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Tracy McGrady’s Hall of Fame NBA Career Is a Monument to Untapped Potential

T-Mac never quite lived up to the great expectations placed on him, leaving behind a complicated legacy

Tracy McGrady Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tracy McGrady’s NBA career will be cemented in history the same way it started — with Isiah Thomas ushering him into the spotlight. Twenty years after Thomas (then the GM of the Toronto Raptors) selected McGrady with the ninth pick in the draft, he will be the one to present the former superstar at Friday’s Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. One could say it’s fitting; Hall of Fame careers beg for the kind of neat, full-circle closure that McGrady will receive Friday night.

But fitting isn’t quite the right word here. Consolation might be better. Over the course of 15 seasons, McGrady saw his back, elbows, and knees give way, hollowing out his supreme talents; he watched as supposed partners in crime in Orlando and Houston succumbed to similar fates. And yet, here lies the career of Tracy McGrady, a success worthy of enshrinement in spite of everything. For a night T-Mac will have complete control over a career narrative that was frequently just beyond his grasp.

It says a lot about McGrady that it’s almost easier to imagine him in the multitude of alternate timelines he belongs to than the reality of his career as it unfolded before us. He was supposed to be the next Scottie Pippen. Fellow 2017 inductee Jerry Krause (then the Chicago Bulls GM) was all but settled in his decision to trade the aging and ailing Pippen for McGrady 20 years ago. T-Mac was just a kid who, out of nowhere, rose to the pinnacle of high school basketball after dismantling Lamar Odom, the elite recruit then thought to be the second coming of Magic Johnson, at the 1996 ABCD camp.

“[Tracy] was Scottie,” Krause told Jonathan Abrams in Boys Among Men. “He was quick and active and a better shooter than Scottie was and Tracy McGrady was one of the better high school players I’ve ever seen and a very, very mature kid at that age.” But, depending on who you ask, Michael Jordan would have either gone nuclear on the entire front office for abandoning his running mate or would have outright retired because of the disloyalty. That door shut quickly.

McGrady was given a second chance at occupying that Pippen role by his third and final season in Toronto. His cousin Vince Carter was entrenched as the team’s undisputed alpha, but T-Mac’s breadth of skill made it easy to conform to the team’s needs, even though he hadn’t even secured a full-time starting role.

Jeff Van Gundy, who would later coach McGrady on the Rockets but had his first glimpses of T-Mac’s overwhelming skill as the coach of the Atlantic Division rival Knicks, has called him “an unbelievable defender” in his early years. In 1999–2000, at the age of 20, McGrady averaged 1.9 blocks per game coming off the bench, which topped Julius Erving’s best as the highest single-season average for a wing player since the league began recording the stat. T-Mac was basically taunting the NBA with his talent, but he didn’t have the perfect outlet.

McGrady’s most memorable contribution to the Raptors that season only tangentially had anything to do with basketball: He was the one who helped Carter on the East Bay Funk Dunk remix that ensured Vince’s legacy as the greatest dunker in NBA history. He needed to leave to see what he was capable of — and so another door shut. “Playing behind a superstar in Vince Carter last year, it wasn’t my turn,” McGrady said after being awarded the 2001 Most Improved Player award. “I believe I could have done some of the things I did this year last year, but I was held back. So, I brought my talent to Orlando and exploited it here.”

That was when his McGrady reached interstellar heights, but also when the what-ifs became inextricably tangled in the fabric of his career. The dynamic pairing of McGrady and Grant Hill in Orlando was a 2017 dream for the new millennium — two versatile, explosive star point forwards feeding off one another — but lasted all of 47 games over three seasons. McGrady and Yao Ming were meant to be the boutique remedy to the Kobe-Shaq hangover. Before long, it felt more like a hostage situation, as injuries often forced the two all-time talents to sit and watch helplessly. But there was plenty of magic to behold just before the downward spiral.

McGrady’s Hall of Fame announcement has been a good excuse to revisit old games and highlights. Strung together on his timeline are indelible moments of pure basketball excellence: the 42–10–8 night against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the 2000–01 playoffs just after being awarded the Most Improved Player Award, the 13 points in 33 seconds, the complete and utter evisceration of Shawn Bradley. But his legacy might be in the gaps between, in what theoretically could have been.

It’s a mode of thinking that McGrady himself can’t escape. After announcing his retirement, he expressed a certain career regret to the Toronto Star. “In hindsight, looking back, obviously I wish I had stayed in Toronto,” he said. “There’s no doubt we could have contended for a championship. I think about that often.” If McGrady has to live on as a what-if thought experiment, at least he was present for long enough to supply a defined outline. For about seven seasons, he provided enough for us to envision his true apex. It won’t appear on any career lists, but the mystique of McGrady’s talent lives on in the way we conceptualize NBA potential as a whole.

There is a reason why, of all the Jumpman apostles of the post-Jordan era, McGrady has most often been cited as a point of reference for up-and-coming wing prospects. The names that have been linked to his over the years are as disparate as Darius Miles, Qyntel Woods, Gerald Green, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Perry Jones, Andrew Wiggins, and, most recently, Josh Jackson. There is something familiar in each of them, whether it be jaw-dropping athleticism or certain unteachable instincts. But it’s usually vaguely defined. Being compared to McGrady can be both a great compliment and a giant cop-out. While Kobe had an exponentially more successful career path and Carter sustained himself for quite a bit longer, the shorthand notation of their careers is self-contained; it’s harder to affix a kid’s potential to the backdrop of Kobe’s career when his path was so specifically manicured.

T-Mac’s legacy traverses a middle ground between the solidified arcs of Jordan, Kobe, and Erving and the unresolved arcs of players like Hill and Penny Hardaway — or even Connie Hawkins and Len Bias. In a way, T-Mac left instructions about how to come to terms with the future of the league on his way out. McGrady’s shorthand leaves room for uncertainty, room for the mind to wander and project without letting go of that underlying sense of doubt.

But with a place secure in the Hall of Fame, at least the question of how he’ll be remembered has been lifted off the table.