Remembering Tracy McGrady’s career
Shortly after his arrival with the Rockets, McGrady signed a three-year, $63 million contract extension that would carry him through the 2009-10 season. All told, McGrady was looking at more than $109 million worth of salary over the next six years when he first took the court in Houston. Although he made the All-Star team in each of his first three seasons with the Rockets, back and knee injuries began to limit his effectiveness, and by the end of his lengthy deal, McGrady’s expiring contract held more value as a trade chip than he did as a player.
Houston’s other cornerstone player, Yao Ming, also was in and out of the lineup with injuries, and the Rockets were able to secure just one playoff-series victory during McGrady’s five-plus years in town. Of course, that came in 2009, when McGrady was sidelined with a season-ending knee surgery.
If Tracy McGrady had any second thoughts about leaving Orlando, they vanished when he heard Magic G.M. John Weisbrod say he was not his type of player. “It shows you the difference between the two organizations,” says McGrady, whose threat to opt out of his contract next summer led to Houston’s acquiring him for Steve Francis in a seven-player trade. “I’m sure the Rockets had some dirt on Steve when he left here, but what did they say about him? Nothing but good things. They were professional.”
He presses OFF, and another call comes in. “It’s here? All right! What exit?”
He puts down his phone and says, “This is going to blow your mind.” But he’s talking to himself.
Five minutes later he emerges from the BMW and stretches in the bright sun. His usually unhurried walk is suddenly brisk. He enters the commuter airport terminal, passes a few surprised businessmen, and there, glistening on the tarmac, is a white Falcon 2000 with T1 MAC painted on the side. This is the first time he has seen his new jet. He stands for a moment on the runway, taking it in, shaking his head. He bounds up the stairs. The interior is champagne and cream; the walnut trim is buffed to an almost metallic sheen. He is greeted by his business manager, Gustavson Bass, who points McGrady to the VIP seat–the first seat on the right side of the cabin–and shows him the armrest controls for the sound system, DVD player and air conditioner.
The 6’8″ McGrady sits down, sinking into the soft leather. He smiles and looks out the porthole.
“We’re actually saving money by having this plane,” Bass explains. “With the depreciation schedule and being able to lease it out, this will pay for itself.”
McGrady isn’t listening. He is already out of his seat and down the gangway. At the bottom of the stairs he turns around and takes in the plane once more. Then he is gone.
“I’m the first one,” he says, back in the car. “No NBA player ever had his own jet.”
Won’t this set off a frenzied plane-buying competition among elite players?
“All right,” he says with a laugh. “Let them bring it.”
Though they arrived more quietly than Dallas, the Rockets came into the series with their own head of steam, buoyed by seven straight wins to end the season and fortified by a supporting cast that has McGrady smiling. In the ongoing game of completing the phrase The Best Player Never to Have …, McGrady is at the moment The Best Player Never to Have Taken a Team Past the First Round. He almost did it two years ago in Orlando, when his Magic had the Detroit Pistons down 3–1. Then he opened his mouth and said, essentially, that the series was over. The Pistons used his words as bulletin-board material and won three straight. “Hey, I was young then,” says McGrady, now 25 and in his eighth year in the league. “I didn’t know any better.”
Indeed, there is no player quite like McGrady, who is listed as a small forward but who is, in reality, a blend of shooting guard (he comes off picks for jumpers as well as anyone in the league) and point guard (the offense usually runs through him). [Jeff] Van Gundy, who finds flaws in a rainbow, gloomily ticked off the reasons the Rockets should have lost Game 1 (they attempted 22 fewer free throws than the Mavs, were outrebounded 44–39, etc.) and boiled the outcome down to this: “I’m not sure we win if Tracy doesn’t hit three home runs that were, like, miraculous.” One of T-Mac’s treys was, like, otherworldly. With the shot clock running down during a third-quarter possession, he launched an outlandish fallaway jumper from about 25 feet and began backpedaling downcourt even before it went in.
Yet the mention of T-Mac always comes with an asterisk designating a dearth of toughness. “Toughness is one of those nebulous words,” says Van Gundy. “Toughness is being able to concentrate enough to carry out a game plan. Toughness is the ability to execute a play under duress, having a poise about you, making shots late in the game. That’s mental toughness, and Tracy has that. Taking on guys, beating a double team by yourself. Guarding tough players, like Nowitzki. That’s physical toughness, and Tracy has that, too. To say he doesn’t have toughness is ridiculous.”
The Rockets’ run has been fueled by the player with the most to prove: Tracy McGrady, 28, the ubertalented small forward with seven All-Star selections, two first-team All-NBA honors … and zero playoff series wins to his credit. The same McGrady who in 2003 as a member of the Orlando Magic openly talked about the second round while his team led the Detroit Pistons three games to one, only to see the Magic blow the series. The same McGrady who last season told the world to put Houston’s playoff chances “on him,” then couldn’t prevent a loss to the Utah Jazz. (He shed tears of frustration during his press conference after Game 7.)
“I haven’t had this kind of trust in my teammates before,” says McGrady. Sitting in front of his locker following Sunday’s win, his voice begins to lower. “I’m a pretty damn good player, but I can’t do it by myself.”
“This is the first time I’ve felt going into a season that something really special is going to come out of it if we put everything together and understand our roles,” McGrady said at the start of training camp. “There’s a God that sent help. I’ve been waiting for this [chance] for a while.”
If Rockets general manager Daryl Morey had been playing this season out on a PlayStation 3 console, the restart button would have gotten a pretty good workout. Forward Shane Battier suffers a foot injury? Click. Never happened. Forward Ron Artest rolls an ankle? Click. Swingman Tracy McGrady aggravates lingering knee and shoulder injuries? Click. Click. Unfortunately life rarely imitates electronics. Battier, Artest and McGrady had missed a combined 59 games at week’s end, forcing coach Rick Adelman to use 16 different starting lineups. “It’s made this season a bit of a roller coaster,” says Morey.
But there have been signs that the ride is leveling off. After McGrady’s season ended on Feb. 9 (he underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee two weeks later), Houston had gone 8–1 at week’s end, including victories over the Mavericks, Trail Blazers and Cavaliers, and had run its record to 38–22, fourth best in the Western Conference.
The Rockets had a great postseason run—without their best player, Tracy McGrady, who has an injured knee. That led to talk by the press and fans that Houston was better off without him. “In the past when I was out, you really never heard that,” McGrady told me. “Are they better without me? I don’t think so. You ask those guys on that team, they’d say the same thing.” I asked who the press in Houston has been tougher on, him or Roger Clemens. “This year,” McGrady said, “I have to say it’s me.”
Daryl Morey has a $22.5 million asset to peddle, which is why the Rockets’ general manager pulled his entire staff of basketball analysts and scouts off the road and into a conference room in Houston last week. For two days the 10 studied video of players—and it’s a large number of players—they might acquire before the Feb. 18 trade deadline for the mammoth expiring contract of guard Tracy McGrady. In the salary-cap-driven NBA, any deal that frees up future payroll holds appeal, even if it belongs to an All-Star-in-decline who has played just 45 minutes this season. But it’s especially so this year, given this summer’s attractive free-agent class.
“There’s been significant interest,” acknowledges Morey, an Executive of the Year candidate who has kept the Rockets in playoff contention despite seasonlong injuries to McGrady, who has had left-knee surgery in each of the last two seasons, and center Yao Ming, who has a broken bone in his left foot. “We have a good sense of who’s trying to do what, the major players who may be involved from each team, the deals teams would do with us and the deals we would be willing to do with them. But right now they’re all fairly far apart.”
There’s the rub. In Morey’s eyes a contract like McGrady’s is more valuable than ever, as many teams are dying to clear salary-cap space so they can throw big money this summer at the long-anticipated free-agent class of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson.
If there is a how-to book to be written about deadline dealing, Rockets G.M. Daryl Morey should get his own chapter. He swapped Tracy McGrady’s $22.5 million expiring contract (and backup forward Carl Landry) for a 20-points-per-game scorer (Kings guard Kevin Martin), a promising power forward (rookie Jordan Hill of the Knicks) and a first-round draft pick. And he did it while cutting enough payroll to get Houston below the luxury-tax threshold. “You knew they were going to get something good [for McGrady],” says a Western Conference executive. “But I don’t think they could do much better than this.”
McGrady spent the next four seasons bouncing around from New York to Detroit to Atlanta in reserve roles, and he ultimately decided to play in China for the 2012-13 season.
Injuries and age had taken their toll by this point. McGrady averaged just 5.3 points in 52 games with the Hawks in 2011-12.
Somewhat remarkably, McGrady, the man always known for his weak postseason record, came within 5.2 seconds of winning a championship ring in June, as he latched on with the Spurs just before the playoffs. Although he played only 31 minutes total in the postseason, he still generated media interest, particularly at the Finals.
There, he spoke openly and hinted at the possibility of retirement, but the brash confidence he carried throughout his career was still evident. Asked if he would be ready to play if called upon by coach Gregg Popovich, McGrady responded: “Is pig p—y pork?”
What’s next? It’s possible that McGrady continues his playing career overseas, and he appears to be a surefire Hall of Famer, although it could take more than one ballot.