Do Tracy McGrady’s Playoff Failures Define His Legacy?

McGrady Rockets

With the sun having officially set on the career of Tracy McGrady with his recent retirement, the question now arises: how exactly are basketball fans supposed to remember him? Do we remember the All-NBA scoring machine that averaged well over 20 ppg for eight straight seasons (including leading the league in scoring back-to-back years)? Or do we remember him as a superstar that couldn’t lead his team out of the first round?

The answer isn’t easy. Frankly, compelling arguments could be made on both sides surrounding where T-Mac fits into the NBA’s history.

What’s obvious is that T-Mac was one of the premier players of his generation; he’s a surefire Hall-of-Famer. In terms of numbers, he rivaled the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Allen Iverson. He was among the most explosive players in the league and thrived in nearly every facet of the game.

But no matter how great T-Mac was, his playoff performances will forever be his legacy’s downfall. He actually put up great numbers individually (22, 5, and 6 career playoff splits), but he never was able to lead his team out of the first round (this past year not withstanding).

To be fair, he never had teammates who were the most equipped for playoff success. His best teammates were Vince Carter (McGrady was just coming into his own at this point), Grant Hill (injured all the time), and Yao Ming (also spent more time in the trainer’s room than the he did on the court).

But let’s not let T-Mac off the hook. While he was never a part of a team like the current Miami Heat or the early 2000’s Lakers, some of his squads were better than they got credit for.

For example, McGrady’s 2006-07 Rockets team finished 52-30. Their top 9 players: McGrady, Yao, Rafer Alston, Shane Battier, Juwan Howard, Luther Head, Chuck Hayes, and Dikembe Mutombo.

Not that impressive of a roster, but relative to what comparable players like Allen Iverson and LeBron did with similar rosters, certainly one that McGrady should have been able to lead out of the first round.

The 2000-01 76ers finished with a record of 56-26 led by Allen Iverson. Their roster was comprised of Iverson, Aaron McKie, Mutombo, Eric Snow, Tyrone Hill, Jumaine Jones, Theo Ratliff (who was the team’s second leading scorer with an impressive 12.4 ppg average), and George Lynch.

That roster was awful. Absolutely terrible. Iverson was able to lead that group of scrubs to a Finals appearance. Furthermore, they were the only team to defeat the Lakers that postseason when they upset them in Game 1 of the Finals.

Let’s also look at what LeBron was able to do. His 2006-07 Cavaliers team, which also made it all the way to the Finals with a 50-32 record, did so with a supporting cast of Larry Hughes (second leading scorer at 14.9 ppg), Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic, Anderson Varejao, and Daniel Gibson.

Just another example of how a superstar was able to help a sub-par roster overachieve with great success.

This simply illustrates that, although his teams were not loaded with talent, other superstars did more with less. And in the cases of LeBron and Iverson, their team made it all the way to the NBA Finals; T-Mac couldn’t even make it out of the first round.

What makes this such a unique case is the fact that T-Mac performed so well in the postseason (22 ppg). His stats were never the issue; his record was. He never pulled a “2011 Finals LeBron” and disappeared. He was just never able to get his team over the hump.

Players in the NBA are judged on postseason success, fair or unfair. For years, LeBron was heavily criticized for not being able to win a title, even when he had already advanced far in the playoffs. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen’s legacies were all incomplete before their 2008 title run. Even players like Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley left something to be desired by not winning a title.

T-Mac didn’t just fail at winning a title; he failed at winning a single playoff series! No matter how much bad luck he went through (Grant Hill and Yao injuries) or bad players he was saddled with (Luther Head), a player of his stature cannot be let off the hook for that.

For better or for worse, NBA players are defined by the number of titles they won rather than by how talented they were. That is how the league’s always been. If you look at any basketball fan’s “top 10 players of all time” list, almost every single one will consist solely of players with at least one ring.

For the record, I always enjoyed watching T-Mac play. He was fantastic. He could do everything, and he was one of the most electrifying finishers of the past decade. He was as entertaining as it got during that span.

The defining moment in Tracy McGrady’s career will forever be his “13 points in 33 seconds” performance. During a regular season game at home versus the Spurs, he singlehandedly willed the Rockets to a stunning come-from-behind victory. He hit four straight highly contested three pointers, leaving the Spurs stunned and his teammates overjoyed. He just could not miss. It was truly one of the most marvelous performances ever seen in the NBA.

In a weird way that moment tells you all you need to know about his career. He was a spectacularly talented and dominant player, but he never provided us with a single memorable moment in the post-season. When people think of T-Mac, they will think of the “13 Points in 33 Seconds Game.” Unfortunately and somewhat fittingly for Tracy McGrady and his legacy, that game occurred in December, not June.

By: Matt Valianti
Twitter: @mister_vee12

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