Let me start this off by saying that I was never a Kobe Bryant fan. I found him pompous, and other than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I don’t really do Los Angeles Lakers. And lastly, he directly ripped off his post-playing-career, award-winning “Musecage” idea from Bobby Boucher on The Waterboy.
I also know this is a Rockets site, and I’ve personally been a Rockets fan for almost 40 years now and have been writing about the team in some capacity since 2007. It feels a little sacrilege to be touting a Laker over a Houston Rockets star right here on TDS.
But those of you who have been reading me here for the last eight years (yikes, where does the time go), know how I also feel about Tracy McGrady. If you’re unfamiliar with my opinion, here goes: he’s often pretty dang overrated by Rockets fans and non-Rockets fans alike.
But recently, he made some comments about himself and his greatness (because of course he did, it’s the T-Mac way) to Patrick Beverley, saying:
“That was a conversation of who was the best players in the league. It was me and Kobe — of barbershop talk and around the league. Real hoopers, real basketball people know.”
I would actually make the exact opposite argument. That real basketball people do know, but they know that McGrady had multiple flaws in his approach to the game that kept him from the true greatness that players like Bryant achieved.
Now talent? That’s a whole nother can of worms. There’s no doubting that McGrady was one of the most talented guys to lace up some sneakers. But there’s a lot of supremely talented players in the NBA. It takes more than that to be up there with a five-time NBA Champion, regular season MVP and two-time Finals MVP.
Love him or hate him, Kobe is an All-Time Great, reasonably anywhere from 10-20 on an objective all-time list. McGrady, because of his lack of intangibles (and yes, injuries) isn’t even sniffing that.
I’m not here to talk about McGrady’s numbers or his talent. We know he put up big, relatively inefficient scoring numbers that didn’t lead to post-season success. We know what our eyes told us about his athletic ability (holy hell, he’s smooth).
I’m just here to remind everyone of some of the things that went down during McGrady’s tenure that has him a clear tier (or several) below All-Time Great. I’ve written about this before, so I’m going to borrow some old points from myself, but with this in the news cycle again, and it being slow season, it’s the perfect time to bring it back up.
First, McGrady was a well-known lazy practicer, and it was an issue for Jeff Van Gundy and notable to an incoming Daryl Morey when he took over as GM. This is from Slam Magazine in 2011:
“‘I just wasn’t a great practice player,’ McGrady said. ‘I just wasn’t. I wasn’t,’ speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston two weeks ago. Jeff Van Gundy, who coached McGrady with Houston from 2004-07, and current Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who traded McGrady in February 2010 to New York, both said McGrady’s tremendous ability led him to not always work hard.
McGrady doesn’t deny his talent affected how he played in practice . ‘That could be it,’ McGrady said. ‘I just think I could cruise through practice and still be effective. Some guys have to really go (all) out to really have an impact on practice. My ability was just I had God-given talent to where I could just cruise through practice and still be an effective practice player… I was inconsistent. Some days, I have really good (practice) days where I just go hard and a lot of days where like, ‘Uh,’ and I just go through the motions. But I work hard. But I’m just not the best practice player.’
McGrady’s contention is he worked hard individually, if not in practice, to become a star and someone who still could land in the Hall of Fame. But Van Gundy and Morey were critical of his overall work ethic.”
Can you imagine if McGrady had the same infamous off-court practice drive as Bryant? Merging that preternatural talent of his with the work ethic of the true guys at the tip-top? Now we’re talking All-Time Great. Instead, we’re just talking very good.
And that’s the issue here. What separates the very good from the All-Time Greats is the ability to take the god-given talent you’ve been gifted with and maximize it to its full potential. There’s a multitude of reasons this doesn’t happen for guys: injuries, bad luck, personal issues, etc... and you can definitely say McGrady caught the injury and bad luck bug. But you can add “lazy practicer” to that columnn too.
Could he have hung around a little longer after his athleticism was robbed by knee injuries had he been a better worker? Maybe, he was certainly talented enough to make his way as a spot-up shooter, but once his explosion was gone, that was it for him.
Another notable incident came from when the Rockets hired Rick Adelman in 2007. Adelman took note of McGrady’s lackadaisical approach and asked McGrady to take on a larger leadership role. McGrady declined. According to Grantland:
“After Morey fired Van Gundy before the 2007-08 season, new hire Rick Adelman was hoping McGrady would take on a bigger leadership role. Adelman was a more laid-back coach, Morey explains, someone who’d rather delegate to his players. So they met with McGrady to tell him that they needed his help.
What happened? McGrady politely turned them down. He just wasn’t wired that way, he told them.
“So who did everyone consider the team’s leader during your 22-game winning streak?” I asked Daryl.
“Probably Chuck Hayes,” Daryl said.
Again, these are the types of things that separate the tiers of players in all-time conversations. Olajuwon, Magic, Bird, Jordan, yes Bryant, Duncan, etc... these guys were all leaders of men. They certainly went about it in different ways, but they led nonetheless.
Let’s also go back and look at some of the things that were happening with McGrady that were being discussed right at this site. This was before my time, but the archives are my friend!
“Moody”, “lethargic” and “hurting the team” all appear in this piece from my predecessor Dave in 2009. McGrady essentially “took the ball and went home” in this one titled “Tracy McGrady, not exactly a team player.” If that’s not enough, he also sarcastically threw his teammates under the bus with the “It’s my fault” speech, still one of his more embarassing moments, in my opinion.
Not exactly the stuff All-Time Greats are made of when you combine it with his less-than-optimal practice approach, the black hole in his leadership capabilities and his playoff failures. Remember, the Rockets didn’t find postseason success until they were forced to lean on Yao Ming during McGrady’s extended absence in 2009.
Need any more confirmation? Anyone remember the tears episode, where T-Mac “broke down.” I always found that a little put-on and it seems even more disingenuous hearing him say, “I tried” when we now know — from his own admission, mind you — that he actually didn’t try his hardest in practice, which is one of the main places where titles are won.
Look, I appreciate T-Mac’s talent. I appreciate the excitement he brought to the franchise after the Steve Francis-Cuttino Mobley years didn’t materialize into much. Moments like 13 in 35 will be etched into my memory forever. For a whole slew of Rockets fans who came of NBA-age in the 2000s, he’ll be a hero, and I respect that immensely.
But as they say, there’s levels to this game, and as good as T-Mac was — and he was very, very good — putting him on a pedestal next to legitmate All-Time Greats with titles and MVPs and who were leaders of other grown men and made their teammates better on a daily basis is overlooking a big part of what makes the great ones great.