T-Mac’s mixed legacy

ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images/Zimbio
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images/Zimbio

Last week Tracy McGrady retired and the nostalgia set in.

McGrady's career was brilliant in a flash and gone just as quickly as knee injuries and back injuries hampered him these last five or six years and his career limped to a close.

For Magic fans, it is a mixed bag. There is plenty of good to remember. Our pals over at MagicBasketball.net are having a whole week of posts devoted to one of the Magic's all-time greatest players. There is no doubt about McGrady's offensive brilliance.

There is also no denying McGrady's career turned out to be a big disappointment. He failed to get out of the first round of the Playoffs before his bench-warming days in San Antonio this year, and, despite extremely gaudy numbers, he always seemed to shrink or fail to bring his teammates up to his level.

Then there was the awful timing. The culture of the NBA he entered was not a good one for a young player looking to maximize his talents for his team. The Grant Hill and Yao Ming injuries took away the key players McGrady would need to support him.

Bill Simmons of Grantland went deep into Tracy McGrady's career and all the things that seemed to conspire to prevent McGrady from becoming one of the all-time greats.

No modern superstar had worse teammate luck than Tracy McGrady. He's a casualty from a bizarre era that, for the most part, worked against the success of the league's most talented players from 1993 through 2007. Overexpansion badly diluted the league's talent pool during that time, so too many young stars (T-Mac, LeBron, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Allen Iverson, Hill, etc.) were asked to carry inferior supporting casts. Teenagers like McGrady and Kobe started jumping into the NBA right from high school, with wildly mixed results. Contracts spiraled out of control — in the 1990s, lottery picks were either guaranteed big bucks immediately (endangering their incentive to improve), or given three-year outs from their rookie deals (giving them too much power at the wrong time of their lives, even if some of them handled it well). And for whatever reason, we had an inordinate amount of incompetent general managers and owners making a staggering number of shortsighted decisions.

There is no denying that McGrady entered the NBA at a weird time. And there is no denying that John Gabriel and (certainly) Jon Weisbrod made some very bad decisions with the Magic's roster. Some of it was patiently waiting for Grant Hill to be healthy enough to play. Some of it was the Magic trying too hard to stay in the Playoffs that they could not build a championship roster.

By the time McGrady forced his way out of Orlando in 2004 (something Simmons fails to mention, placing more of the blame on the Magic for giving up on McGrady and shipping him to Houston — in actuality, McGrady gave the team an ultimatum to draft Emeka Okafor and field a winner or take Dwight Howard and trade him), McGrady was done trying to salvage a wrecked and beleaguered franchise.

Richard Mackson/USA TODAY Sports/Fox Sports Florida
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY Sports/Fox Sports Florida

McGrady is not completely blameless however for his team failures in Orlando. He never truly had the talent around him to win anything meaningful. But he also did not have the individual leadership ability to push his teammates to another level. Simmons spoke with his coach in Houston, Jeff Van Gundy, and in Orlando, Doc Rivers, and both reached the same conclusion about McGrady.

Here is Simmons:

But McGrady wasn't a natural leader. His personality never matched his talents, Morey believed, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. For his first three Houston seasons, it fell upon coach Jeff Van Gundy to supply that leadership — by default — and as Morey accurately points out, you never want your team drawing its entire personality and toughness from someone wearing a suit.

[. . .] "Either your best player has to cover up the non-strengths of the others," Van Gundy says now, "or the others have to cover up the non-strengths of the stars," and ideally, you'd want both things happening at once. The '99 Knicks would have done that for McGrady, and vice versa.

"Your best player has to set the tone, without question," Van Gundy explains. "If he doesn't do that, then it has to be the head coach. But it's better if the player has it. Tracy was never a leader, but he was a helluva basketball player. If you coached him or coached against him, you would have a much different view. McGrady made people better — he was a great, great passer. Wasn't a great shooter, but he was a great scorer, could guard, pass, was smart, rebounded. He could do everything. I mean, even Bryant came out and said some nice things … it's not like Kobe Bryant goes out and blows smoke up people's ass."

[. . .] "Tracy wasn't a leader at all," Doc says, "and unfortunately for him, he had to be. He was too young and suddenly it's like, 'This is your franchise.' That's a lot to ask. And we were always in a holding pattern because of Grant. We never knew when he was coming back."

That about sums it up for McGrady in his career. It also might explain some of the issues the Magic had as their championship run came to an end in 2010 and 2011.

In McGrady's final year, the Magic tried to force the leadership role on him. They let Darrell Armstrong go in free agency, taking away the team's heart in reality. They then stuck a 'C' on McGrady's jersey to re-inforce the issue.

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But that was not who McGrady was. He said at the time, he was not going to be a "rah-rah" leader but lead by example. McGrady that season did not have great teammates, but simply put in his work. The team floundered and McGrady floundered with them despite his gaudy numbers.

Simmons is absolutely right, McGrady's career turned out to be a sad tragedy. He had all the talent in the world and yet the bad luck time and time again to rob NBA fans from seeing it when it really mattered.

"We only had a couple of games of Grant, Tracy and Mike [Miller] playing together," Doc remembers now. "I kept feeling the whole time like we could be unguardable. And then we actually saw it. All three guys could handle the ball, pass and rebound. It would have been a nightmare matchup every night. At the time, I thought we could win the title with those three guys. I really did, I'm not just saying that. And then it was gone."

Magic fans got to see McGrady at his best and, in many ways, at his worst and unluckiest. Instead of seeing one of the all-time greats and making good on the promise of deep Playoff runs, the Magic were treated to individual greatness and mediocre teams.

There was no glory. Only the nostalgia and rosy dreams of a mixed legacy.

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily

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