Recently I brainstormed looking for a topic for a new article. I put up a “status” on FaceBook asking my friends what should my next article be about. Someone mentioned that I should do a piece comparing the careers of Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Vince Carter. One person went a step further and stated that if McGrady had not been injured so early and often in the prime of his career that he would have been the best player of the three.
It led to this reaction; “What the #%$#? It ain’t no way in hell T-Mac, or Vince Carter, was better than Kobe! F#$% outta here!” I was completely beside myself in disbelief that someone I have respect for would utter such a blasphemous statement about THE Black Mamba. As the days passed I had to consider my fandom a hindrance to me being unbiased and objective. I have to preface my piece by being forthright with you all. I am a Kobe Bryant Fan Boy.
Now that we have that out the way let’s get into some facts. After really digging into this topic I came away rather astonished at how close T-Mac was to Kobe, in terms of per game production. Kobe clearly benefited from sticking with a world class organization like the Lakers for his entire career. McGrady, on the other hand, toiled between several teams, which could be a valid reason why he never advanced to a Finals appearance. Also worth noting, McGrady never had a healthy co-star on his team to help with the work load. Kobe enjoyed great coaching and a franchise big man to elevate his team to seven Finals appearances. Here is a summarized breakdown of T-Mac’s career.
McGrady was selected as the Toronto Raptors 9th overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft. He was part of the high school to pros boom of the late 90s. After Kevin Garnett and Kobe headlined the previous draft classes, T-Mac followed with a different athletic profile. Whereas Kobe was viewed as a project player, T-Mac was viewed as more polished at the time of his draft. McGrady was also more gifted physically as he was listed at 6’8″ and sometimes at 6’9″. Kobe on his best day is 6’7″. It may not make much of a difference to some, but a few more inches of height and overall body mass goes a long way in pro sports.
The beginning of both Kobe and T-Mac’s careers started off with them being understudies. Kobe was relegated to the bench to begin his career. He came into his own as the the Lakers began their championship run of the early 2000s. Looking at the first 5 years of their respective careers, they have nearly identical per game averages. In Kobe’s first five seasons he averaged 19 PPG, 4 APG, and 5 RPG. In comparison, T-Mac averaged 17 PPG, 3 APG, and 6 RPG. T-Mac spent the first seasons of his career with newly discovered distant cousin Vince Carter, who was coming into his own fame as a NBA star. The Carter-McGady tandem was more of a partnership that went awry due to self-preservation. Kobe’s rise collided with the dominance of Shaquille O’Neal. It was not a partnership at all. It was a kid that was staking his claim and a man that wanted control over his team. Kobe clearly got more out of his situation as he won 3 NBA Championships within his first 6 years. Meanwhile, T-Mac started his dominance right as Kobe started collecting trophies.
Both players peaked at precisely the same time. Kobe had to adapt to finally being the alpha male on his team, T-Mac had grown accustomed to it. It was not planned for McGrady to push his Orlando Magic team to the playoffs alone. The Magic also acquired former Detroit Piston Grant Hill to co-anchor the team back to prominence. The pairing proved to foreshadow the premature ending of both McGrady and Hill’s promising careers. During his tenure with the Magic, and the beginning of his time with the Houston Rockets, T-Mac was must see tv. He was putting up LeBron like numbers before LeBron. In his sixth season, T-Mac had 32 PPG, 7 RPG, and 6 APG. If you add in the 2 steals and 1 block per game he contributed defensively, I would say that McGrady had one of the better seasons in NBA history.
He was fourth in MVP voting that 2002-2003 season. Tim Duncan took home the honors for a second consecutive year. At the time the league was a big man’s league. Kobe finished 3rd in voting that same season, posting similar overall per game averages but 2 points less per game than McGrady. Over the next five seasons both players would be at the top of their respective individual game. During the 02-03 season and the following four years, T-Mac averaged 27 PPG. At this juncture is when Kobe began to separate himself from his fiercest competitor as he averaged 30 PPG; including a 35 PPG, 5 RPG, and 5 APG season in 2005-2006. Kobe finished fourth that season in the MVP voting to 2x MVP Steve Nash. Tracy McGrady was not in the top ten of voting in a list that included Elton Brand, Chauncey Billups, and Shawn Marion. This is despite of having averages of 25 PPG, 7 RPG, and 5 APG.
Sadly, McGrady’s career unraveled quickly. He battled and played through various injuries, and played on talent-poor teams. The tandem of McGrady and Rockets center Yao Ming had basketball fans salivating at the prospects of a dynasty but never quite panned out. By the 2007-2008 season McGrady was a shell of his former self. The once high flying offensive assassin began to deteriorate at the age of 28. After posting an eight year low of 21 PPG that season, he went on to decrease his PPG average by 5 points each season. By age 30, he had been traded to the New York Knicks. He floundered around the league for three more seasons before retiring, playing minor league baseball, competing for a championship with the San Antonio Spurs, and retiring again, all by the age of 36.
Kobe would never post 35 PPG again but he went on to win two more championships, finally win a MVP award, and would continue to pour in points. Kobe averaged 27 PPG in the same time frame that T-Mac would score a career low 12 PPG, including a 5 PPG average in 2011-2012. Tracy McGrady’s career came to an unceremonious close during a taping of ESPN “First Take”. A year younger than Kobe, he bowed out gracefully, albeit not at his own wishes. Kobe meanwhile is in the final year of his current contract at age 37. He is undecided if he will continue playing after this year. There aren’t many career feats that he can realistically accomplish. Having recently surpassed Michael Jordan for 3rd all time in career points, and he would need several seasons of good health to unseat Karl Malone for 2nd all time. The Lakers franchise is clearly in rebuilding mode and Kobe’s chances of getting a sixth championship are slim. It is not clear if he would play for another team to get that championship but as it currently stands Kobe will finish his career as an all time great.
Tracy McGrady’s career was beset by injuries and undermanned rosters. In my opinion, if McGrady had a great team or comparable talent to the Lakers he would have had a longer career. The Sacramento Kings was a team that always seemed on the cusp of going all the way. McGrady was always a player or two short from winning a championship. The two could have been a perfect match. It just never happened.
As a six time All Star and a NBA scoring champion, McGrady will one day make it to the Naismith Basketball Hall Of Fame. During his inception speech he should note the following about himself:
- Top 25 All Time in Single Season Points Per Game Average
- Tied Top 15 in NBA History in Points Scored in a Game (62 points on 20-37 shooting against Washington Wizards March 10 2004)
- Scored 13 Points in 33 seconds to beat the Spurs 81-80 on Dec 9, 2004
- Despite career ending relatively soon he averaged 20 PPG, 6 RPG, and 4 APG for entire career
- Kobe gave T-Mac the highest honor by stating that McGrady was the toughest person he had to play against
McGrady should conclude his speech by humbly saying “and I’m still not better than Kobe”.