When Joe Dumars smoked out potential trade partners following his team’s 2008 Eastern Conference finals playoff exit, losing to eventual NBA champion Boston in six, the Houston Rockets were one of the teams most interested in plucking off a few core pieces of the Goin’ to Work Pistons.
Tracy McGrady was in play, but the asking price was steep: Houston wanted both Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton.
Two years later, the price has come down considerably. For the veteran’s minimum, the Pistons will have one of the most dynamic offensive players of his era joining them for the 2010-11 season after reaching a contract agreement with McGrady.
The Pistons seemed an unlikely landing spot for the seven-time All-Star, a career 22-point scorer. He can play both small forward and shooting guard, positions already well-manned with Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton and Ben Gordon entrenched and several other options at John Kuester’s disposal.
But what’s the downside? For the veteran’s minimum, the Pistons are getting a potentially dominant scorer who, at 31, could have at least two or three more highly productive seasons if he can avoid the injuries that have plagued him over the past several years.
A knee repaired via microfracture surgery was the most serious among them, and it’s likely McGrady’s days as one of the NBA’s most lethal scorers are behind him. But whatever chance remains that he can approach that level – and for the considerably better odds that he can provide a reliable bench scoring option – a veteran’s minimum contract comes in well under the risk-reward threshold.
Remember, a year ago the assumption was that Ben Wallace, coming off three injury-plagued years of his own and five years older than McGrady, was capable of no more than stopgap rotation help.
If Arnie Kander’s magic can help McGrady withstand the rigors of the 82-game schedule, even if it’s at something less than starter’s minutes, then there’s a pretty good chance McGrady will find a niche with the Pistons, just as Wallace did a year ago. What McGrady can do with the ball in his hands is just as unique and profound as what Big Ben does without it.
Dumars went into the summer intent on upgrading the Pistons’ frontcourt. There’s no debate that their greatest area of need is interior size and everything that attaches itself to interior size – defense, rebounding, shot-blocking, toughness.
They added Greg Monroe in the draft, a player the Pistons didn’t dare to believe they’d land with the No. 7 pick, and while Monroe is more advanced on the offensive end, his sheer size alone helps. Is that enough of a frontcourt upgrade? Well, maybe, at least if the work Charlie Villanueva has put in this summer, dropping 13 pounds as of two weeks ago and improving his conditioning considerably, pays off as he expects it will.
Adding McGrady doesn’t do anything to directly address the frontcourt, of course, but indirectly it surely can’t hurt by giving Joe D another arrow in his quiver.
While the generality that the Pistons are well-stocked on the perimeter rings true, I suspect Dumars has remained somewhat hesitant to trade Prince despite rampant media speculation that he’s been shopping him around. Why? Because Prince is a Swiss Army knife, invaluable at both ends, and there’s nobody who can fill the vacuum his absence would create by himself.
But adding McGrady gives Dumars another piece, a potentially very big one, for the toolbox needed to replace Prince – that is, if it really comes to a deal involving a player as valuable as Prince as the best option for plugging a more glaring hole elsewhere.
The Pistons remain high on their three 2009 draft picks, all of them not only capable of playing small forward but probably best suited for that spot. But Jonas Jerebko, pending any further moves, is needed more at power forward right now, and Austin Daye, for all the offensive talent he oozes and the promise he flashed in Las Vegas last month, might not be ready to shoulder a starting job and all that it entails just yet.
If Hamilton eventually gets traded – the other player around whom speculation has swirled all summer – McGrady, again, would be part of the package to replace his minutes and contributions, though surely Gordon would be first in line at shooting guard.
But the increased firepower a healthy McGrady promises also reduces the urgency for Dumars to make a deal of any kind that he’s not 100 percent comfortable doing. And if McGrady comes in and plays well, then he’s another bargaining chip Joe D would have to offer at the trade deadline to a contender looking for that one extra piece to match up with the perimeter punch Pat Riley has amassed in Miami. Even if the bounty is nothing more than a second-round pick – second-rounders were going for $2 million in the June draft, which would more than double the cost to the Pistons of a veteran’s minimum contract.
Those are all reasons McGrady logically holds appeal to the Pistons. But what about the other way around? What draws McGrady to them?
We’ll find out soon enough when McGrady is introduced to Detroit fans. I suspect he will cite, foremost, his profound respect for not only Joe D and the way he’s gone about building teams over McGrady’s time in the NBA, but for a tradition-rich franchise recognized by players across the league for its integrity.
But don’t underestimate Kander’s role in a McGrady-Pistons union. In the fraternity of NBA players, Kander’s opinion is widely solicited for any variety of injury and conditioning concerns. I suspect McGrady feels day-to-day consultations with Kander give him his best shot to return to form.
There’s also this to consider: Many NBA veterans, Shaquille O’Neal a shining example, take veteran minimum deals late in their careers to join contenders for one last grab at the gold. Don’t confuse McGrady’s situation with theirs. At 31, McGrady almost certainly feels he has one more big contract in him and he’ll be out to prove it this season, presumably working under a one-year. He’s been working out again this summer under Chicago-based trainer Tim Grover, and Will Bynum, another Grover protégé, said after re-signing with the Pistons in late July that McGrady is looking like, well, McGrady.
That gives McGrady something else in common with the Pistons. Expectations for the Pistons nationally are low this season, as they are for McGrady, most NBA analysts placing them outside the playoff field. Inside the practice facility, they’re embracing the doubts, feeding off of them, anxious to roll up their sleeves to prove nobody really got to see the real Pistons last season for all the injuries and adversity they endured.
I suspect Tracy McGrady is pushed by similar motivations. That holds intriguing potential for what their marriage could yield. It’s not often such a relationship comes with so little downside. This should be fun.