'Perfect Place'

To anyone remotely familiar with the first decade of the new NBA millennium, it would be a tough call to pick what would have seemed the more astounding prediction had it been made a few years ago: Tracy McGrady signing for the veteran’s minimum in 2010 or the Pistons pegged to finish last in the Eastern Conference in the season ahead.

That’s where ESPN.com has the Pistons this week – ranked 29th in the NBA, ahead of only the woebegone Minnesota Timberwolves.

“Twenty-ninth? Out of 30?” McGrady said, slack-jawed, a week after signing with the Pistons for the veteran’s minimum, when I told him of ESPN’s projection for the Pistons. “Wow! Really? We’re going to surprise a lot of people. That’s all bull, anyway, those rankings. That’s insulting. If you look at the team they had last year, if those guys don’t get injured, they’re a playoff team. Really? What are they looking at?”

And when McGrady says “the team they had last year,” what he’s implying is that the team the Pistons will field in the coming season figures to better – in large part because he fully believes adding him to the lineup makes it an inevitability.

That’s a measure of the confidence McGrady feels in his left knee today, 18 months out from microfracture surgery, and the similar personal affront he feels from the deflated expectations for what remains, at age 31, of his otherworldly basketball skills.

McGrady, in his second week of workouts under Pistons strength coach Arnie Kander, is leaner than he’s been in at least two or three years. His body fat tested at 8 percent earlier this month. After briefly resting his body when the season ended with a 24-game stint in a Knicks uniform, McGrady has been able to push himself in summer workouts because his knee has gotten dramatically and continually stronger – and still has room for improvement, he said Wednesday.

“I feel good – I feel really good,” he smiled after Wednesday’s workout. “What I can tell you is the stuff I’m doing now, I couldn’t do that when I was playing for New York. I’m going to surprise a lot of people. What people saw in New York, if that’s the type of player they think I’m going to be, man, they’ve got another think coming.”

Kander said he’s seen zero red flags physically with McGrady; McGrady, typical of all new Kander students, has been blown away by the subtle insights Kander already has passed along.

“Some of the stuff he tells me is just mind-boggling, really,” he said. “I’m so used to going 100 miles an hour in the off-season. I came in here the first day and worked out with Arnie and I looked at him after the workout and said, ‘Is that it?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s all you need.’ I’m like, what? I’m used to coming into training camp in tip-top shape. He said, ‘We don’t want you coming in in tip-top shape – we’re going to use camp to get you in that type of shape.’ It made sense. He said if you come to camp in tip-top shape, your body is going to break down (eventually). I never really thought of it like that.

“Some of the movements I’m doing, it has nothing to do with my knee. It’s strengthening other areas of my body that will prevent my knee from giving out. Just a lot of little things like that. It’s unbelievable.”

Kander was one of the selling points of coming to Detroit for McGrady. Another was Joe Dumars. And the underlying issue in both cases was trust. Some questioned why the Pistons would want McGrady, or vice versa, when the three highest-paid players on the roster – Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Gordon – all play the same two positions as McGrady.

But a player of McGrady’s stature wasn’t primarily, or even secondarily, interested in hearing from Dumars how he would fit or how many minutes he could expect. What he was looking for was a personal connection and whether he put faith in what he was hearing – especially coming off of his experience in Houston, where some feel the Rockets practically waged a public-relations battle to undermine the credibility of their own All-Star player.

“You hit the nail right on the head there,” he said. “I don’t want to stir up anything, but that was a major part of it – trusting the head guy. Tell me what your plans are for me and just basically put everything out there. Let’s not sugarcoat anything. Let’s not tell lies. Let’s keep everything up front and that’s what I admire about Joe because that’s what he did.”

McGrady also had a conversation with John Kuester and, again, he said no punches were pulled.

“It was good,” he said. “He told me what he expected and what he wanted me to do. He told me he wanted me here and working with Arnie. I told him, ‘No problem. If that’s what you want me to do, I’ll do it.’ I don’t have to be here, but he wants me here, so I’m here. I’m just looking forward to working with him and going on this journey this year.”

McGrady said the Pistons were one of the teams that most interested him at the start of free agency, citing his long-held admiration for Dumars and the culture he’s come to know the Pistons foster in addition to his respect for the talent on the roster.

“I like their core group of guys,” he said. “They all have something to prove. The first-year guys that came here (last summer), Ben (Gordon) and Charlie (Villanueva), those guys were injured. Tayshaun was injured for the first time in his career. Rip. That group of guys right there has something to prove. Coming off an injury-plagued season, you always want to come back strong. They have the hunger I’ve had for the last two seasons.

“Joe and I have had a solid relationship and when I came here for the visit, that just sealed the deal. Having talks with him and hearing his plans for me, and I actually had a conversation with Arnie on my visit and I knew what he did for Antonio McDyess, it was pretty much a no-brainer that this was the perfect place for me.”

For the next month, McGrady will spend most weekdays working out at The Palace, returning to his family and home in Houston on the weekends, all pointed toward being ready for training camp and proving that he’s much closer to the seven-time All-Star than a minimum-wage veteran and that his team is absurdly underrated.

“I don’t care if I don’t make the All-Star team,” he said. “What I’m saying is I want to get back to that caliber of player that I know I can be, that elevates the team, that gets the team to the playoffs.”

Can he get there?

“There’s no question. There is no question. Yes, because my body feels good. I’m in great shape. I’m in better shape than I’ve been in for the last three years. I’m a lot leaner. I’m telling you, a lot of people are going to be shocked. That’s all I’ve got to say.”