There was a time when Tracy McGrady was one of the most relevant players on the face of the planet. He was a bona fide star in the early part of this decade, during a period when the NBA was desperately seeking an identity.
Critics were claiming that the demise of the league was imminent, and television ratings were plummeting faster than George W. Bush’s popularity. Fans were quickly becoming disenfranchised with the style of play that dominated the league, epitomized by teams such as the San Antonio Spurs who appeared in the two lowest rated NBA Finals in league history.
It was during this time that McGrady stood apart as one of the few players who could restore a suffering league back to respectability, and usher in a new era of excitement and globalization.
It was in Orlando where McGrady began to separate himself from the rest of the league as a scoring phenom, and as a capable ambassador for the future of the NBA. In 2002-2003, he led the league in scoring, and did so in impressive fashion averaging 32.1 points per game.
This was the highest scoring average the NBA had seen since Michael Jordan was dropping 32.6 a night back in 1992 and McGrady became the youngest player to win the scoring title since the ABA/NBA merger. He would go on to win the scoring title again the following season.
Despite his personal achievements, the Magic failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs throughout his entire tenure in Orlando, bringing into question his capabilities as a leader.
In 2004, amidst questions surrounding his work ethic, McGrady was traded to the Houston Rockets along with Juwon Howard, Tyronn Lue, and Reece Gaines in exchange for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, and Kelvin Cato.
The trade paired the talented McGrady with the 7’6’’ phenom Yao Ming, and instantly made them one of the most feared one-two combos in the NBA.
In his first season with Houston, McGrady led the Rockets to a 51-31 record, and landed them the 5th seed in the playoffs. In the first round, against a tough Dallas Mavericks team, McGrady had a legendary performance averaging 30.7 ppg, 6.7 assists, and 7.4 rebounds.
Again, McGrady’s squad would come up short in the first round, and the Rockets were ultimately eliminated in game seven in a 40-point blowout. McGrady’s leadership qualities once again were called into question.
In retrospect, this loss actually had much more significance than just another first round exit. It signified the demise of a once promising career.
Since that 2004-2005 season, McGrady has been plagued by a profusion of injuries, ranging anywhere from back spasms to shoulder injuries, and most recently, a knee injury for which he had to undergo microfracture surgery to repair.
In fact, since that 40 point loss in Dallas, McGrady has only played in a total of 219 games, or about 55 games per season, and has seen his productivity steadily diminish every year. Interestingly enough, last year’s Rockets team was the only team he has ever been a part of that has advanced past the first round, and he didn’t appear in a single postseason game.
With the announcement of his intent to return to the Rockets within a few weeks, I am left to wonder how much McGrady has left in his tank. And, if his injuries continue to haunt him, what choice will he be left with except to retire?
If that happens, what will his legacy look like at that point? Will he be thought of as an elite talent, capable of scoring at will, or rather as an embodiment of what could have been?
Will he be remembered as a perennial All-Star, or as a one-dimensional player who could never get his team past the first round of the playoffs?
These are all questions that have no definitive answers. Your belief will surely vary depending upon your loyalties and your remembrances.
Regardless of your opinion, you cannot deny the impact McGrady had on a league desperate for excitement. His talent resonated with many NBA fans teetering between the lines of devotion and renouncement.
Even if he never plays another game, I cannot help but to respect him for his contributions to the game I love.