Maybe Tracy McGrady can become the player he once was.
He merits praise for giving it a go months after undergoing the toughest surgery a professional basketball player can endure.
Sunday afternoon against his former team, he could not deliver when it mattered most.
His stat line against the Rockets— 15 points, seven rebounds, and five assists—was a reflection of his spectacular talents, not his readiness to perform at an elite level. He scored zero fourth quarter points.
McGrady lacked the explosiveness that had marked his game. He looked ginger and nonathletic when he drove to the rim. That he finished any shots at all inside without his usual lift was stunning.
Rick Adelman did not refuse to play the former All-Star his requested minutes because of a talent issue. The Rockets coach saw a fractured McGrady and decided that integrating him was not worth the effort, pain, or trouble.
McGrady opted to return two months before he and Adelman agreed he would do so. That alone hurt his standing in Houston. The All Star-less Rockets had become a selfless, all-out-hustle unit, with standout players doing things many stars would not do, such as take charges and dive for loose balls.
The two-time scoring champ’s fans insist he was mistreated. When he scored 23 in his debut with the New York Knicks, they cried foul. Why didn’t Adelman play him more than seven minutes a game? Couldn’t he have done this for the Rockets all along?
The answer— no, no, no— was there for anyone willing to accept it. Those wistful fans missed the point.
Many of McGrady’s defenders also thought Allen Iverson was still one of the game’s best players. Both me-first ballers own similar games and elicit similar reactions.
I cannot disagree with Adelman that McGrady can again be special. He was not going to be that this year.
His first step was slower than a tortoise, and his once jaw-dropping dunks became pedestrian drives or missed lay-ups.
With hard work, he might become T-Mac again, but he is not that player now.
McGrady’s shortcomings are obvious, even in Mike D’Antoni’s free flowing, fast break offense. The Knicks coach inserted McGrady into Sunday’s game midway through the fourth quarter, giving his project player a chance to play hero. With no legs or rhythm, he could not recapture the magic of his statistically sound first half.
He barreled into Rockets' defenders twice. They had been parked there waiting to take charges seemingly since the birth of Naismith. He was not clever nor deceptive.
Instead, McGrady was a predictable defensive liability.
He is a project, and even his staunchest fans should understand that. Amare Stoudemire returned to his old form in the season following his micro-fracture knee surgery. Kenyon Martin did it twice.
McGrady is not Stoudemire or Martin— yet.
The sooner his supporters stop pretending the above reality is an insult, the more they will understand why Adelman handled the situation the way he did.
Elite talents often need offenses built around them to be effective. Phil Jackson and Tex Winter’s triangle fits what Kobe Bryant does.
Anyone who thinks McGrady could also have hit six game winners (and top the 40-point plateau multiple times) with 30-plus minutes is delusional. Bryant, 31, remains a worthy No. 1 option.
McGrady, 30, needed something Adelman could not afford to give him to even sniff that level again.
Yes, the Rockets took off early, in part, because opposing coaches could not study reliable scouting reports. No one knew if Houston could assuage the absence of two All-Star performers.
Adelman’s squad surprised more than a few foes. There was also reason to believe the Rockets could make a playoff push with their new found underdog style, even after opponents adjusted.
With 13 games left, the postseason remains a mathematical possibility. As bad as the team has been defensively, and at times, offensively, it would have been worse with McGrady doing his nightly on-court workouts.
The Rockets may be loaded with unrefined players, but none of them require that Adelman scrap his entire offensive game plan.
GM Daryl Morey hopes Trevor Ariza and Aaron Brooks can grow into better decision-makers. Adelman already had enough on his plate as he was trying to get Ariza to take better shots and Brooks to learn the ways of a motion-based system.
He did not also need the headache McGrady would have caused.
D’Antoni’s Knicks were eliminated from the playoffs long ago. The seven-seconds-or-less coach can afford to showcase a non-explosive former All-Star. The team Donnie Walsh hopes LeBron James will save this summer needed some entertainment value to fill the seats at Madison Square Garden.
The squad that calls this basketball Mecca home secured its ninth straight losing season earlier this month (There’s a selling point for James and Dwyane Wade!).
The Knicks do not stand to gain much when they win. A losing record is a losing record. Walsh cannot expect free agents to overlook the embarrassing defeatist culture that has inhabited the Garden for the better part of a decade.
D’Antoni and Walsh did not bring McGrady aboard to help them win games. His $23 million expiring contract gives them more cap space to play with in July.
If he shows something in the process, the Knicks brass will consider it extra gravy.
Wins and losses still matter for the Rockets, even as their playoff hopes dwindle quicker than a crowd at an acapella concert featuring the Bee Gees and Bob Dylan.
Even if they fail to qualify for the postseason, Adelman will have learned a lot about his group. He now knows what Brooks, Ariza, Lowry, and Scola can do as fixtures sans Yao over 82 games.
McGrady would not have made the difference. The Rockets would still trail the Blazers by six or more games. They would still need Portland to free fall the way the New York Mets did a few baseball seasons ago.
He was given plenty of chances to play hero in Houston. He failed in too many pressure moments, and he burned a few bridges with teammates.
Injuries outside of his control played a role, but that excuse only goes so far. I’m not blasting the guy, and anyone who believes otherwise should remove those blinders.
You don’t drive with those on, do you? Such carelessness could cause an accident.
In his short time as a Rocket, Kevin Martin has established himself as an attacker. He gets to the rim with regularity, draws fouls, and unlike McGrady, makes most of his free throws.
Martin will never be the passer McGrady was, nor will he be as athletic going to the cup.
In the Rockets win last week over the Denver Nuggets, Martin earned 16 foul shots, a testament to how he has already changed the roster.
Jordan Hill has also acquitted himself nicely in the last week. His three baskets in a recent victory over the Memphis Grizzlies were all dunks.
He should consider the final 13 games an audition. The prize: a chance to backup Luis Scola or any other power forward Morey might bring to Houston.
Even Jared Jefferies has carved a niche as a limited minutes, rugged interior player.
Morey knew the roster would need Yao and at least one more impact defender inside to be great.
Sunday afternoon let him know something else, just as important.
With adrenaline on overdrive against the team that no longer wanted him, McGrady had a chance to make a statement.
He spoke loudly with his play and delivered a message to his former GM and coach.
The T-Mac of old might resurface in time, but he was not going to reclaim his star status this year.
The Knicks will wait for July 1 and hope that two max-contract free agents swoop in with capes to save them. McGrady could show enough before the season ends to warrant a second look.
For the right price, Walsh should welcome the return of a capable scorer who can sell tickets.
The Rockets will meet July 1 with less panic. Adelman knows he has a number of valuable pieces, enough that Morey can dangle two of them as enticing trade chips.
McGrady wanted to be the savior months before his body was ready to tackle the task. He was trying to save a patient with a collapsed lung from inside a burning building.
Yao will help the Rockets breathe easier than a hobbled McGrady ever could have.
The three-team trade that sent him to New York will be evaluated as each month passes. Success for the Knicks hinges on luring a max star to the Big Apple.
The Kings front office will need to put the right pieces around Tyreke Evans, Omri Casspi, and Carl Landry. The three-way battle to emerge as the deal's chief victor could last 12 rounds.
The first, for now, goes to the Rockets.