McGrady: I'm Young... But I'm Old'
The enigma of Tracy McGrady continues. "I'm young,'' he says. "But I'm old.''
McGrady is 27, yet he's entering his 10th season with a sensitive back that sidelined him for 34 games last season. He feels much older than he looks. "My first year here,'' he says, referring to his 2004-05 debut with Houston after being traded by Orlando, "I felt like I was that same type of guy that was in the Magic uniform, that I could go out and get 30 or 40 every night. At this point right now, I don't feel that way. I feel like the last few years my game has diminished a little bit. I don't know if it's because I'm older, because of the injuries or what, but I feel that I'm a step slower.''
McGrady is an interesting test case for the NBA. Personnel people are studying him, Kevin Garnett and other teenaged draft picks in hope of recalibrating the standard graph for NBA longevity. The traditional thinking has been that NBA players reach their peak at 28 into their early 30s, but that traditional model was based on rookies who used to enter the league in their early 20s after three or more years of college.
McGrady was drafted as a 17-year-old in 1997. When Larry Bird had played as many NBA games as McGrady -- 617 -- Bird was a 30-year-old whose body was already starting to break down, leading to his retirement five years later. "The last six years I've been playing a lot of minutes,'' McGrady says. "In Orlando I was playing 40-plus, and what I had to do for them -- guarding the best players and scoring the ball -- really took a toll on my body. I don't feel 27. It's not so much the years that you play in this league, it's more so the mileage and the minutes and everything that you do that takes a toll on you. It's definitely done that to me.
"I had a very quick first step, and I've lost a little bit of that. I've put on some weight, but hey man, as you get older you slow down a little bit and that's what's happened to me. I look at Kobe Bryant. He's still a great player, but he had to sort of change his game a little bit because we're getting older. He's breaking down as well with the surgeries. I saw him [Friday] night and he doesn't look the same. He doesn't look the same at all. He looks heavier and he looks slower.''
Bryant, by the way, is 28.
Is McGrady ready to cash out? On the contrary. He compares himself to the pitchers who lose something off their fastball yet compensate with a better understanding of how to work the plate. "Roger Clemens doesn't throw as hard as he used to throw, but he's very smart, he knows how to mix his pitches up and keep the batters off balance,'' McGrady says. "Obviously I'm not 40-something years old, but just the whole mentality of knowing that you don't have that overpowering [presence] that you would normally have when you were younger. As you get older you don't have that, so you got to find another way -- and that's got to be by smarts.''
McGrady's career seemed to be at risk last year when Rockets owner Leslie Alexander personally decided to hold him out for the final month in order to get to the bottom of his back injury. McGrady spent the summer getting leaner and now swears that he doesn't worry about reinjuring his back. "My back was so jacked up, I was healthy -- this is no lie -- for one game last year, and that was the first game of the season,'' he says. "I kind of lost my passion for the game, but I worked my *** off to get into tip-top shape just to bounce back and come into training camp more focused than ever.
"I think I'll be healthy to play out this contract,'' says McGrady, who is signed through 2009-10, when he'll be making $23.2 million as a 30-year-old. "But after that it's a big question mark.''
By acquiring Shane Battier and Bonzi Wells, the Rockets have assembled a contending roster around Yao Ming and McGrady, whom coach Jeff Van Gundy routinely refers to as "one of the great decision-makers in the league.'' "A lot of guys would have trouble accepting me saying to the team that Yao is our No. 1 option in the halfcourt, but Tracy's fine with that,'' Van Gundy says. "I hear all this 'Me-Mac' stuff from down in Orlando. I don't know what happened, but if he was that way there, he hasn't been that way from Day One here. This guy has been all about the team.''
McGrady is the best player in the league to not have won a playoff series, but Van Gundy objects to the category. "We were up 2-0 two years ago and we should have won,'' says Van Gundy, referring to the Rockets' seven-game loss to Dallas. "Or I don't know if we should have won; we lost to a team that played better than us during the regular season, but we had the ability to win. I don't think he could have possibly done more in that series. That's what bothers me about 'McGrady has never won a first-round series.' I know there were reasons we lost in that series, and not one of them had to do with McGrady.''
He has made the playoffs five times but never on a team with homecourt advantage. "I've always been the underdog,'' says McGrady, who averaged 30-plus points in each of his four series with Orlando and Houston. "But I can honestly say this is the first time in my 10 years that I came into training camp and I felt like I'm finally going to get out of the first round.
"When I was younger I was extremely happy and excited to win a scoring title and accomplish all of these individual accolades, but now I don't even care about all this stuff. I watched Dwyane Wade [win the championship] and LeBron -- he's in his third year and he's advancing to the second round -- that's motivation. That's where I want to be because I see how much fun those guys are having out there. And that's what I want to do.''
It's as if McGrady has been abandoned by the new Wade/LeBron/Carmelo era. "It's like everybody's forgotten him all of a sudden,'' Rockets GM Carroll Dawson says of McGrady. "He used to be one of the stalwarts, but you never see his name anymore.''
What does that mean to McGrady? "Nothing,'' he says. "I know what I'm capable of, and you ask those guys -- they respect me.''
Before breaking out with a 32-point performance on 11-of-19 shooting in Houston's win at Milwaukee on Wednesday, McGrady had started slowly in averaging 16.5 points and hitting a career-low 35.8 percent from the field. But he was more concerned with the 3-2 Rockets up-and-down start, though he recognizes that all the newcomers will need time to learn Van Gundy's complicated system. "I'm in a situation where I don't have to score like that anymore,'' says McGrady, referring to his not-so-distant past. "If I was put in the situation where I had to do that, I think I'm still capable of doing it. But I'm playing with the best center in the league so I don't have to go out and be that guy anymore. And that will prolong my career.''
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