Tracy McGrady told Joe Dumars he would be willing to accept any role John Kuester assigns him, but he made it clear – just as he did to media questioners in his Pistons unveiling on Monday – that he is coming to training camp to compete for minutes and the broadest role possible.
Something about that rubbed Chicago Bulls management the wrong way, which caused what appeared a likely Bulls-McGrady union to unravel after he worked out for them earlier this month. But it was exactly what the Pistons wanted to hear. One of the most dynamic NBA players of his generation, at 31, feels he has plenty still to offer and feels the Pistons will give him an honest shot to display it.
“I wanted to play basketball,” said McGrady, who’ll wear No. 1 for the Pistons. “That’s what I told (Dumars). I wanted to play basketball. If anybody knows me, I don’t show a lot of emotion, but I have a chip on my shoulder. I carry things in the back of my mind. That’s what really motivates me.”
That gives McGrady plenty in common with his new teammates, driven to prove last season’s stinging disappointment was a fluke. When talks broke off with Chicago, McGrady had agent Arn Tellem call Dumars and see if the Pistons were interested, Tellem telling Dumars that McGrady had long admired the culture of the organization, that he was willing to come off the bench and that he would take the NBA veteran’s minimum salary for the chance to re-establish his place in the game.
McGrady sounded very much like a player who’s missed basketball and competition and is itching for training camp to open. He also declared his left knee, which underwent microfracture surgery in February 2009, dramatically improved since the end of last season, when he played 24 games for the Knicks after Houston sent him there at the trade deadline. McGrady’s return actually came on Dec. 15 for the Rockets in a win over the Pistons, which began their 13-game losing streak.
“It’s like night and day, really,” he said. “I was still recovering from it. Back to backs were pretty tough for me. I was a lot heavier. My body wasn’t in shape because it was so long of a layoff. It was really frustrating. But there’s no question that I’m a lot better now than I was back then – a lot better.”
When Tellem called Dumars on August 6, Dumars and others in the front office began poring over tapes of McGrady’s late-season play with the Knicks. They noticed some games where he looked like the old Tracy McGrady and others where he seemed to be dragging his leg. When McGrady heard their assessment, he told me, “I guarantee you those were the back-to-backs.”
McGrady spent Monday morning and early afternoon working with Pistons strength coach Arnie Kander before meeting the media and is investing his faith in one of the NBA’s most esteemed trainers.
“There’s some crazy stuff he’s stressing to me, but from what I hear he’s the best,” McGrady said. “It seems to work. I heard (Antonio) McDyess’ situation was worse than mine and he’s had longevity so far. It’s good that I’m in good hands.”
McGrady concedes that he might not be quite as freakishly athletic as the 18-year-old who came to the NBA straight from high school with a 44-inch vertical jump – drafted by Isiah Thomas for Toronto with the No. 9 pick in 1997 – but that’s about all he concedes.
“I might not be dunking on anybody like I used to, but I’m still effective,” he said. “I know I can put the ball in the hole. … I’m not changing anything. I’m 31 years old. I’m not 44, 41 – I’m 31. There’s still a lot left in the tank.
“At this point in my career, 14 years, it’s a competition. You come off the bench – if that’s what it is, that’s what it is. I’m just ready to play basketball, y’all. Seriously. That’s what I wake up thinking about. That’s what I love to do. For these last two years, I’ve been kind of alienating my family a little bit because I’ve been fighting so hard to get back.”
He also isn’t conceding anything where possibilities for the team are concerned.
“I’m just excited. I’m eager to get back and I look forward to it. I think with this group we have, they had a lot of injuries last season. Without me, I think this team could have been a playoff team if they hadn’t had the injuries they had. With being a healthy team in the Eastern Conference, anything is possible.”
As for the crowd at small forward and shooting guard, McGrady’s two positions, “that’s the coach’s job,” he said. “Our job is to go out there and compete and try to make each other better in practice every day. Whoever plays, just go out there and do the best you can. In practice, whoever is playing in front of you, you just try to make him better, make yourself better. That’s what it’s all about – we’re trying to win.”