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Tracy McGrady could save the Pistons season

Although it’s not the only thing we do around here, Dan Feldman and I generally try and use both traditional and advanced statistics (and graphs, in Feldman’s case) when we do any type of analysis.

This isn’t one of those posts.

There is a sound statistical case, based on the fact that Tracy McGrady is second on the Pistons in the Wins Produced behind Ben Wallace (if you’d like to learn more on Wins Produced as the stat relates to the Pistons, check out Ben Gulker’s blog), that McGrady should play more.

But stats aside, I just feel better about the Pistons when McGrady is in the game. I watch more closely. I expect more exciting plays to happen. I expect the pace to be slightly faster. I expect the ball to move more freely.

I’ve made no secrets about that fact that I’ve been a longtime fan of McGrady. The rational side of me knows that there’s no possible way that someone who has dealt with the serious chronic injuries he has can be anywhere near the same player he was in the past. But then McGrady goes out and does things like score 16 points (5-for-9 shooting), with 6 rebounds, 3 assists (one turnover), a steal and a block in 25 minutes and I admittedly get some irrational thoughts popping into my head.

Like, what if McGrady can still be the best player on a good team? Or even the second best player, which would be a major accomplishment considering his age and the nature of his injuries?

McGrady was terrific against Atlanta, and he’s steadily improved all season. The best part about his game is that although he often dominates the ball on offense, he doesn’t do it in a ball-stopping way that a certain unnamed facilitator of the offense does (cough * Tayshaun Prince * cough). He orchestrates things. He finds cutters. He’s a willing passer. He commands the attention of the defense. He sets up good shots for teammates. And the Pistons just look better when he’s out there.

The Pistons have been careful with McGrady, bringing him along slowly, understandably so. But it’s getting to the point where he needs to be unleashed. They need to find out what they have, and I don’t just mean give him minutes to see if he can build some trade value. I mean give him minutes to figure out if he’s worth a two year deal (not for huge money, of course, and contingent on the fact that some other wing players are traded) as a potential starter next season.

It’s weird to advocate an expanded role for him coming off of a game against Atlanta when Rip Hamilton played well and Prince was efficient. But even at their max, we’ve seen what the Pistons are capable of with Hamilton and Prince as their primary options. The ceiling for that team is low.

It’s possible the ceiling for a McGrady-led team is just as low, if not lower. But there’s also the possibility, however remote, that McGrady really is working his way back to being a productive and dynamic NBA starter. The Pistons gave McGrady a minimum deal because really, there was no risk. He’s already been a value with his production in limited minutes. Now it’s time to figure out if there’s a reward for signing him by playing him in a primary role as long as his body holds up.

Of course trading him in the right deal is always a possibility, but a healthy McGrady offers other options as well. Unlike Prince and Hamilton, fans will pay to come out and watch a healthy McGrady even if the team isn’t good. As we saw by the sparse crowd against Atlanta, no one is going to pay to come and watch a bad team with Prince and Hamilton as its faces.

McGrady also offers a redemptive presence for Joe Dumars. Dumars’ series of not good moves over the past few years have been well-documented. Seeing a low risk signing like McGrady pay off with big production would not change the other questionable moves he’s made, but it would certainly be a good bit of karma for a GM who has seen his once sterling reputation as one of the league’s best slowly erode.

This post is probably entirely premature. McGrady has yet to show that he can handle a consistent heavy workload (and by heavy, I mean 25-30 minutes a night, which isn’t exactly Kevin Durant minutes). But the Pistons beat a good team last night and had a dynamic fourth quarter to put the game out of reach, something they have not done much this season, with McGrady as the key player on the floor at the center of that success. At some point, if he keeps playing this way, he’s going to want and deserve to be more than a role player off the bench.

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