McGrady and Yao. Yao and McGrady. This is fair, why? Remember how the Lakers threepeated on the strength of having the two best players in the league and a great coach? Well that’s exactly what the Houston Rockets will have soon enough. When it comes to the best inside-outside combo, they might have that already. Yao is the second best center in the NBA, and Shaq is fading fast. Will he ever be as good as Shaq in his prime or even 75% of that? Well, Shaquille O’Neal might be the most dominant player in NBA history, so falling short of that is no indictment. But Yao has some skills that Shaq never had, like the ability to hit an open jump shot and free throw, plus in his second year in the league, Yao might be just as good of a passer as Shaq was in his MVP season. There was a stretch this past season where Yao was being fed the rock, and dominated games. He’s just 24 years old, like his newest teammate, and now he has a chance to grow as a player as he grows older.
Houston was undermined by the wacky non-chemistry of Yao and Coach Van Gundy with Stevie Franchise and Cat Mobley, that tore the team apart. All year long they played amazing defense, spearheaded by their new coach’s Riley philosophy, but their number one offensive go-to play was the careless turnover. All Van Gundy wanted was a team that would play tough on the defensive end and run his offense through his franchise center. That didn’t work for Steve Francis, who still saw himself as the franchise player.
It would be stupid to question the all-around talent of Steve Francis, who can be as explosive as McGrady, Kobe, Baron Davis, or Vince Carter to name a few. But something is just not right with him. His whole game is based on dribbling around until he finds himself an open shot, a lane to get to the hoop, or an open teammate at the last possible second. With the ball constantly in his hands, Francis puts up big numbers, and comes up with huge games from time to time. But he, as well as three-point gunner Cuttino Mobley, who will be joining him in Orlando, never understood that there is no one in the league like the man they could have fed the ball to inside. Now they are gone, and Yao will have a chance to restart his climb to the top of the league, hopefully with someone that will let him develop his post game without hijacking the offense. The question remains, is Tracy McGrady a ball hog, the same way that Steve Francis is? I personally don’t think so.
The McGrady/Kobe debate has never been conclusively decided. Kobe wouldn’t be the champion that he is without Shaq, and T-Mac wouldn’t have the big numbers and scoring titles he has piled up if he were forced to share the ball with a big man inside. So how can we compare the two, who are only one year apart in age? McGrady has had his share of clutch moments and big playoff performances, though they mostly go unnoticed since they happen in the first round and rarely on national TV, while Kobe performs miracles in the Finals and in the spotlight all year long. When he ran off that seemingly endless string of 40 point games during one month of the ’02-’03 season, Kobe’s 30 ppg at the end of the year still couldn’t match McGrady’s 32.1 per. To this day, it’s hard to say who the better player is because of the different paths of the teams they play for. But Kobe only meshed with Shaq because he knew it was what he had to do if he wanted to win rings.
As a young talent in Toronto, T-Mac came up as the ultimate second banana; in the midst of Vinsanity. While the world embraced Vince Carter as the next Michael Jordan for his nightly takeover of highlight shows, the unforgettable slam dunk contest showcase, a 50 point game on national television when the NBA on NBC was still must-see TV, and then a game-winning buzzer beater here or there, T-Mac played the background. He was a forgotten high-school-to-the-pros player, who was even covered in Sports Illustrated as the poster child for a bust. He was portrayed as alone and depressed in the cold of a Canadian city, doing nothing but going to practice and then returning home to make long distance phone calls for hours at a time. Then Vince came along, and the Raptors were for real. McGrady only started 34 regular season games that year, but he came on strong as the year dragged on. They made it to the playoffs, with Vince and his cousin leading the way.
In a series against the New York Knicks, Carter struggled, but McGrady brought his athletic game to the apple, opening eyes around the league. The Raptors lost to a more seasoned playoff team, but the future was bright, with two young superstars playing together. Then, Tracy turned around and left for the money, the warm weather, to be the man, or whatever his reasoning was. If you were from Florida, and had the chance to be the Pippen of Toronto or Jordan in your own home state, what would you do? Exactly.
Vince, the better player at the time, was enraged. Why couldn’t T-Mac accept his role as a team player in support of him? Well, when Grant Hill’s injuries ruined a potential budding Magic dynasty, T-Mac became they player that he is today. It was one of the most extreme cases ever of potential instantaneously exploding into payoff. His final year in Toronto, McGrady averaged 15.4 points per game, 6.4 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. In Orlando, this is what he brought to the stat sheet in his first year: 26.8 points, 7.5 boards, 4.6 assists. He was fully transformed into a star, and he carried the load for his team, turning into a dominating force as well as one of the top entertainers in the league.
There’s another side to T-Mac though, who can sometimes come across as a male diva. For all of the memories he has created, from his timeless bang off the glass in All-Star Game traffic to when he went out of his way to make friends with a young boy that was a victim of the beltway sniper, there is still a dark side deep within him. He comes across as if he thinks he’s too cool for school. Some of that originates with his lazy eye and laid back demeanor, but he honestly doesn’t give his all on defense. He stars in numerous TV and print ads where he talks about how he is the best player in the league, but he has not won anything yet other than a scoring title. After leading his team to a 3-1 stranglehold in a first-round series over the #1 seed Detroit Pistons in the season before their championship, T-Mac spoke publicly about the second round and how excited he was to be there. Orlando will never win another playoff game with Tracy McGrady on their team.
Their disappointment from that series carried over into ’03-’04 when T-Mac’s bad back was always acting up, and his team was just awful. The Orlando Magic team was one of the biggest jokes in the league. T-Mac had no fun, called out his teammates for playing uninspired ball, and was labeled as a spoiled brat who wanted praise when he was winning but sulked as a loser. To his credit, when McGrady scored an NBA season-high 62 points in a game this year, he showed no signs of happiness or satisfaction because it was a lost season to him. Well now he’s found his way out of the town that he helped bring back to basketball life, and he will no longer have to deal with a supporting cast that can’t possibly match his play level. Excuse time is over. Now Tracy McGrady, a man who much like MVP Kevin Garnett before this season, has never made it past the first round, will be expected to lead championship-caliber teams.
The obvious question about the makeup of the new Rockets is will this be the NBA’s next Shaq-Kobe, for better and/or worse? Though Shaq is a superior scorer to Yao, and both need to be the fed the ball to succeed, there is a huge fundamental difference in the two. Yao never complained about Francis or Mobley, though the results showed that when given the chance, he was a proven, developing star in this league. As Francis dribbled around aimlessly from side to side, running down shot clocks and hoisting up prayers, Yao held his position down low or cleared out. He listened to Van Gundy and assistant coach Patrick Ewing, and never took shots at Francis through the media. Maybe he couldn’t because Stevie was there first, or because his upbringing taught him to respect people more. But now Yao is the star that survived, and Tracy, the better player comes to his town. Will he turn into the Kobe that ignored Shaq to establish his own legacy, or will he develop a magical chemistry with his big man that Kobe and Shaq had at their most brilliant times? Here’s the difference between Kobe and Tracy; Kobe was never a superstar until he had Shaq. T-Mac is a two-time scoring champion who is already mentioned as a top 5 player in the league at the very least. Now, things will get easier for him, because he can’t be doubled and tripled for the first time since becoming the player that he is today. His sense of team will only grow as he sees the results.
McGrady and Yao. They haven’t won anything yet, but let the new era begin. Even as the Lakers failed to win the last two championships, having two of the best in the league on the same team was enough to keep the Shaq-Kobe era alive. It’s the dawn of a different day now. A Red Rocket dawn.