His career is reaching its conclusion. An afterthought on a championship-contending team, Tracy McGrady is enjoying his unique ride with the San Antonio Spurs, grateful for the opportunity but also saddened by limited chances to succeed during his prime.
McGrady was one of the game’s premier players, a graceful scorer, averaging at least 24.6 points for seven consecutive seasons before being derailed by knee and back issues. He lost a few steps, turned into a journeyman, and was plagued by the reputation of being a me-first player, which made his NBA stops shorter.
He soon ran out of choices and opted to play in China before the Spurs added him on April 16 after the Chinese Basketball Association season concluded. McGrady, who turned 34 two weeks ago, thought he would play 20 years when he entered the 1997 NBA draft out of Mount Zion Christian Academy. Instead, McGrady was a shell of himself by 28, injuries robbing his athleticism and humbling him.
“I know a lot of things have been said over my career that I am this or I am that, but [Spurs coach] Gregg Popovich is not going to bring anybody into his system or his team that’s a bad person or a bad teammate,” McGrady said. “So right there just let me know all the [expletive] I’ve been hearing about him can’t possibly be true if this guy’s bringing me into his family. It was a very transparent conversation between the two of us. It was a mutual agreement and I told him I want to be a part of it.”
McGrady has been the most entertaining and candid player during the NBA Finals. He has held court, reflecting on his career, the NBA, and his legacy, and his opinions are thought-provoking. McGrady said he will seriously consider retirement if the Spurs prevail over the Miami Heat.
“To win a championship, if that was to happen, I don’t see what other reason for me to come back,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got a lot of game left. I can’t come back and settle, man. I can’t do that. I can’t settle.”
What has haunted McGrady during his career is a lack of a supporting cast on his teams. He asked out of Toronto as a 20-year-old because he was overshadowed by cousin Vince Carter. He was traded to Orlando in 2000, and was supposed to team with Grant Hill and Tim Duncan, but Hill suffered career-threatening ankle injuries with the Magic, while Duncan decided to re-sign with San Antonio.
In Houston he played with a hobbling Yao Ming and then became hobbled himself.
“My career has a lot of what-ifs around it,” McGrady said. “What if Grant Hill was healthy and what if Yao and Tracy were healthy? It’s the story of my career, man. I was getting on Timmy [Duncan] yesterday about this on the [team] bus because he was supposed to sign [with Orlando]. Hey man, it didn’t work out for me the way I wanted it to, and for Grant as well. We both had unbelievable careers until our injuries. That’s what this league is really based on. If you can stay injury free, especially if you are a great player, you can do great things in this league, and I wasn’t able to do that.”
Always a confident player, McGrady said he had considerable doubts about whether he could continue his career after microfracture knee surgery four years ago. That surgery caused him to miss 47 games in 2008-09, including the playoffs. In the Western Conference semifinals, McGrady’s Rockets were eliminated by the eventual champion Lakers in seven games.
“There were some dark days and dark nights; there was a dark cloud hanging over me,” said McGrady, who has yet to score while seeing 17 total minutes in four postseason games. “I was in a depression stage in my career, wondering why this is happening to me. For so long I played well in this league and made a name for myself. Individually, playoff success was great for me — as far as a team aspect it wasn’t so great for me. And the time I felt like I had a team to excel in the playoffs I was hurt. To sit in Chicago with my leg up in a machine that I had to keep in for eight hours a day and my team is advancing to the second round, that hurt. That really hurt me.”
A touchy subject for McGrady is his lone season with the Atlanta Hawks in 2011-12, when he averaged 5.3 points in 52 games. He claims the Hawks denied him playing time in favor of higher-paid players.
“That was a real dicey situation because I felt like I could have been more of a contributor than I was,” he said. “But when I played well, they didn’t play me as much. That’s when I think the old politics, and this guy is making $5 million and you’re making the veteran minimum, that was messing with my head a little bit. I didn’t take kindly to that. I am most certain it came into play when I was with that team.”
Small-market teams get shot
In as much as commissioner David Stern preaches parity, the league desires sexy championship matchups. San Antonio vs. New Jersey and the Los Angeles Lakers vs. Indiana just didn’t attract the type of interest the NBA seeks with its Finals.
Yet with the new collective bargaining agreement and the rise of young stars for small- and medium-market teams, the possibility of two nontraditional powers facing off on the brightest stage is growing exponentially. If Memphis had figured out how to handle the Spurs, and Indiana eked out Game 7 with Miami, the Grizzlies and Pacers would have been a rugged but rather unsightly championship matchup.
So, how does the league feel about such a possibility? Of course, the NBA would love for its fans to have the same ambivalence about its elite teams as NFL fans, who watched the Steelers-Cardinals Super Bowl with the same attention as Patriots-Giants.
“Everything that we have done in terms of collective bargaining is designed to level the playing field and allow teams that are well managed, no matter what their market size, to be in the Finals actually speaks against the conclusion that has been pushed by the media,” Stern said last week. “We are delighted that teams in the lower half of the league . . . have the opportunity to compete for a championship. And I think here we are this year probably having moved it a little bit further along where the event will define the teams rather than the teams defining the event. This is the NBA Finals. The best example of that, of course, is the NFL. You’re in the Super Bowl, it doesn’t matter who is in the Super Bowl.”
Stern, as he has done consistently during his tenure, loves to blame the media for accusing the NBA of only wanting certain teams in the Finals. He still hears how he encouraged officials to call a game in favor of the Lakers when the Sacramento Kings were one win away from the Finals in 2002.
“We love the fact that we’re here with Miami and San Antonio. If it were Memphis and Indiana, and they had fought their way through to be in the championship, that would be great, too,” said Stern. “It would be great on a global basis, we have no doubt. Well, they need to do the kind of promotion. They need to get the people that work for them to stop asking questions like that, and really just promote it. We’ll promote it. That’s what we’ll do. And you’ll see it. It will take care of itself.
“The whole small-market thing is this is a league that prides itself on Oklahoma City, Memphis, Salt Lake City, Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento, Indianapolis, on and on and on. Those are the cities that make it into our league. And if they’re good and they’ve got a young Bill Walton, they’ll do all right. That’s the way it works.”
Of course, as long as Miami, Boston, and the Lakers are making title runs, he won’t have to worry about the problem of a small-market Finals.
SIMPLY THE BEST
Barry’s vote goes to James
NBA legend Rick Barry talked to this column for nearly an hour two weeks ago, and his opinions are so pointed and interesting, we decided to spread them over two weeks.
Barry on LeBron James: “He’s the greatest small forward ever to play the game. He’s a 3 who could play a 2 or 1. The guy’s unbelievable. When I saw him in high school I said, ‘Oh, my God, is this kid going to be great.’ He has what the great players have, which is a natural feel for the game. He sees things that most people don’t see. That separates you. I can teach you how to pass but I can’t teach you how to see. LeBron sees the court, recognizes things, makes unbelievable passes, is an unselfish player, has incredible physical talent, is powerful.
“The scary thing is he can get better. And I am talking about a lot better because he’s not yet at the point where he needs to be with his free throw shooting. That area alone would take him to another dimension.”
Van Gundy gives his take
The always entertaining Jeff Van Gundy offered his thoughts about the NBA and the ever-changing coaching climate. Lofty expectations claimed yet another victim last week when George Karl was fired by the Denver Nuggets. Van Gundy, who has coached the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, has been linked to several openings but maintains he enjoys his analyst job with ABC and ESPN.
The Brooklyn Nets are quite interested in Indiana assistant coach Brian Shaw, and Van Gundy said it’s an intriguing situation.
“Well, I think they maximized their roster very well last year. I thought the only down part of the year was when Brook Lopez was injured earlier in the year. Unfortunately for Avery Johnson, who I think is an outstanding coach, that little downturn cost him his job,” Van Gundy said. “And having been a coach, I know how difficult that situation is, and I thought P.J. Carlesimo and his staff did a really good job, a fantastic job, in guiding them to 49 wins.”
Van Gundy talked as if he is not a candidate for the position. “As far as what coach they have, obviously they have an ownership that wants to win badly. To me, that’s where it starts,” he said. “They put the resources into winning. I think they need some other components to add to their roster to give them a chance to move up into that championship-caliber team category, and I think they are going to get a really good coach, because it’s a really good situation.
“But it all starts with the players. You can change coaches, but if you want different results, then there has to be more change than just the coach. There’s got to be roster manipulation or tweaks or, if you don’t have that, then what are their present-day players willing to do differently to get even better results.”
The biggest question for the new Brooklyn coach will be how to deal with star guard Deron Williams, who is quickly gaining the reputation as a coach chaser, with Jerry Sloan, Johnson, and Carlesimo all having lost their jobs with Williams leading the team. Van Gundy disagrees with that assertion.
“I saw Deron Williams, particularly in the second half of the season, play with the energy and the intensity that NBA fans had grown accustomed to seeing. He’s a hard-playing, highly skilled person,” Van Gundy said. “Now, everybody leads differently, and unless you’re there every day, I wouldn’t know if he’s a vocal leader or if he’s a little bit quieter. But what I do know resonates with all players is not as much what is said, but what is done.
“And to me, everybody I’ve ever talked to said Deron Williams was very good in practice. He practiced every day, he practiced hard, and you see that in the games, as well. So, I think he’s a very good leader. And the final point on that is often times it’s not as much about how someone leads as much as it is who they are leading. If you have the right guys that want to be led and want to be pulling the rope in the same direction.”
The Celtics continue to work out players that could make their summer league squad, as they will evaluate University of Detroit forward Nick Minnerath on Thursday. Minnerath averaged 14.6 points and 5.9 rebounds for the Titans. He is a native of Truro, Mass., and attended Nauset High School but didn’t get serious about basketball until attending Jackson (Mich.) Community College . . . Not only do the Toronto Raptors want to change their image and reputation in Canada, they are also looking to shed their nickname and perhaps change it to something more synonymous with Canadian culture. The club hired Masai Ujiri as general manager and he will work with former GM Bryan Colangelo to rebuild the franchise. According to NBA sources, Dwane Casey’s coaching position appears safe for next season, but the Raptors need to improve considerably for him to remain coach . . . The Charlotte Bobcats are looking to make a splash this summer and are open to trading their first-round pick in a package for an All-Star-caliber player. There are rumors the Heat will be looking to deal Chris Bosh, and the Bobcats, who are under the salary cap and could accept Bosh’s near-maximum deal, could be a prime candidate. As much as Charlotte would love to build through the draft, team officials understand they have to start winning and need a player to be the face of the franchise. Bosh could serve that purpose . . . With the Sacramento Kings cleaning out their coaching staff, former Celtics assistant Clifford Ray is looking for employment once again. Ray is considered one of the league’s best at working with big men and could be a good addition to a coaching staff with young centers . . . Despite still recovering from knee surgery, Rajon Rondo will conduct his basketball camp for kids in July in his hometown of Louisville.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.