The Lost Season: Tracy McGrady, 02-03

Photo by B_Olsen from Flickr

With the threat of a shortened or even cancelled season upon us, there is very little we can do to restore a shred of basketball into our lives. What we can do, though, is reminisce over other “lost” seasons. Seasons which saw players or teams achieve extraordinary things that go beyond titles or awards, only to fade back into the background one year later. Here we will bring the tale of these lost seasons, the ones that touched us on a personal level, the ones we will never forget, though history itself might.

Previously on The Lost Season: Boris Diaw, 05-06, Bobby Simmons, 04-05, Seattle Supersonics, 04-05 and Spencer Haywood 69-70. 

This edition focuses on Tracy McGrady’s remarkable 2002-2003 campaign with The Orlando Magic. 

There’s something incredibly damning about potential. Players are doomed to be compared to versions of themselves that exist entirely in the hypothetical realm — versions that may or may not have been readily attainable. If an individual doesn’t squeeze every last ounce of performance out of his basketball ability he’s labeled as lazy, not committed enough, a loser. Tracy McGrady has at one point or another been hit with all of the above. In the eyes of many, T-Mac committed the unforgivable crime of wasting his talent. His practice habits have been called into question and his lack of playoff and team success are an easy target for those who wish to diminish McGrady’s accomplishments as a player.

What gets lost in the shuffle is that in the 2002-2003 season, before his back, shoulder, and knees hindered his incredible athleticism, McGrady gave basketball fans exactly what they wanted: a transcendent season of basketball.

Flying Solo

This wasn’t what McGrady had envisioned. When he was acquired in a sign-and-trade from Toronto, he was supposed to be joining as part of a two-headed attack. McGrady and Grant Hill had a chance at being one of the all time great wing pairings. Unfortunately, Hill’s ankles had other plans. In McGrady’s first season with the Magic, Hill played four games. In their second season together, Hill faired only slightly better (again limited by injuries), appearing in just 14 games.

At the start of the 02-03 season, there was a bubbling optimism surrounding the team. It appeared Grant was going to be healthy and the world was finally going to get a glimpse at the Hill-McGrady combo. Alas, Hill’s season would end after 29 games and leave McGrady to once again carry what can only be described as an abysmal supporting cast. A twice washed up and pastry-filled Shawn Kemp started 54 of the team’s games, posting an 11.7 PER and 0.059 WS/48. Jacques Vaughn, the team’s starting point guard for most of the year, could neither shoot (23.5% from behind the arc) nor create for his teammates (2.9 Ast/gm).  The Magic’s only other legitimate player, Mike Miller, was traded for Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek (a supposed three-point specialist who shot below 35% from deep). McGrady was alone, forced to carry a beleaguered squad upon his back.

A Peek at Greatness

Great art often comes from the most dark and desperate of places. Struggle and vulnerability often brings out the best in an artist’s creative sensibility. For Tracy McGrady, it was no different. He was trapped, faced with a nearly impossible situation. Instead of wilting, giving into overwhelming odds, McGrady gave us his masterpiece.

Every single night McGrady was the head of what was essentially a one-man offense, carrying the Magic to a 42-40 record. He finished the season averaging 32 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists, shooting 45.7% from the field, 79.3% from the line, and 38.6% from behind the arc, translating to a TS% of 56.2 (In comparison, Kevin Durant has shot 35.0% and 36.5% from 3-point range during the last two seasons). He assisted on an estimated 30% of teammates baskets while on the floor and posted a WS/48 (0.262) and WARP (23.5) that were better than any other MVP candidate from that year (Thanks to Eddy Rivera’s awesome piece over at MagicBasketball). Furthermore, McGrady’s 30+ PER (30.3) placed him in a club the includes only Michael Jordan, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, Dwyane Wade, David Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal. Using PER (which is by no means a perfect metric) as a determinant,  McGrady put together the 14th most efficient season in NBA history.

As I scoured YouTube for footage to help me remember just how incredible McGrady was, I came across this video of his showdown with Kobe Bryant. During the fourth quarter, after Kobe hits a ridiculous jumper over McGrady (2:40 mark of the video), Bill Walton poses an interesting question, “At what point do we start talking about [Bryant and McGrady] in the same sentence and thought with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson?”. Knowing what we know now, the comparison (at least in McGrady’s case) seems somewhat absurd. But the question captures the promise and possibility that still existed in McGrady’s career. He was only 23 years old; in the midst of one of the greatest individual campaigns in NBA history. It was a small taste. A little preview, and the beginning of things to come.

Graceful Dominance

McGrady’s ability to completely own the offensive side of the floor was unlike anything before or since. He didn’t have the psychotic persistence of Jordan and Kobe, nor the strength and force to overwhelm the opposition like Shaq or LeBron. McGrady was the basketball natural, possessing incredible length and athleticism that combined with the smoothest of jump shots and a deft handle.  He had a Pandora’s box of offensive skills, and a subdued, almost somber approach to the game. McGrady would catch the ball at the wing and hold the ball away from the defender with one hand, relaxed, patiently waiting for the right moment to strike. Everything was elegant, effortless, and seemingly lazy. Every languid, agile, move towards the basket, every jump shot released without any concern for the outstretched arm below, every cross court pass that found an open shooter. His sleepy-eyed look reminded the opposition that the game came easy to him.

He was born to score; born to glide from one side of the key to the other, finishing Dr. J-esque layups with relative easy. There was something poetic about McGrady’s play. He didn’t dominate because he was forced to, or because he needed to prove something. He did it because it was in his DNA; a part of his existence. A basketball prodigy, intrinsically in harmony with the game around him.

 The Underdog Chokes

Through nothing short of a herculean effort by McGrady, the Magic were able to finish with a 42-40 record. This netted them the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and a matchup with the Detroit Pistons. It was supposed to be a quick series. Maybe Orlando would grab one at home, but that would be all. Unfortunately for Detroit, T-Mac had other plans:

McGrady excoriated the Pistons on their home floor. It was a never-ending onslaught of contested jumpers and unbelievable finishes. When the dust settled, McGrady had 43 points, including an absolute obliteration of Mehmet Okur. He finished a reverse layup that was characteristically smooth and equally absurd, combined with a stretch in the second half in which McGrady scored 12 consecutive points. The Pistons were completely overwhelmed; incapable of pushing back. Every concerted defensive effort was stifled by the lanky, lethargic swingman. After the game, Rick Carlisle praised McGrady’s performance, calling him “arguably the best player on the planet”.

The Magic would drop Game 2 (despite T-Mac putting on an even better performance: 46 pts on 61.5% shooting) and then shockingly win both games at home to take a commanding 3-1 lead. After game 4, McGrady would unknowingly utter the words that would come to define him. A sentence that would live on in infamy, forever haunting his place in history. “It feels good  to finally be in the second round.” What happened next is well-documented. The Pistons, with the help of some incredible defense by their unheralded rookie Tayshaun Prince, would lock down both McGrady and the Magic; winning the next three games by an average of more than 20 points. Instead of the Pistons, it was McGrady who had “choked”. His momentary slip-up, a brief display of arrogance, had invited an avalanche of criticism. Suddenly, we were blaming McGrady for failing to achieve the impossible.

The 2002-2003 season serves as the epitome of Tracy McGrady’s career.  We saw the power and elegance that emanated from a unique set of athletic gifts and basketball skills, witnessed a single player nearly pull of an improbable upset, and became exposed to the pain and confusion that would follow McGrady throughout his career. It was his entire basketball existence encapsulated in 89 games. The breathtaking brilliance, the thwarted will, the lack of effort(real or perceived) ,the near triumph, and the crushing defeat.

Be it luck, fate, poor decision-making or some perverse combination of the three, Tracy McGrady’s career didn’t play out the way it was supposed to. There were too many first-round exits. Too many lackluster supporting casts. Too many times he was asked to carry an exceedingly heavy burden. The frustration only compounded by his own failures and shortcomings during the latter end of his tenure with Houston. His body was ravaged with injuries, robbed of its once awe-inspiring athleticism. His mind and spirit weary from the seemingly endless stream of loss. The same game he was engineered by the gods to play, the game he dominated with ease, the game he loved so much had ultimately betrayed him. A greatness likely to be dismissed if not all together forgotten. His entire career a cruel exercise in futility.

Scott Leedy

Scott Leedy is a Junior at The University of Oregon studying Political Science and Pre-Med. Above all else Scott loves Tracy McGrady and has made it his life goal to ensure that no one ever forgets his greatness. You can follow Scott on twitter: @ScottLeedy.