Posted Jan 4 2012 7:57AM
If Tracy McGrady is firing step-back jumpers and slicing inside for finger-rolls, then it must be 2004, right? Thought so, too.
Except he's almost eight years removed from his peak and now coming off the bench for his sixth different team. And while you may have wondered where he's been, he's wondering where you've been.
"People sometimes forget what you've done in this league," McGrady said with a laugh. "I haven't gone anywhere. And I'm only 32. People forget that, too. I'm younger than Kobe, younger than Ray Allen, younger than a lot of guys. I just haven't been healthy. I haven't felt like this in a while."
He laughs again, acknowledging his quickness isn't the same, and that he's been in the NBA almost half his life.
"Look, I know I've been around, but I can still play. I can help this team. I can make teammates better, I can make the team better."
The Hawks are sold. They signed T-Mac to a one-year deal, a bargain as it turns out, and asked him to supply some nostalgia whenever possible. Rick Sund, the GM, chose McGrady over giving an extension to Jamal Crawford, the Sixth Man of the Year winner in 2009.
It was the cheaper option for a team unwilling to flirt with luxury tax issues, but was it the better one? The answer, obviously, won't arrive until the postseason (assuming the Hawks make it) when we see if McGrady's health and production holds up.
He's a fixture in the Hawks' rotation right now. Actually, McGrady is on the floor in the fourth quarter, and he's not exactly there to set picks or be a decoy, either. Here in his 16th season, when surgeries figured to take their toll by now, McGrady is producing, averaging 10.0 ppg in 21.3 mpg and shooting 51.2 percent. He snuffed Miami a few nights ago with a 13-point fourth quarter, his biggest in almost four years.
So far, he's the best offseason pickup from a value standpoint, considering he signed for the veteran's minimum. Rip Hamilton is giving the Bulls a reliable mid-range shooter and 12.0 ppg after being waived by the Pistons. And Kurt Thomas, who was around in Bill Clinton's first term, is a hired muscle in Portland, where the Blazers also have a 37-year-old Marcus Camby yanking down almost 10 rebounds a night.
But McGrady is different in that he was a seven-time All-Star and two-time scoring champ who fell off the A-list suddenly. Only once in the last five seasons did he play at least 70 games (2006-07). Back pain, shoulder surgery and a repaired left knee all did him in by the time he turned 30.
Nobody seemed to be in a rush to sign him for most of the last three years. And yet he scored 26 points against the Thunder as a member of the Knicks, and 22 with the Pistons last year. Those were the highs. He also had lapses and was squeezed out by the Knicks, looking to clear cap space, and the Pistons, looking to rebuild with youth.
T-Mac was also viewed skeptically by general managers who wondered if he could accept a lesser role. That's hard for ex-superstars to do, Allen Iverson being a perfect example. Egos are always the last to disappear, well after the skills. Iverson carried himself like it was 1997 in his short time with Memphis a few years ago and the Grizzlies had no choice but to cut him loose before he disrupted a young locker room.
With the Hawks, McGrady appears comfortable with the dynamics of the team. He's surrounded by decent talent and depth. Playing time will be even more precious, for example, when Kirk Hinrich returns from injury. But, two weeks into the season, everyone's happy.
"I like all of the guys," McGrady said. "I've competed against Joe (Johnson) over the years. I respect his game. Same for the others. It's good to be their teammate. I'm just here to help out."
While players were anxious to get the lockout over with and watch the ball go up, McGrady was an exception.
"Because the offseason was so long, it gave me a chance to get my body healthy," he said. "I feel great now, man. My legs have that lift again. There's no comparison to how I feel now as opposed to before. I know I can bring a lot to the table regardless of where people think I am in my career."
Despite an otherwise solid career, McGrady has never led his team beyond the first round of the playoffs. And situations just never worked out, first in Toronto when he left Vince Carter. In Orlando, where Grant Hill was always on crutches, McGrady was often left to go solo. Then in Houston, McGrady and Yao Ming took turns limping in and out of the lineup. By the time Yao was physically finished, McGrady's prime was up.
There are no big expectations anymore, just a significant role to fill on what should be a playoff team. This isn't 2004 but McGrady is comfortable in his 2012 skin.
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