When Tracy McGrady retired on August 26th, the sports world seemed to notice and I had no problem with any of it. McGrady, though an elite talent, ran the risk of slipping through the cracks of history by never really becoming a winner. His legacy, Hall of Fame candidacy, and overall career are well worth the ink.
But McGrady wasn’t the only important player to hang’em up in 2013. Jason Kidd’s career hasn’t really received it’s due yet because of Kidd’s decision to slide right into coaching. There were bigger, more pressing stories to be written, and Kidd is still in the spotlight. I have no doubt there will be plenty of time spent appreciating his career (for the record, I think it is pretty fascinating—from the great “what if he signed with the Spurs?” hypothetical, to his later years where he basically invented a position to play for himself).
Adam Morrison and Franciso Elson also packed it in this year. The former a first-round bust with a short lived and largely unproductive NBA career, and the latter an under the radar but lengthy career with seven NBA stops (including a championship) and stints with four European teams. It seems almost callous to say, but these players got about as much attention as their careers warranted.
The outlier of the group was clearly Grant Hill, whose retirement was met with surprisingly little fanfare, controversy, or even nostalgia. In some ways this was fitting. Hill himself was never flashy or loud or headline seeking. He had a reputation for being a hard worker, quiet leader, and respected competitor. In general though, this article will try to fill the Grant Hill retirement gap, as I will offer what I can in honor of his career.
In many, many ways I am not the most qualified person to write such a piece. Mainly, I worry that I only really began seriously watching basketball around the 2000-2001 season, and unfortunately most would claim that was past Hill’s prime. Here’s what I do remember about watching him play in those early Pistons days: Hill jumped off the court even without the ball.
As a young fan, it’s easy to notice the guys who are good at putting the ball through the hoop and dribbling past defenders. To be sure, Hill did a lot of that, but I have vivid recollections of noting his cutting, his defense, and his running of the floor. I notice and appreciate these things as much as prolific scoring now, but to do so as a casual fan stands out.
It is difficult to verify that old memory statistically, but the stats do support the notion that Hill was an extremely well-balanced player. From 1994-2000, Hill averaged 21.6 points, 6.3 assists, and 7.9 rebounds per game. His high water marks in each category make Hill seem even more versatile as he averaged 25.8 points in 1999-2000, 7.3 assists in '96-97, and 9.8 rebounds in '95-96.
Hill himself was never flashy or loud or headline seeking. He had a reputation for being a hard worker, quiet leader, and respected competitor.
Without having the time or the space here to do a full comparison around a range of players, note that LeBron James has never matched those rebounding averages, and only bested that assist mark once. Here’s a fun little graphic from USA Today that illustrates the point even further. The same could be said for Jordan, a better contemporary of Hill. When these two overlapped, by the way, it made for some fun TV.
Digging a little deeper, we also note that Hill was an above average defender. Contributing, over that same span, 23.8 wins (via the Defensive Win Shares statistic) to the Pistons from his defense alone. During arguably Tracy McGrady’s best six-year stretch, 1999-2005, he contributed 18.9 wins to his teams on D.
The fact that Hill aged so well makes this case even stronger. Not only do some skill sets age better than others, but diverse skill sets age better than one trick ponies. Think what happened to Allen Iverson after he lost just a touch of quickness.
During the back half of his career with Phoenix, from the ages of 35-39, Hill was an above league average player posting respectable efficiency ratings, logging around 30 minutes per game, and posting reasonably high usage rates, especially considering all of those years were spent sharing the court with Steve Nash.
Across sports, we often don’t appreciate players who don’t lead the league in any one category, eschewing them instead for players who amaze by doing one thing especially well.
In 2006, Ryan Howard was named the National League MVP in baseball. This was largely due to him clubbing 58 home runs (to be fair, he also hit .313), but Howard wasn’t even in the league’s top 10 in WAR.
I suspect similar evaluations to be going on in football, though it is more difficult to assess as often only 1 or 2 statistics are kept for a position. We know, for example, how many rushing yards a running back had, but we don’t always know how many blitzes he picked up, downfield blocks he threw, or one-yard gains he made that for others would have been three-yard losses.
Of course, this is only part of the Grant Hill story. We also know how seriously his career was derailed by injuries. Had that not been the case, we’d likely be writing very different columns about both Hill and McGrady.
What many of us might have forgotten was the severity of Hill’s injury. He was not a fragile player necessarily, nor was he a player who relied on taking heavy contact to be successful at all (as some accuse Derrick Rose of being). No, Hill just got very badly injured once (a little unlucky) then had some real treatment and recovery problems with his doctors (a lot unlucky).
I’m not a medical expert, nor do I want to get too graphic here, but Hill’s ankle surgery basically involved doctors having to re-break his ankle, then graft bone from pelvis to stabilize it. This was all after an original surgery where doctors inserted screws and other metal “hardware” (what does that even mean?) in Hill’s ankle. Finally, the kicker to it all was that Hill also picked up a nasty staph infection not long after his second surgery that spiked his fever to nearly 105, and threatened his life. Pretty gruesome.
The point then is two-fold: (1) We ought to be appreciating to a greater degree the sort of player we had in Grant Hill for as long as he was truly himself. His well-rounded skill set was rarely matched during his or any other time in the NBA. (2) It follows then that we should be more upset about missing out on a good chunk of his prime, including some potentially very exciting years with the also retiring McGrady.
Moreover, though I’m not sure we should ever feel badly for professional athletes that sign nearly $100 million dollar contracts and star in Sprite commercials, what happened to Hill really was unfortunate and out his hands, and should factor into how we look back on his career both now and in the future.
**All data in this article was compiled from basketball-reference.com and Hoopdata.com unless otherwise linked above**