Tracy McGrady and Lebron: Closer than you might think
Published: Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Updated: Thursday, December 12, 2013 20:12
Tracy McGrady has received his share of criticism throughout his career, some of it warranted most of it maybe not. He’s been labeled a loser for being incapable of exiting the first round (until this last year as a bench warmer with the Spurs), a poor team mate and lazy, none of which is substantiated and most of which is basically false. As we’ve been further separated from his prime by time, and now his retirement, it’s harder to get a handle on just how good he was.
So if much of the narrative of his career is a fabrication, than exactly how good was he? Well there is an argument to be had that he had the best single season as a perimeter player since Michael Jordan. Yes, that does include Kobe, Wade, Iverson, and all the other great perimeter scorers of the last decade and a half, but I’m going to focus on the comparison with Lebron James since he’s currently the top dog and just had his best season.
So what exactly makes TMac so great? Well, what sticks out the most is his scoring prowess. In 2003 he scored 32 points a game, and generally did it in dramatic fashion. While I’m not giving him points for how aesthetic his game was, his smooth pull-up three point jumpers are something I haven’t seen replicated on a consistent basis. Lebron is a great scorer too; arguably the best in the league at this moment, but the volume of his scoring and his skill aren’t quite of the same caliber. He relies on the fact that he’s as athletic as your average cyborg from a thousand years in the future to get a lot of his points. McGrady was an amazing athlete too, but no one really stacks up to Lebron in that field.
Lebron is superior in most other categories, but generally not by large margins. Lebron at his best averaged about eight rebounds, and so did McGrady at one point until he had to focus on his scoring. They’re both some of the best passers ever at the small forward position, but Lebron is better. McGrady showed great promise defensively when he was young, (He averaged nearly two blocks a game in his last season at Toronto) but once again as he was forced to carry a larger scoring burden, he let that part of his game slip a little. Lebron has proven to be one of the elite defensive players in the league right now.
So by this standard, the comparison probably isn’t looking too close right now unless you really value the scoring that TMac brings. However, I think there is something more that McGrady brings to the table. Despite the general narrative of him being a loser, he pretty consistently stepped his game up statistically in the playoffs, and that’s much more uncommon than you might think. If you compare his regular season scoring to his playoff scoring from 2000 to 2008 he scored more in the playoffs by a margin of 28.5 to 24.9 points a game. Lebron, on the other hand has often not looked quite his dominant self in the playoffs. There are exceptions to that statement of course, some of which are spectacular exceptions, but generalizations will have to do in this context.
So at this point you might be asking if Tracy McGrady was so great, why is it he’s never won squat? Well, that’s actually pretty easy to answer. He had some comically awful teams. The best example would be his best season, when he played with the 2003 Orlando Magic. This was a season in which his best teammate, Mike Miller, who was good but hardly worthy of being a second option, was traded halfway through. The next best player, Grant Hill, played a total of 29 games in which they had a worse record than without him, and the team ended the season with a total of 21 different starting lineups because of trades and injuries. Despite all this, McGrady brought them to a winning record, and forced the conference finalists, the Pistons, (who would go on to win the title next year) to a seven game series in the first round. While most of his teams weren’t that bad, none of them were championship caliber, especially considering he quickly declined after leaving Orlando for Houston.
I’m not saying McGrady has had a better career as a whole than Lebron. I don’t believe that. What I’m saying is that there is a case that McGrady, at his best, was just as good as or better than Lebron, at his best. However, I’ll leave the final conclusion up to the reader.