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McGrady’s Peak

Posted by Neil Paine on January 23, 2009

In a discussion about this year's MVP candidates at APBRmetrics the other day, everyone's favorite biostatistician, Gabe Farkas, made this comment:

For me, [Tracy] McGrady's 2002 and 2003 seasons are the gold standard of ridiculous individual performances in the recent past. Comparing LBJ's 09 season to those two T-Mac seasons, it looks like LeBron has him beat almost across the board. Honestly, I'm looking at these numbers and thinking "yikes!"

That's particularly apt in relation to our earlier post about King James' historically-awesome performance so far this season. In that post, I raved about LeBron's virtually unparalleled (unless your name is "Wilt Chamberlain" or "Michael Jordan") combination of offensive efficiency and the rate of possessions he's using while on the floor -- the two most important stats to look at when evaluating a player's offensive performance.

But when translated to 2008-09's scoring environment, take a gander at Tracy McGrady's 2001-2004 performances alongside LeBron's last 4 seasons:

McGrady--------------------------------------James---------------------------------------
Year Ag Tm  Ht Pos G  Min  ORtg  %Poss DRtg  Year Ag Tm  Ht Pos G  Min  ORtg  %Poss DRtg
----+--+---+--+---+--+----+-----+-----+-----+----+--+---+--+---+--+----+-----+-----+-----
2001 21 ORL 80 F   77 3087 114.1  30.3 106.0 2006 21 CLE 80 F   79 3361 117.3  33.1 105.9
2002 22 ORL 80 F   76 2912 114.4  30.7 106.8 2007 22 CLE 80 F   78 3190 113.2  30.5 101.7
2003 23 ORL 80 F   75 2954 121.3  34.1 108.5 2008 23 CLE 80 F   75 3027 116.8  33.6 104.0
2004 24 ORL 80 F   67 2675 114.9  32.4 115.5 2009 24 CLE 80 F   40 1492 119.6  34.2  96.9
----+--+---+--+---+--+----+-----+-----+-----+----+--+---+--+---+--+----+-----+-----+-----

There's no question LeBron has been better from age 21-24 than T-Mac was, but offensively it's not as big a disparity as you might imagine. In fact, as good as LBJ has been this year on offense, McGrady was actually even better in 2002-03 (though he finished only 4th in MVP balloting). After T-Mac's amazing season, John Hollinger had this to say about him:

"I wrote a year ago that McGrady was a better player than Kobe Bryant and would have thought that [the 2002-03 season] proved it once and for all. That's why I was shocked and dismayed when the MVP voting came out and Bryant ranked third while McGrady was fourth.

"Look, I don't mean to keep knocking Kobe, but the difference between style and substance here is too big to ignore. Bryant is immensely well-known, appears on TV all the time, and tends to do spectacular mid-air theatrics that you'll talk about for the next three weeks. He's a great player, one of the five best in the league. But he still can't carry McGrady's jock. Put the two side-by-side, and everything Bryant does, McGrady does as well or a little better.

"The big subtle difference between the two that most talking heads can't appreciate is that McGrady never turns the ball over. His Turnover Ratio was the lowest among small forwards and a far cry from Bryant's. The fact that he also had the league's top Usage Rate is doubly impressive. Basically, he created a zillion shots without any miscues, and that alone put Orlando into the top half of the league's offenses...

"McGrady does some things with flair -- his penchant for throwing the ball off the backboard to himself and dunking, for instance -- but a lot of his skill lies in his ability to jump straight up over a defender and nail a jump shot. It's impressive, but it's not as exciting as Kobe, and that creates a mistaken impression about who is really the better player. It doesn't help that McGrady is the league's most sleepy-eyed player since Sam Perkins...

"Looking at the big picture, Tim Duncan is great, and Shaq is dominant, but McGrady was the best player in the league [in 2002-03]. McGrady's only 24 and is getting better every year. It's really vexing to see that the media have billed Kobe Bryant as the closest thing to the next Jordan for the past five years, and the whole time they had the wrong guy."

Simply put, during his peak in Orlando, McGrady was an amazing player. Just brilliant. Sure, he had his issues with defense, an area where he doesn't compare to LeBron or Kobe, but overall he was the NBA's 7th-best player by Win Shares in '01, 10th in '02, and #1 in '03. He was one of those rare players capable of single-handedly carrying a franchise on his back -- and you can be sure Orlando always asked that of him, given Grant Hill's injury problems.

Our memory of T-Mac's one-time greatness has faded since his arrival in Houston, however, as the years of wear and tear on his body have rendered him an oft-injured shell of the player who was so dominant with the Magic. So too has the specter of his many 1st-round exits, blown spectacularly out of proportion in a way that only today's sports media can, overshadowed his other on-court accomplishments. All the while, McGrady is still searching for even a taste of playoff success, even as he struggles to keep his body intact long enough to remain on the court and put his talents to use.

But even if he never makes it out of the first round, take some time to appreciate McGrady's career. Nowadays, T-Mac is not the top player in the NBA (far from it), but remember that there was a time when he was in fact the very best the league had to offer.

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6 Responses to “McGrady’s Peak”

  1. Tsunami Says:

    Kinda crazy thinking about that.

    Players that play in LA or NY get overhyped, McGrady in his day was devastating.

    Too bad he couldn't sustain it. It was especially disappointing that he hasn't improved his jump shot as he's gotten older, or FT shooting, for that matter.

  2. Andy Says:

    All the expectations were high in 03-04, picking up Howard. Atlantic Division crown... then it turned out to be one of the most dysfunctional teams ever, though not belligerent. I think they won 2 of 20 games without McGrady, and like 18 with him? Something crazy.

    No McGrady and Hill or McGrady and Howard. Sad.

  3. Minstrel Says:

    "Sure, he had his issues with defense, an area where he doesn't compare to LeBron or Kobe"

    Based on what do you say this? Your own advanced stats on defense (Defense Rating, Defensive Win Shares) contradict you (at least in regards to Kobe; James comes out solidly ahead of both in Defensive Win Shares).

    It seems like you're just parroting conventional wisdom here, based on Kobe winning more and being selected to All-NBA teams. Which seems about as reasonable as saying Kobe was clearly the better overall player due to Kobe winning a lot more and having higher MVP finishes (an irrational standpoint that you and Hollinger seem to be trying to combat).

  4. Minstrel Says:

    Sorry, the first sentence of the second paragraph above should read "It seems like you're just parroting conventional wisdom here, based on Kobe winning more and being selected to All-Defense teams."

  5. Andrew Says:

    Defence is a British spelling

  6. Neil Paine Says:

    Well, it's been a year and a half since I wrote this, but I think I was referring to the fact that T-Mac's defensive rating in Orlando (translated to 2009's scoring environment) was 3 points higher than Kobe's was at the same age (21-24).

    Also, I don't want to speak for Hollinger, but personally I freely admit that our box score defensive metrics are nowhere near as good as the offensive ones. Offensively, we can explain more than 75% of the variation in adjusted plus-minus, while defensively we can explain less than 35%. That's why DPOY voting and All-Defense selections, while horribly objective/biased, are probably informative to use in addition to the defensive stats. Simply put, on D, the box score stats need serious help... we're basically measuring almost everything that's important on offense, but barely anything that's important on defense.