It's a testament to Tracy McGrady's enduring talent as a basketball player that this past spring, toward the end of McGrady's 16th (and, as it happens, final) season as a pro, the San Antonio Spurs had him play the role of LeBron James in practice before and during the 2013 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat.
Even more so that T-Mac's imitation was close enough to the real thing that the Spurs were able to stifle James for much of that series and nearly "steal" the championship as a result.
That ring would've been the first and only one of McGrady's fantastically frustrating career. He officially announced his retirement from the NBA on ESPN's First Take:
And later re-affirmed his decision on Twitter:
Even without the championship capper with the Spurs, the 2013 postseason was the most successful of which McGrady had ever been a part. For the first time, McGrady was an active player on a team that survived the first round of the playoffs.
Granted, "active" is somewhat deceptive here. He tallied all of eight rebounds, seven assists, two steals, three blocks and two turnovers in 31 minutes in the 2013 postseason. He joined the Spurs just before the conclusion of the regular season, after he'd finished flailing to a last-place finish in the Chinese Basketball League with the Qingdao Eagles.
What Was and What Will Never be
He'd come close to achieving a modicum of postseason satisfaction before then. In 2003, his eighth-seeded Orlando Magic took a 3-1 lead on the Detroit Pistons. At that point, McGrady infamously marveled at how good it felt to move on to the second round...even though the NBA had just switched first-round series to a best-of-seven format.
The Pistons went on to win in seven, winning the last three games by an average margin of 27 points.
Hypothetically speaking, McGrady should've snagged at least one playoff series with ease during his first 12 seasons. He spent two years alongside his cousin Vince Carter with the Toronto Raptors, who rose to relevance in 2001.
McGrady left Canada for sunnier, more familiar and, in many ways, more promising climes with the Orlando Magic. The summer of 2000 saw the Magic snag Grant Hill, then at the peak of his powers, from the Pistons and forced Tim Duncan to reconsider his future in San Antonio, in addition to luring McGrady from Toronto.
Duncan stuck with the Spurs, Hill's ankles gave out and McGrady was left to carry a middling, capped-out squad on his own for four years. He was supposed to have another shot at leading a juggernaut when the Houston Rockets acquired him during the 2004 offseason, but health concerns—both his own and Yao Ming's—once again derailed T-Mac's pursuit of a breakthrough.
A late-career hop around the NBA, from the New York Knicks to the Pistons to the Atlanta Hawks, merely punctuated the overarching theme of McGrady's career: opportunities lost to and talent drained by the crueler, less controllable forces of the game.
Not to mention the fruits of victory enjoyed by his teams immediately after his departure. The Raptors came within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals in their first post-T-Mac campaign, the Magic used the No. 1 pick gleaned from the lean 2003-04 season to draft Dwight Howard and the Rockets nearly upended the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers after McGrady and Yao were both knocked out in 2009.
Accentuate the Positive
But to focus on the glaring failures of T-Mac's career—the lack of postseason success, in particular—is to forget his greater impact on the game and the joy and inspiration that his prodigious talent brought to so many who watched and admired him. To obsess over the way in which his body betrayed him in Toronto, Orlando and Houston is to draw attention away from the masterful performances he put together with Vince Carter by his side, Grant Hill in street clothes and Yao shuffling between those two states of basketball being. To train our attention on how and why the shooting star burned out is to turn away from just how brightly it once burned.
And to dog T-Mac for his garbage-time role on the Spurs and his relegation to scout duty is to forget just how well he impersonated LeBron and, more importantly, that he didn't nail it by accident. If anything, T-Mac was LeBron before LeBron.
For years, he was the NBA's most imposing and most intimidating physical presence on the perimeter. He wasn't nearly as bulky as James came to be, but he was every bit as long, tall, quick and athletic as LeBron is, with a smooth style and an economy of motion that even Kevin Durant can't touch.
In essence, McGrady played precursor to the two premier players in the NBA today. His 2002-03 season provided the sort of raw statistical material from which legends are fashioned. That year, he led the league with 32.1 points per game while chipping in 6.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.7 steals.
At the age of 23, no less. LeBron's line at that age? Thirty points, eight boards and seven assists, with 1.8 steals.
Except LeBron didn't hit 38.6 percent of his threes like T-Mac did in '02-'03. That level of accuracy outshines Durant's career rate (37.3 percent), though KD's single-season bests (.422 in 2008-09, .387 in 2011-12 and .416 in 2012-13) still take the cake. Even so, as far as combining the best of both worlds in today's game, McGrady was way ahead of the curve.
And he appeared to be on track for even bigger and better things. The only other player to finish a campaign with a line of 32-6.5-5.5 like the one T-Mac posted in '02-03? Michael Jordan, in 1988-89 and 1989-90, per Basketball Reference.
His 2003-04 season (his last with the Magic) wasn't too shabby, either. Prior to leaving central Florida, McGrady poured in 28 points, six rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.4 steals, albeit while missing 15 games for an Orlando team that finished with the worst record in the league.
The point is, T-Mac was fantastic among a handful of the best players in basketball during those two years, just as he was for the lion's share of his NBA career. He was arguably the most versatile player in the game prior to LeBron's arrival—a scorer by nature who could pass and handle like a point guard, hit from the outside and drive to the hoop like a wing, crash the glass like a big man and defend multiple positions at a high level.
That is, when he was healthy, which wasn't often enough. McGrady dealt with back and knee problems throughout his career, dating back to his days in Toronto. Those problems proved to be his undoing in Houston after staying out of the picture, by and large, in Orlando.
Even then, he sustained his excellence long enough to be considered an important force in the history of basketball—one deserving of a spot in Springfield someday. Between 2001 and 2008, McGrady averaged a line of 26.3-6.4-5.5 in 38.7 minutes, with seven All-Star selections, seven All-NBA nods and a Most Improved Player award for good measure.
T-Mac was even better come playoff time. Over that aforementioned span, McGrady upped his averages to 29.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.5 combined blocks and steals in 42.6 minutes per game. Only two other players in NBA history can boast such sustained statistical excellence in the postseason between the ages of 21 and 30, per Basketball Reference: MJ and Oscar Robertson.
Of course, individual numbers don't tell the whole story, though T-Mac's point to a player of tremendous talent who was so often "on his own." Before bottoming out in New York, Detroit, Atlanta and San Antonio, McGrady had played concurrently with just two All-Stars in his career: Vince Carter and Yao Ming. Carter's first All-Star appearance came in T-Mac's last season with the Raptors. Yao, meanwhile, was voted into the All-Star Game during each of McGrady's five years in Houston, though the Chinese giant wasn't fit to play in 2007.
The Persistence of Memory
But, again, in looking back on the life and times of T-Mac, there's more value to be found in what he did accomplish than in what he didn't. At his peak, McGrady was many things: the youngest scoring champion since the NBA-ABA merger, arguably the most exciting player to watch, a clutch performer who once put the Spurs to bed with 13 points in 35 seconds.
He was a proto-LeBron and a proto-Durant all wrapped in one, a powerful wing with a feathery touch on the outside and a forceful determination on the interior. He was also an inspiration to countless youngsters who came up from basketball's grassroots during the 2000s. His jaw-dropping performances shaped the hearts, minds and skill sets of today's rising stars, including Indiana Pacers All-Star Paul George:
Pacers point guard George Hill:
Current Toronto Raptors swingman Rudy Gay:
And, of course, Kevin Durant:
Let's not forget, either, about the tributes T-Mac's retirement induced from long-time contemporaries, like Jamal Crawford:
And NBA legends, like Magic Johnson:
The fact that players across the spectrum—current and former, young and old, forgettable and great—expressed such gratitude toward and appreciation for McGrady speaks volumes of his impact on the NBA in particular and on the game of basketball in general. Years from now, we'll probably look back on LeBron and Durant as the two chief figures who embodied and strengthened the connection between the real-world paradigm of on-court greatness and the lofty ideal of the multipositional, multitalented superstar in the modern day.
But in that moment, we should also do our best to remember Tracy McGrady. We should think back fondly on the flashes of all-time talent he displayed in Orlando and Houston, the dominance from the wing that so few in NBA history have ever been able to establish.
We should remember that T-Mac, even on his final joyride through the Association, was the perfect choice to play the part of LeBron in practice not just because he knew how to mimic James' game, but rather because it was James who, in many ways, came to mimic his.