I decided to tell a story about Tracy McGrady and also decided to plan it as a read piece. You can listen via the mechanisms below, and I'll also include the original script I read off of (if you're bored, you can find where I stumbled or ad-libbed). Enjoy!
For now, we're keeping these in the Boxscore Geeks Show podcast feed, which you can find on places like iTunes and Stitcher.
You can download the musing direct here.
Outro Music is Pure Magic by Chris Haugen -- thanks YouTube Public Domain Music!
Type “13 points in 33 seconds” into YouTube and come back. Even if you’ve already seen this, I’d be shocked if you aren’t drawn into watching it again. You’re about to watch one of the most impressive performances in NBA history. More importantly, it epitomizes Tracy McGrady’s career and on a larger level, how the mainstream view of Tracy McGrady epitomizes a fundamental misunderstanding of the game of basketball.
As the title gives away, Tracy McGrady scores 13 points in 33 seconds. In a game the Spurs should have locked up, McGrady snatches a victory from the jaws of defeat. With 35 seconds left in the game, the Spurs are up by eight points. Technically they can still lose (and do!) but it shouldn’t happen, and yet, it does. McGrady starts by making a three, at 35 seconds to go. Then, the Rockets get a quick foul on the Spurs. The announcers let us know that the Spurs are one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the league, and fail down the stretch. So there’s still a chance. Except Devin Brown hits both of his free throws. It’s a seven-point game with 32 seconds to go. Then on a pick and roll, Tracy McGrady gets a perfect situation. Tim Duncan is out of position, and Tracy McGrady initiates contact on an off-balance three-point shot. He’ll get to the line, and have a chance to get the Spurs lead down to four. Except, the ball goes in! Tracy McGrady has a chance for a four-point play, which he converts. It’s a three-point game with 24 seconds to go. The Rockets foul Tim Duncan, but Tim Duncan makes both of his free throws, five points with sixteen seconds to go. The Rockets almost can’t get the ball inbounds, but somehow McGrady gets the ball. He’s covered like a glove by Bruce Bowen, but somehow shoots another off-balance three over Bowen, two-point game!
The Spurs call a timeout to bring the ball up the court. Devin Brown gets the ball and falls over, McGrady gets the steal and races down the court. The Rockets are out of time outs. McGrady pulls up over Brent Barry from three. With 1.7 seconds to go, the ball goes in, the Rockets are up 81-80. The Spurs are also out of timeouts. Tony Parker puts up a last-second heave, but it misses. Tracy McGrady’s amazing performance is complete.
Let’s be clear, the Spurs are no pushovers. They end the season with the second-best record in the NBA and go on to win the NBA title. They also have the best defense in the NBA. When McGrady pulled off his heroic game, it was against a healthy Spurs team with all of their starters. McGrady likely has the best 33-second regular-season stint in NBA history, especially adjusted for opponent. At the end of the game though there are a couple of funny things. The first is that Tracy McGrady had a pretty pedestrian scoring night. His True Shooting Percentage, which factors in three-pointers and free throws ends up at 53.6%. And this is good against the Spurs (who held their opponents to 50.2% True Shooting in 2004-2005), and slightly above the NBA league average for the year (which is 52.9%). But for a player that ended the night drilling four straight threes and a free throw? It’s underwhelming honestly.
Next is the fact that Tracy McGrady isn’t even his team’s best player using the Wins Produced metric. Wins Produced maps a player’s boxscore to how it impacts winning on the game. And when we add up all of Tracy McGrady’s actions in the game, he helped his team “earn” +6.6 points. And that’s good. However, Yao Ming’s +7.0 points are actually the highest on the Rockets. In fact, in a mere 12 minutes of play, Dikembe Mutombo, in theory, helped the Rockets as much as Tracy McGrady (Mutombo put up 8 boards, 4 points, and a steal in his limited time).
The reality is McGrady helped his team win, but his late scoring burst was actually making up for McGrady’s poor shooting earlier. As mentioned, McGrady had pedestrian scoring efficiency. Before those 33 seconds, McGrady was 1-8 from three, and 7-17 from two and had only gotten three shots at the line. His true shooting percentage before the last minute was 34.2%, terrible, even accounting for playing the best defense in the league! And the reason McGrady was as good as he was boiled down to other parts of his boxscore. McGrady picked up five steals, including the clutch one that iced the game. He also pulled down eight rebounds. In short, McGrady’s overall scoring was essentially neutral for the Rockets, while the rest of his contributions helped them win.
And this story in fact applies to Tracy McGrady on the Rockets that season, and his whole career. McGrady finished the 2004-2005 season 7th in MVP voting. McGrady was let into the Naismith Hall of Fame first ballot, likely due to the fact that he earned the scoring title twice in his career.
But the same story about McGrady’s scoring holds up for the whole season and his whole career. Again, let’s look under the hood of the Wins Produced Formula to explain why. On a simple level, the Wins Produced formula works as follows, every point a player earns is worth, well a point. But every possession is also worth a point. So things like rebounds, steals, and blocks are also positive for players. Of course, if scoring points and gaining possessions are good, losing possessions are bad. Fouls, turnovers, and missed shots count against a player.
A quick aside here, this math isn’t some mystery formula, it’s just reading the NBA rule book. To win you have to outscore your opponent and to score you need the ball. The reason the boxscore lines up so perfectly to explain winning is that it’s in fact a record of what the rules say is needed to win! Shocker.
So let’s look at two Tracy McGrady’s, 2004-2005 Tracy McGrady, and Tracy McGrady’s Career. In 2004-2005 Tracy McGrady finishes 7th in MVP voting. He’s an All-Star starter, All-NBA 3rd team, and has the 6th highest points per game average at the end of the season at 25.7 points per game. The Wins Produced Formula says he’s probably a little overrated by the mainstream with those accolades, but not by much. At over 10 Wins Produced, Tracy McGrady is a top 20 player in the NBA. His WP48 is close to 0.200, which means he’s almost twice as good as an average NBA forward. And here’s where it gets fun. The key way to “win games” in the NBA is to be better than your opponent. Comparing Tracy McGrady to average, he’s much better … except at scoring.
Tracy McGrady has a 52.6% True Shooting Average for the 2004-2005 season. I mentioned league average was 52.9%. And for Small Forwards, the position Tracy McGrady plays, its’ 53.0%. And here’s where that gets funny. It actually means that Tracy McGrady’s shooting is actually hurting his team. If we look at the rest of McGrady’s numbers, they’re quite impressive. Tracy McGrady pulls down 7.3 Rebounds per 48 minutes, so does the average Small Forward. Tracy McGrady gets 6.8 assists and 3.0 turnovers per 48. The average Small Forward is at 3.5 Assists to 2.6 Turnovers. Tracy McGrady pulls down 0.8 Blocks, and 2,0 Steals per 48 minutes while only fouling 2.5 times in that frame. The average Small Forward is at 0.7 blocks, 1.5 steals, 4.0 turnovers, respectively.
In short, Tracy McGrady’s skills as a playmaker and a defender are what make him valuable. His scoring is close to a push. And, let’s be clear, having an average scorer is not a bad thing. But when we’re examining why Tracy McGrady helps the Rockets win, that isn’t what does it.
His career comes out similarly. McGrady finishes with around 100 Wins Produced for a career, a threshold that means we’d easily put him first ballot. But the scoring numbers fall the same. Due to late-career degradation, McGrady finishes with 51.9% True Shooting. Across the same span, a guard-forward would have put up 53.0%. And McGrady shoots much more than the average guard-forward, meaning his scoring actually hurt his production, and overall, hurt his teams’ chances of winning. However, he still finishes close to twice as good as an average player thanks to his rebounds, passing, and defense. Tracy McGrady did everything well except score!
But Tracy McGrady’s scoring is why he’s a name. And his 33-second game shows why. McGrady would routinely put up impressive scoring performances. And a highlight reel of his games makes him look like an effortless scorer (bballbreakdown has a nice one, I’ll include it in the description) . But that wasn’t what made Tracy McGrady a good basketball player. It’s possible if he adjusted his shot selection or passed more, he would have been an efficient scorer. But the perception of scoring in the NBA says that the player taking lots of shots and making difficult ones is helping their team win. And it misses the half a block or extra pass or steal a game that really helps you beat the best team in the NBA by one point.
Tracy McGrady was a talented player that helped win games in the NBA. But his greatest performance is so poignant in what it reveals. The impressive things he did that ensured he’d be remembered as an all-time great were actually hiding the real things he did that made him an all-time great.