In defense of Tracy McGrady

By now, most people have read the critical comments about Tracy McGrady‘s practice habits made by his former coach, Jeff Van Gundy, and former GM, Daryl Morey, at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last weekend.

For those who haven’t, here they are, as reported by SI’s Zach Lowe.

Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author, is moderating the first panel, which is about the notion, developed by experts who study talent and discussed in Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” that anyone interested in being truly great at something has to practice for at least 10,000 hours to reach an elite level of greatness. The point of the panel, which features Jeff Van Gundy and Houston Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey, is ostensibly to talk about things like the concept of “natural talent,” the importance of work ethic and how to weigh those variables in the draft and in free agency.

Perhaps it was inevitable with the heavy Rockets flavor on the panel, but the discussion quickly to turned to Tracy McGrady — in an unfavorable way. “Tracy McGrady was 1,000 hours of practice,” Van Gundy said, to some pretty loud laughs. “He should be a Hall of Fame player. His talent was other-worldly. He was given a great leg up in the race against other players. He’s as close as I’ve ever seen to someone with a perfect body and a good mind.”

And here’s Morey on T-Mac:

“McGrady was the most gifted player I’ve ever had on the roster. I do think [his talent] got in the way of Tracy’s development. Much of the game was so, so easy — and you see this in the AAU level, where they have freakishly talented players. When it’s that easy to dominate at that young age, because of your physical tools — his wing span was freakish, his size was enormous, his IQ. But my sense was that all of that did get in the way of Tracy reaching his highest heights.”

And JVG one more time for good measure:

“I like a lot of things about Tracy McGrady. I just wish I could have changed his practice habits and his mentality.”

Those guys worked with McGrady for several seasons and were around him up close, so there’s certainly some merit to what they say. But there’s also some merit to saying that, other than the fragile Yao Ming, the Rockets never assembled a particularly great team around McGrady. There’s plenty of blame to go around for what happened during McGrady’s tenure in Houston, but it’s not as easy as simply saying, "well, the star player didn’t work hard enough." McGrady was a top-three player in the league for several seasons, and the toll of dragging some terrible teams, particularly in Orlando, to modest success impacted his body and ability to stay healthy.

I think the basis of what Van Gundy and Morey were arguing is that, for all his immense physical talents, McGrady never seemed to love and be obsessed with the game in the way that elite, transcendent talents (and McGrady certainly had the skillset to be one of the greatest ever) are.

But you know what? That’s OK. McGrady will still go down as a fantastic player, an MVP-level player at his peak, one of the most popular players of his era and a multiple-time All-Star. He’ll be a fringe Hall of Fame candidate, depending on how much longer he plays and the level of production he sustains.

I’ve made no secret writing for this site that I like McGrady. I actually respect the fact that he doesn’t seem outwardly basketball obsessed, it makes him more interesting. Yes, Kobe Bryant might spend significantly more time in the gym because he’s the Single White Female version of Jordan, and getting rings drives him. That obsession has no doubt made Bryant a more successful player and helped his teams win championships. But while Bryant is winning titles, McGrady is raising awareness about the genocide in Darfur. It boils down to this: what is more honorable bigger picture? Being a legendary basketball player or being a great humanitarian? Is Bill Russell looked at as the most noble figure in the game’s history simply because he won titles? Or is it because he became a leading voice on civil rights, education and other issues that transcended basketball?

The "McGrady doesn’t love the game" meme is a tired one. If he didn’t love the game, he wouldn’t, at age 30 after making millions of dollars, achieving significant stardom and personal accolades, have signed a make-good veteran’s minimum deal with a lousy team in the offseason to try and revive his career. If he didn’t love the game he wouldn’t have gone through the painful rehabilitation process to come back from injuries that have ended the careers of much younger men. He wouldn’t have willingly reinvented his game into a complimentary role player, becoming the lone unselfish player the Pistons put on the court at times this season. McGrady said as much to Vincent Goodwill:

"I worked my ass off and if people don’t believe that, after all the injuries and things I’ve been through, they’re crazy."

McGrady isn’t perfect. Now that he’s been removed from the Pistons rotation, he’s been vocal about his displeasure with that move. He never seemed entirely comfortable with the primary option role his immense talents suggested he should have. But the public questioning of his character as a basketball player by Morey and Van Gundy seems wrong. After all, if the Rockets didn’t win enough games with a talent like McGrady (and Yao), isn’t that at least partially on Morey for not putting pieces around those two that worked? If Van Gundy didn’t believe McGrady practiced hard enough, isn’t that partially on Van Gundy for not getting his message about the importance of better work habits through more clearly?

What makes the NBA great is the fact that it’s a league full of really different people. I enjoy the fact that McGrady devotes time to causes outside of basketball or that Dikembe Mutombo was building hospitals during his playing career or that Steve Nash wore shoes made out of trash or even the fact that LeBron James seems equally interested in being the next Snooki as the next Jordan. Whether you get behind the causes or not, I’d much rather see players who are well-rounded people, who are not afraid to pursue random things outside of basketball that inspire them.

Van Gundy and Morey think McGrady could’ve been one of the best ever, and he won’t live up to that level. But so what? McGrady has had a fantastic career and achieved the means to do positive things in the world. There’s nothing wrong with the obsessive drives to win titles of players like Isiah, Jordan or Bryant. But there’s also nothing wrong with talented basketball players who love the game, but love other things as well.

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