On McGrady – Part 3

2009 December 21
by rahat huq

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 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 Good

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.

The Bad

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.

Crystal Ball

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.

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  • David A
    I continue to think holding onto McGrady for the remainder of the year will be the Rockets best option, as I just can't see us getting anything of value in return in a trade. That being said, I'm not sure what the Rockets will be able to do in free agency this season. People seem to think we'll have a chance to land Bosh or J Johnson, but I don't know that the Rockets will have the cap space, even with TMac's $23 million coming off the books, since the cap will be significantly lowered next season.
  • durvasa
    Unless the Rockets make a trade this year, I don't think the Rockets will have more than the MLE to offer a free agent. The only way they could free up significant cap room would be to trade Battier (and that doesn't look likely). Alternatively, they could try to sign and trade for a star towards the trade deadline, but that seems even less likely right now. We'll see.
  • scalito
    Houston Rockets fan chilling in Mexico. McGrady straight-up blows. He should've waited until February to come back b/c he isn't ready. Just waiting for the announcement: "McGrady to sit-out the remainder of the 2009-2010 NBA season"
  • Alituro
    Chase is out for a couple weeks, ESPN reports. Luckily for our team because of the team chemistry and the ability for anyone in our rotation to shoulder some bulky scoring (except Hayes), as we showed with Landry's absence we are able to absorb the minor injury of a player. That being said, I think these next couple weeks could be used to play McGrady in his stead. Chase avgs about 18 min/game, now it would be nice to see what T-mac can do for that time. Time to take the next step in his evaluation, andf give him some real minutes IMO.
  • durvasa
    I'd like to see McGrady play more, but Adelman says not to expect any changes these next few games. After Christmas, his minutes could ramp up. It will be interesting to see how the rotation changes when Chase is ready to return. Adelman has said in the past that he doesn't like players losing their spot in a rotation due to injury.
  • hometownfanhouston
    Rahat:"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"

    and what IMPACT player would you trade for? more importantly, a few posts ago,(I dont have time to go look, im at work..haha), you said to to me, that you agreed that anything we can get this year isnt any more valuable than what we have now? Has your opinion changed in a week, I am just having a hard time following what you are trying to say....Tracy is coming back off a major major, sometimes career ending surgery, and hes back early....I honestly thought he would be close to the OLD McGrady by the playoffs...isnt this more realistic anyway?
    Just really confused your opinion changed so fast!
  • rahat_huq
    hometown: still feel the same. what i mean is that best case sees us trading for an impact player - but that's just best case. i think its highly unlikely that thats possible. i just dont want to completely rule anything out.

    as far as the surgery. he'll never again be the "old" mcgrady. best hope would be 2008 mcgrady.

    thanks for reading.
  • rahat_huq
    Alituro - I too hope his minutes are increased, though I can see Rick playing Lowry and Brooks in tandem more heavily.

    David - The Rockets won't have any type of significant cap space this summer without dismantling their core.
  • tobepg
    Before tonight, T-mac only played about 30 mins in 4 games, so far his adjusted +/- is not exact at all due to the limited sample of time. Hence, I don't think it's wise to utlize this kind of advance rating on him.
    Awaiting for the episode 5. Oh, Merry Christmas!
  • durvasa
    The adjusted +/- cited in the post is for the prior 3 years (i.e., "recent past"), not this season. But you're certainly correct that we can't draw conclusions from the +/- numbers this season.

    Happy Holidays.
  • tobepg
    Thank you. I see. I assumed it's 1 year adjusted +/-.
  • salmiller
    Last game vs LAC 10 pts in 8 mins of play of the bench,are we realy watching T-mac here or are we his absolute critics.Nothing can keep Great Players down but themselves and T-Mac is confident that he has made the right decision in his career at this time.This is definately T-Mac's and the Rockets Championship Season and with the return of Yuo Ming two more.The ball is in the court of Management and Coach to appreciate and respect the team they have at this time because Championship teams are not easy to come by.
  • michael
    did you see TMAC score 10points in just under 8 minutes, EAT THAT!
  • thirdcoastborn
    Coach has been right all along in that McGrady is not ready to contribute major minutes yet. The good thing is we do not need him right now, so he can gradually make his comeback. We will need him in the playoffs, especially if Yao wont be back by then. In the plaoyoffs teams will slow down our fast breaks, and slow us down to a half court offense. When this happens McGrady will be most needed to take defenders off the dribble, and create for the team. McGrady is also a great shooter, so with Landry and Scola playing like All Stars get doubled he can knock down the shot. The bottom line is jermaine oneal or eddie curry will hurt the team not help. With Von Wafer back now we have a real deep team, but does not look good for McGrady staying.
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