When Kobe calls you the most challenging matchup in his career, you must've been a bad man. Tracy McGrady was just that. The two-time scoring champ was a problem during his prime years, but the lack of post-season success cemented him on a level of being a great regular-season performer. And in many people's eyes, that's all he was.
However, that was enough for T-Mac to be inducted into a Hall of Fame as a part of the Class of 2017. A career 19.6 points scorer became a member of the elite group four years after playing his final game for the San Antonio Spurs. Whatever you think of T-Mac, the fact is that in his prime years, he might have been a top-three player in the NBA. His best has become genuinely underrated, and all because he was never able to deliver in the playoffs.
It seems like that's all people talk about when discussing his NBA career. Everything else he's done becomes less important. It's all about what he was never able to accomplish. Even Tracy got fed up with it. That's why his Hall of Fame induction was a sort of validation of his career. The proof he was great, as he joined the group of the greatest. And McGrady was thankful for it, appreciating the honor he was receiving. But he did touch on his playoff performances, explaining the lack of a deep post-season run.
“There's probably one time in my career where out of all the times I've been in the playoffs; I was favored to win a series. That was back in 2007 with the Houston Rockets having home-court advantage against the Utah Jazz when they beat us in seven games. But prior to that, I was always the underdog. Never really had a championship-contender team. I fell lots throughout my career in the playoffs. This is not about being good. This is not about being great. This is about being with greatness. Greatness for your entire career and being honored for that greatness. With greatness, right? This is elite. It doesn't matter how many championships. Anybody can be a champion. But everybody can't be in the Hall of Fame. This is it. This is my championship.”
Tracy McGrady, NBA.com
McGrady played in 50 playoff games and averaged 22.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, and 5 APG. That doesn't sound bad at all, but one can look at them and say that his last playoff series shouldn't count, because let's face it, calling him a role player in those is a stretch.
T-Mac's numbers without those two series? 28.5 PPG, 6.9 RPG, and 6.2 APG. All-time level of greatness, if you ask me. So what's the problem? Well, the problem is he only won one of those playoff series, and it was during his last run with the Spurs. If you don't count his numbers during that time, should advancing the series even count?
However you want to look at it, the fact is that during his prime, McGrady was never able to pass the first round. Tracy himself had said he was the underdog in all of those but one, so let's look into it.
His first playoff series was vs. the '00 Knicks, whose balanced offense was led by Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston, with 37-year old Patrick Ewing still providing a solid output. The 50-wins Knicks swept McGrady's Raptors, and you can't hold it against him. He wasn't ready at the time.
His second playoff loss came with the Magic, as the Bucks bounced them in the first round. 21-year old T-Mac was unbelievable in that series, as he averaged 33.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, and 8.3 APG, but Ray Allen's Bucks were too much to handle. It was the year of Grant Hill's injury, and that was a huge handicap for the Magic. Maybe he would've been the missing piece that would've launched them in the second round. Instead, it was just T-Mac's introduction to the biggest basketball stage.
The third time McGrady made it to the post-season might've been the first he had a legitimate chance of winning, as they were facing Baron Davis' Charlotte Hornets. Teams were close record and talent-wise, but unfortunately, the series wasn't, as the Magic were eliminated in four. Tracy was terrific once again, but only enough for another first-round exit.
In a series against the Pistons in 2003, it was easiest to characterize the Magic as an underdog. The fact that Orlando took them 7 was an accomplishment in and of itself since their second-best player was 21-year old Drew Gooden. They were simply a lesser team.
However, it's hard to use the same logic for his next playoff exit. It was in his first year with the Rockets, and they faced fourth-seeded Dallas. This time, T-Mac had a great second option in Yao Ming, with a solid cast of role players around them. But he fell short again, as the Mavs beat them in seven. They were just too deep for the Rockets.
Then came back-to-back playoff losses to the Jazz, led by Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. Both were hard-fought series that went in 7 and 6 games but had the same outcome. Sure, the Rockets were without Yao during the '08 run, so it's harder to hold that one against them. However, they were more than capable of winning a year before but couldn't get past the first hurdle.
That was the last time McGrady made it to the post-season as the team's leader. As I said, I wouldn't count his previous two playoff appearances, as it wasn't on him to lead those teams to success anymore.
So let's summarize. McGrady gets a pass for his first two playoff exits, as he was simply too young. However, his third is the first one where I think he could've won that series. T-Mac wasn't the underdog.
The series vs. the Pistons wasn't the one he was supposed to win. However, the same can't be said for his run in Houston. Except for his final push there as they were dealing with the injury to their second-best player. But two post-season performances prior, they had a shot. And McGrady was superb even in those series, but he couldn't take that next step. He just couldn't.
Many will remember only for that, but I won't. McGrady was a fantastic individual performer, and during his prime, one of the most fun players to watch. And no, he wasn't the underdog in all of his playoff appearances. It's hard to call him a favorite in those, but he sure had chances of winning.
Some will say it's a huge stain on his NBA resume, and they may be right. But I sure won't remember him for it. So let's focus on things he did during his career because he sure did a lot.