It's official. In yet another victory in Joe Dumar's* battle to recreate all-star teams from the early aughts, he has signed none other than Tracy McGrady to a one year deal at the veteran's minimum.
This signing is intriguing, largely because the (modest) median expectation is not the likely result. Here's what we know about T-Mac.
-In 2003, at the age of 23, he was the best player in basketball. That year, he led the league in scoring, player efficiency rating, and wp48.
-He has failed to even approach this level of effectiveness in the years since. His propensity to shoot high volumes of three pointers, and relative ineptitude at same, conspired to limit his effectiveness.
-A combination of nebulous back injuries and diva issues conspired to limit his participation in the last two seasons to only 65 games.
-There is no precedent for a player who was once the best in basketball being washed up by the age of 31.
-After joining the Rockets, McGrady actually became a strong defender. Since the 2004-05 season, McGrady has more defensive win shares (18.5) than offensive (14.9).
From this, what can we project for this season? I mentioned that there is no precedent for a player going from the top of the league to washout, but one player came close.
Connie Hawkins was a versatile scorer, whose career was delayed by his (unjust) implication in a point shaving scandal. Upon arriving in the ABA at 25, after a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters, he immediately dominated, posting a player efficiency rating of 28.8 despite his relative weakness as a shooter.
By the time he arrived in Los Angeles at the age of 31, The Hawk was a shell of his former self (though he was still being voted into all-star games every year), having been limited by knee ailments.
He proved that he had something left in the tank, playing 35 mpg, becoming more of a playmaker on offense while still grabbing rebounds and improving his efficiency. He was above average at both ends of the court, posting a PER of 15.5 and a .128 wp48.
If T-Mac puts up those kinds of numbers, he'll win most improved player, and it certainly isn't outside of the realm of possibly for him to improve upon them. Heck, if he is able to give Detroit 60 games at 20 mpg at his production from two years ago, he will have added two wins to the total.
There are a few key obstacles that should temper our expectations.
The first is the alleged logjam on the wings. I say alleged because not one wing player managed to play even average basketball, much less stay healthy long enough to do so. A bunch of so-so, hobbled players does not a logjam make. Nonetheless, unless coach Kuester is willing to get creative in order to get more wins out of this ball club, McGrady will likely have to settle for 15-20 mpg even if he's outperforming the starting five.
The second is his diva complex. Let's face it, every superstar becomes a diva. The problem is that T-Mac hasn't had the output to match. He bristled at the suggestion of earning back his role in Houston after being racked by injuries. Speaking of which...
About those injuries. Now, back spasms are painful. They take you out of action for at least a week, if not a month. You cannot play through back spasms any more than you can play through an aardvark chewing on your testicles. But they do go away, and, with proper conditioning, can be made to disappear. They didn't disappear, and now McGrady is coming off major knee surgery.
Theoretically, McGrady is auditioning for a major contract, but if he was contemplating retirement weeks ago, will he be able to keep his focus long enough to secure that long-term deal?
Oh, and he'll still want to jack up three pointers.
On the flip side...
The team can't possibly be wedded to the notion that a Hamilton-Prince-Gordon ensemble is going to win basketball games. Otherwise, why even bother with T-Mac? McGrady can plug in easily at the two or the three, and can defend both positions quite well. Plus, if he begins to play well, and the Pistons aren't, the pressure to give him more minutes will be overwhelming. Again, lottery teams don't have logjams. They have holes.
Diva issues aside, McGrady is, by all accounts, a pretty good guy. He isn't a head case or a drug addict. He is also in a position where, suddenly, the money, the fame, the accolades, and the attention are gone. Chicago didn't work out. Heck, the Clippers didn't work out. Even a few months ago, he was talking about being a sought after free agent. Superstars might be divas, but they also have egos, and always have something to prove.
If he can get to the line and play defense, he has the chance to turn around his career. Detroit should give him every opportunity to do so.
If nothing else, having an aging superstar whose legacy is on the line gives us fans something to be excited about. It's like a movie, but at matinee pricing. Will this be an inspirational Dreamworks movie about talking dragons, or a gritty indie drama about meth tweakers? Will it be Hoosiers or Hoop Dreams? The Natural or Sugar?
Connie Hawkins or an Allen Iverson?
*As for me, I am declaring war on hanging apostrophes. Yes, I know his name is not Joe Dumar.