All-Star Game in 2002.
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).
Photo by Fernando Medina/Orlando Magic
I don’t particularly like baseball. It’s a step-up from college football, but I can’t remember ever watching an entire MLB game after turning 10 years old. Instead, I watched basketball and then went out to my hoop out back and tried to duplicate Michael Jordan’s tongue wag, or the left-handed dunk Starks threw down over Jordan’s Bulls (I had an adjustable rim, obviously). Baseball reminded me — and still does — of a long-running argument my grandparents used to have over a Euchre hand while drinking lemonade on their porch.
But after growing up a bit, I can’t fault those who love the game of baseball. It’s unwise to treat anything you’re passionate about as sacrosanct above all else, so I adjusted and conceded that other sports might be as inspiring to others as basketball was, and is, to me. Maybe that’s why when Tracy McGrady announced his retirement from the NBA, long after anyone really cared about him, I thought about Joe DiMaggio. It’s hard to explain why because I lack the requisite diction, but I’ll try.
If you look at DiMaggio’s nine World series titles, 10 American League pennants, 13 All-Star nods and so on and so forth, the differences with McGrady’s career — one without a ring or even a simple playoff series win — are acute. That’s what makes this such a hard comparison to make.
No matter what we do, some people do it better. These other people can seemingly perform some task, play some sport, or instrument, or occupation, or manipulate a paintbrush better than you, or me, or really anyone. These people are often called “naturals,” “savants,” or a “genius.” That which comes hard to the majority comes to them with ease. As John Keats once said, “If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.”
Keats was a genius, and he couldn’t understand why poetry was so hard for others. Keats was also sort of stuck-up.
But Keats knew poetry, and for him it was as innate as painting was to Picasso or the guitar to Jimi Hendrix. Some people just fall into their perfect complement. Basketball came naturally to Tracy McGrady. So much so, he was drafted right out of high school, a 6-foot-8 savant who could jump out of the gym. When the Raptors selected him with the No. 9 pick in the 1997 draft, they had no way of knowing of what they were getting, of course. Even basketball naturals take time to acculturate from high school to the NBA.
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.