I can’t recall the last time in Houston sports history that a topic was so greatly divisive.
I’m quickly learning, however, that the greater challenge in covering a polarizing issue lies not in conducting the actual assessment, but in ensuring complete clarity of articulation.
It seems that a certain lack of comprehension has made it easy to misconstrue my intentions with “The McGrady Debate.”
Inherent to this topic are a set of disclaimers which naively (and perhaps too trustingly), I had assumed were fairly obvious and intuitive.
When I describe a particular ability of McGrady’s and comment on its potential to help the team, this does not mean that I think it is the case that it is now helping the team.
Similarly, when I state that it is in our best interests to exercise prudence before passing judgment on McGrady, this does not somehow mean that I am holding out hope in a belief in the inevitability of a certain outcome. It simply means that it’s not rational to jump to conclusions in an analytical assessment.
Finally, when I remark that McGrady looks bad in a particular area, this should not be taken as unawareness of the realities of microfracture recovery or disregard for the fact that he has spent little time with his teammates. These observations are meant with full acknowledgement that the road back from microfracture is a long one and that McGrady could very well not only gain strength in the leg as time passes but also become more comfortable with his teammates as they gain familiarity with one another.
I am making an assessment of Tracy McGrady’s current play. This is not to be taken as an indictment, endorsement, or an absolute judgment of his worth.
The McGrady issue is momentous because a priori to our assessment was the knowledge that nearly every championship team in this league’s history has featured a perimeter player who could break the defense down off of the dribble.
As I explained in Part 1, Tracy McGrady possesses this ability. However, it still remains to be seen whether he can be effective and make a net contribution to this team in utilizing this unique skill.
The significance in this inquiry is that if McGrady can be effective, the team can simply keep him rather than allocating their assets towards a trade in the acquisition of another player with this skillset.
The Actual Analysis
The most striking thing thus far has been that the team appears intent on giving McGrady the ball in his pet positions and allowing him to either isolate or play to his strengths. This was not the case in his debut when he was used almost exclusively in accordance with the norms of the established motion offense.
By my count, in the four games since his return, McGrady has been allowed to isolate seven times from around the elbow area. I explained in Part 1 why it is from this area that he is used most effectively.
Yet even more interesting has been the adjustment in his usage over the course of the four games.
A staple of the Houston Rockets’ offense is a play where the guard curls off of the pick set at the elbow and catches the pass delivered from the top of the key.
I remarked after Game 1 that McGrady looked very uncomfortable in this set, clumsily fumbling a pass [3:19 vs. Pistons].
Interestingly, I don’t recall ever again in the subsequent games seeing him employed in such a play. In the latter three games, McGrady was used primarily on the perimeter, if not in the isolation, then as a ball handler, and involved in back screens on the outside.
Unless I overlooked a play, we never again saw him receive a pass in motion off the inside pick.
This adjustment would seem to indicate a radical departure from the staff’s existing offensive philosophy. In my opinion, the implications are that rather than merely going through the motions in activating McGrady, management at the very least has interest in assessing what he could potentially bring to the team and if its implementation might later prove worthwhile.
The biggest surprise of McGrady’s return has been his lateral mobility in man-to-man defensive scenarios. He has not yet been beaten off the dribble like I had expected would be the case [4:11 vs. Nuggets; 3:23 Thunder]. His natural length has also been a tremendous aid [4:11 vs. Nuggets; 6:20 Mavs] and it is obvious that Tracy has made it a point to contest every shot put up by his counterpart. I remarked earlier that the great irony is that the length that was once his trademark characteristic may now prove to be his saving grace in his final stint in the league.
With all of this said, given his track record and lackadaisical nature, sustainability is a very justified concern. It is clear that McGrady has been intent on exhibiting maximum defensive effort in this comeback tour. Will he keep it up? His recent past might indicate otherwise [his adjusted +/- figures suggest a negative impact].
Furthermore, McGrady has also displayed his elite court vision in setting up his teammates on numerous occasions [2:42 vs. Nuggets; 2:13 vs. Nuggets; 5:45 vs. Mavs; 3:53 vs. Thunder; 2:08 vs. Thunder]. As I remarked earlier, Tracy has an uncanny ability to pass blindly from the face-up while operating from a stationary position. What this means is that even in his regressed physical state, he can still make plays with the ball without needing to actually beat his man off the dribble.
Finally, we have seen Tracy knock down a few jumpshots within the flow of the offense (1:33 vs. Pistons; 1:54 vs. Mavs; 2:08 vs. Thunder). With this said, unless he has put in work in this area, he historically has not been a good jumpshooter [TS% of .487% in last healthy season; bottom 5th in league], so I don’t feel that this particular usage comes as much benefit to the team due to the fact that it is of such low efficiency.
At the moment of writing, Tracy McGrady has absolutely no explosion or ‘first step’ [5:45 vs. Mavs; 5:39 vs. Thunder]. Unless pump faking or jab-stepping first [1:00 vs. Pistons; 3:38 vs. Nuggets], he has shown little chance of getting around his man off the dribble.
(With this said, there is of course the possibility that as strength is built in the leg as the days pass, some burst will return.)
Also, the team looks incredibly out of sync with McGrady on the floor. Teammates look very uncomfortable and hesitantly stand around. The sight has been very odd. [2:42 vs. Nuggets; 2:13 vs. Nuggets; 3:05 vs. Thunder]
(Of course, one cannot overlook the fact that the team and McGrady have now shared the court for a mere 25 minutes. One would expect that some degree of cohesion will develop as the two parties gain familiarity.)
However, the greatest negative thus far has been McGrady’s impact on what I would call, “The Chaos Factor”. While he has played very good man-to-man defense, and has also broken up a few sets as a help defender [4:50 vs. Mavs; 2:30 vs. Thunder; 1:12 vs. Thunder] Tracy McGrady has, on multiple occasions, completely given up on plays in which his role was as the primary help defender [roughly 2:40(?) vs. Nuggets; 8.9 vs. Thunder].
“The Chaos Factor” is how the Houston Rockets win basketball games. They must introduce chaos into the playing environment to overcome their collective shortcomings. All five players in red must draw charges (2nd in drawn charges), play the passing lanes, pound the glass (4th in offensive rebounding rate), and get under the skin of their opponents by wreaking complete havoc upon the court (1st in opponent technical fouls.)
Thus far, Tracy McGrady has negatively impacted this effect. While a few isolated incidents within the course of 25 minutes may seem inconsequential, one must wonder how great an affect the aggregate over the course of regular playing time would have upon the team’s total output.
Three questions are now of extreme pertinence:
1. Will any explosion return as the leg continues to build strength?
2. Will McGrady’s teammates become more comfortable playing with him as they gain familiarity?
If the answers to the two aforementioned questions prove to be in the affirmative, then it begs what is in my opinion, the single most important question surrounding McGrady’s value to this team:
Do the contributions made to this offense from Tracy McGrady’s passing override what is lost in his negative impact on “The Chaos Factor”?
In Part 1, I mused that I could envision an offense where McGrady would operate as the “eye of the storm” from the high post; a focal point with four teammates in constant motion.
Unfortunately, for this arrangement to be worth the trouble of implementation, Tracy McGrady will have to look better than he has thus far.
I still think that the most favorable option for the team would be to trade Tracy McGrady for an impact contributor. The problem is that barring the unexpected, the fruition of that scenario is looking incredibly unlikely.
So far, to make a conditional present-state judgment, I think overall, Tracy McGrady has looked bad. In his current state, while I don’t know if he’s necessarily hurting this basketball team, he’s not helping them.
Yes, he’s made some great plays with his vision and yes, he’s compensated for his physical regression with an effective jab-step/fake, but considering his vices, I don’t think he is potent enough at this point (with the complete and total lack of explosion) to justify consideration as part of the long-term plan.
Whether that can change remains to be seen. After just four games, it is still too early to pass definitive judgment. I am simply glad that McGrady was given a chance because the team gains nothing from cutting its losses.
I do not know what will occur, nor do I pretend otherwise. To this point in McGrady’s comeback, this is merely what I have seen and observed.