In six seasons with the Houston Rockets, Tracy McGrady averaged 19.2ppg. In his four healthy years with the team, he put up 24.1ppg, peaking out at 25.7ppg in 2004-2005.
McGrady is unfulfillment personified, the most uniquely gifted player this league has ever seen, but likely to be remembered as the biggest “loser” in its history.
He not only had the vision and length that Jordan and Kobe didn’t, but also the fine footwork that Lebron has still yet to develop. At 6’8, with a handle matched only by the league’s point-men, and raw springs bestowed from the heavens, McGrady possessed a tantalizing mix of gifts and painstakingly developed talents that should have ensured a place among the league’s legends.
But ultimately, his legacy will be as history’s biggest loser. The 90’s quartet of Stockton, Malone, Ewing, and Barkley became infamous for their inability to capture the throne, the punchlines of much derision; in our era, T-Mac has not even passed the first round.
But to appraise a man’s worth by such simplistic calculus is a grave injustice.
It is true that McGrady could have done more – he refused to drive in the final seven minutes of Game 7 in ’07 with the Jazz in the penalty; he disappeared completely in the deciding 3rd quarter of Game 6 against Utah in ’08, deferring to an aging—and hopelessly ineffective–Bobby Jackson; and he missed almost 2/3 of his shots in Game 7 against the Mavericks in ’05. Yes, there was much he could have done – I completely concede he wasn’t perfect. But the stigma still is unfair.
The presumption we hold that our deified heroes should persevere over all, circumstances be damned–and that failure is reflective of some tragic flaw—is simply too Pollyannaish. One could say that McGrady didn’t have killer instinct but it must be considered that it takes a toll carrying an overmatched team by oneself through an entire playoff series. Even Jordan never succeeded at this task (in the years before Pippen) but the fact that he probably later could have should not serve as indictment upon McGrady. And why are Kobe’s failures prior to the arrival of Gasol so readily overlooked?
In the case of McGrady, we make no effort to uphold the truth because while he deserves it, his very nature impedes our conveyance of sympathy. He just finds a way to invite criticism. His propensity to explicitly verbalize things already implicitly acknowledged does the utmost damage to his cause. Dwyane Wade never tells reporters he doesn’t have help.
But for historical integrity, it is our duty to look back on what McGrady did do for this team. Really, he carried it until his body simply no longer would allow the feat. There were nights when he was all the Houston Rockets had, a depleted roster in tow, and Yao still not having mastered the ability to not foul. Yet still, there they were, always winning 50 games on the strength of a suffocating defense and the passes fulgurating out of McGrady’s right arm.
In eulogy, we immortalize 13 in 33 as his greatest moment, but really that only serves to reduce his contributions to ephemeral paranormality. What he meant for this franchise was so much more than that half-minute brush with God.
In ’05, he was arguably the best player in our conference, guiding the team on a torrid pace after a lackluster start. And later that year against Dallas, we viewed greatness through the tragic lens, watching all that it took him to merely keep us in games. McGrady did not only score, but he set up every play, guarded Nowitzki because no one else stood a chance, and even brought the ball up himself when our guards proved incapable of even that. The few minutes he would rest to catch his breath, all would collapse.
His finest hour was undoubtedly The Streak, the achievement of which was breathtaking to witness. It wasn’t the classical bamboozlement we have come to associate with such prolonged dominance in sports. It was perfection at the margins, emotional exhaustion at its very apex. With just one botched rotation, one surrendered offensive board, all that had been built would have come crumbling. And there was Tracy at the start of every play, palming the ball in his right hand, the head of the monster, 48 minutes every night.
Tracy McGrady did more with less than did Kobe, but the latter will forever be immortalized for his accomplishments upon privilege. The McGrady tragedy is that once the cavalry did arrive, his body had completely failed him. His regression from the age of 25 to 30 was more painful to witness than was Hakeem’s from 32 to 37. Once a graceful gazelle, towards the end of his tenure, McGrady could barely move.
He was one of the greatest players in Houston Rockets history, but he won’t be remembered as such. We slothfully push to the backs of our minds what he did do—disregard the help he never had—because it’s far more convenient to ignore the past; he hasn’t done anything for us in the present. It’s unfortunate, but so it usually goes in sports.