The End of an Enigma? Tracy McGrady's Career Begins to Dwindle

Gerard NarendranContributor IApril 16, 2008

32 ppg, 5 assists, and 7 rebounds a night during his most prominent statistical season. 62 points in one game versus the Washington Wizards. Top 3 in NBA history in both All Star and playoff scoring. And perhaps the zenith of his career, 13 points in 35 seconds.

Back spasms, feuding with coaches, poor work ethic early in his career, noted preferential treatment because of family ties to Vince Carter (the NBA's darling at the time). Lack of concentration & injury-prone. And lest we forget, 0 playoff series wins over the course of his career.

At his peak, Tracy McGrady looked ready to transcend the borders of his sport in a way few athletes ever do. His shoes were selling nationally. His effortless scoring made opponents question what he could do if he were trying. He has been compared to George Gervin and Magic Johnson. The Bulls were willing to trade Scottie Pippen for him before Jordan nixed the proposal. Upon being traded from Orlando, the GM that engineered the trade received death threats from an angered fan base. 

Simply put, T-Mac made the game look easy, and when he found the commitment within himself he was unstoppable. There was a time when he and Kobe vied for the scoring title, when he was the marquee match up on Christmas day against LeBron James, when Tracy McGrady was in consideration for most talented player in the league. Yet those two players are now forerunners in one of the greatest MVP debates of all time while McGrady looks ready for another first round exit.

I am a staunch believer that his playoff failures, which will indubitably define his career unless he can break through the barrier, should not be a mark of his success in the league. Other players have yet to win a playoff series, but none is as maligned as McGrady. Yet his teams were never the top seed in a playoff series and there was only one year that he realistically even had a shot at it. Yes, his teams have historically choked, giving up their stranglehold on opponents late in series, but this can be attributed to his supporting casts moreso than the Mac. A team relying on Bobby Sura, Jon Barry, and Ryan Bowen has a puncher's chance, but little more. Yet here we are again; a year after "it's all on me," McGrady again faces a postseason opponent (in fact the same as last year's) who is woefully favored.

Jeff Van Gundy has been furiously submitting McGrady's name into the MVP discussion following the Rocket's historic 22-game winning streak. And if the burden of 6 consecutive playoff failures is placed on McGrady's bad back, then logic would insist that Houston's success be intrinsically tied to their only star player still in the lineup. This is not the case however. While McGrady's abilities have opened up opportunities for the Rocket's, he is little more than a cog in their system. In fact, while the rest of the team's gears are oiled up and run together smoothely, McGrady has been the rusty wheel that barely keeps turning.

It is interesting that after famously butting heads with his coaches in Toronto and Orlando, his two coaches in Houston have been absolutely besotted by his talent, openly praising any and every little thing he does on the court. Yet it would seem that now more than ever his star status needs to be held in check and T-Mac needs to be held accountable for his play. On defense he is a nonentity; assigned to the weakest offensive player on the floor and routinely getting shook when caught in mismatches. This is a far cry from the player who used to go head-to-head with the opposition's biggest threats and actually used to shut them down. On offense while every play does go through him, McGrady has fallen back into his old habits of throwing up prayers while eschewing driving to the lane where he was the most threatening. Too often he dribbles, dribbles, and waits until there is nothing else to do but to hoist an ill-advised shot.

Unfortunately his team needs him more than ever with Yao out of the lineup, and McGrady's passing skills are formidable, and indeed perhaps his most beneficial asset to the team at this point. But the McGrady of old, the one who could electrify a building with his athletic forays to the hoop and ignite his team with inspired play is nowhere to be found. This Houston team relies on their rookies Luis Scola and Carl Landry for energy and their consummate professionals Shane Battier, Dikembe Mutumbo, and Chuck Hayes for hustle. While these players put their hearts out on the court every night, chasing the ball all over the court McGrady is often listlessly meandering around the three-point line, waiting for the ball to come his way. And it seems that while every once in a while McGrady puts together a stellar statistical performance, his effort is not really there. And even these shooting star nights are sandwiched by too many games where McGrady is nowhere to be found, not even the box score. In the big games this season, T-Mac has simply failed to bring it.

Critics all over seem to be mentioning the San Antonio Spurs old age and how their level of play, set to a gold standard over the last few years, has somewhat slipped. Their coach Greg Poppovich, however, would never let any player, not even one of his stars, play with as little tenacity, heart, and passion as McGrady is outputting at this stage of his career. In a must-win game, Don Nelson pulled his star Baron Davis for not performing at an adequate level. Coaches need to hold all their players accountable or else there is a fatal flaw in the team's hierarchy. But McGrady has always been different. In Orlando he ousted Doc Rivers who did not always see eye-to-eye with his main talent, and in Toronto when he was still coming up McGrady was embroiled in a bitter battle for playing time. Questions even arose whether he would have made it in the league if not for his cousin Vince Carter working behind the scenes. So why is it that no one these days seems to be holding McGrady responsible for his level of effort on the court these days?

The easiest answer would be the degradation of his physical abilities. While Kobe and LeBron have pushed their body's to the limit and become physical specimens as a result, McGrady, famous for his lack of work ethic in Toronto, has never shown the dedication that others have to pushing himself. His rap sheet of injuries is laborious; back spasms, knee injuries, and most recently a severely bruised shoulder that has noticeably affected his shot. Detractors will inevitably point out these problems have plagued him his whole career, but at this point it appears that all of these injuries have taken too great a physical toll. In other words, all the fiery passion and intensity that used to scare opponents as he soared towards the rim with his hands cocked behind his head is now being directed towards just suffering through the pain of playing. And perhaps his teammates and coaches recognize that, and do not hold it against him when they are battling against all odds to make the right play and he is zoning out near half-court.

But for someone who truly believed in the power of the Mac, who was just as infatuated as his coaches, and awestruck and amazed by his abilities, this dilapidated, broke-down version of McGrady is painful to watch. As recently as last year in the playoffs he was stellar, and the year before that against Dallas McGrady was a superstar in every sense of the word. Going back and watching highlights of what he used to be hurts because I see the stark contrast between the past and the present. He used to be mentioned in the same breath, and sometimes with more reverence, as Kobe, but today there is no comparison. The things he used to do with the ball were simply breathtaking, and there has been no player in the history of the NBA who made scoring look as easy as Tracy McGrday. Yet as the buzzer runs out another season, this appears to be the beginning of the end for one my favorite players. I cannot stand to watch him knowing that he is not going to be putting any effort out on the court. He may make an amazing play here or take over in crunch time there, but it is not the same. His passion for the game is gone, and nowadays taking over means more made jump shots rather than aggressive attacks and stifling defense. 

McGrady is a walking enigma, the poster child for the question 'What if?' As in what if his body did not betray him and he was healthy throughout his career? What if Grant Hill had stayed healthy and together they brought the Magic back to Orlando after Shaq left? What if earlier in his career he had been put in a position to succeed like Kobe, who has won just as many playoff series without Shaq as T-Mac has? What if Yao Ming had not gone down this season, perhaps McGrady's best chance at escaping his playoff doldrums? And what if someone instilled the heart of Allen Iverson into McGrady's lanky 6'8" frame? Would we still be talking about a six-time, and counting, playoff failure? Or would we be mentioning one of the greatest talents ever to grace the court?

Critics have always questioned his concentration and desire, sometimes rightfully so. But until now we have never had to wonder whether Tracy McGrady deserves the fan hood his talent garnered. Yet as his athleticism flees him and his lack of effort becomes more and more apparent, his charismatic style of play is no longer there, replaced by awkward movements on the court, hobbling, limping, and grimacing. As a fan, I personally hope McGrady lives up to his reputations of elevating his play in the postseason, and shows up against the Jazz with a newfound determination and intensity previously unseen this season. As an objective viewer, however, I begin to question whether the end of the Mac attack is drawing ever closer.