He Coulda Been a Contender
“I coulda been a contender!”-Terry Malloy, “On the Waterfront”
Every fan with an axe to grind can give you a laundry list of reasons why their favorite player would’ve, should’ve, or could’ve become an all-time great. Some reasons are better than others, but most are fanciful. A true “what if” is rare in the NBA landscape. For there to be a reasonable argument that a player’s career would have progressed differently than it did, there are two necessary criteria:
There needs to be a clear drop-off in the player’s performance due to external or unexpected factors.
There needs to be evidence of development in multiple areas of the player’s performance
If the argument meets these criteria, we can legitimately wonder what would have happened if only a player hadn’t gotten injured, traded, trapped on the bench, or drafted by a failing franchise.
What If …?
The beginning point of every “what if” is the player’s initial performance level. We must first know what a player was capable of in order to make any claims about what might have been. My contention is that Tracy McGrady exemplifies a career derailed by injury. To establish his baseline, let’s try an exercise. Can you guess which of these players is Tracy McGrady?
As you can tell from the tables, both players came off the bench as teenagers, though Player A developed faster than Player B. By their Age-20 seasons, Player A was an emerging star. In their age-21 seasons, however, the tables turned. Player B poured in over 26 points a game with a 47.4% Effective Field Goal Percentage to go with 7.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game.
The reverse was true in their age-22 seasons, in which Player A posted 28.5 points per game with a 48.4% eFG%. Though he scored slightly less, Player B filled the stat sheet with 7.9 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, outperforming Player A in both categories. In their age-23 seasons, Player B won a scoring title by putting up 32.1 points a game on a stupendous 50.5% eFG% to go with an assist-to-turnover ratio greater than 2:1 for the second consecutive season. In their age-24 seasons, Player A hopped back ahead by scoring 30 ppg on more efficient shooting from the field and the line and notching 6.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists per night. Can you tell which one is Tracy McGrady?
Taking their early careers as a whole, the two players are mostly comparable. Player A is the better shooter from two-point range and from the charity stripe, while Player B is better from three. Player B was the superior rebounder. While both players were good passers, Player A turned the ball over more than Player B did. Both players are top-flight stars, and Tracy McGrady was one of them. Which one is he, though?
Young TMac Was Built Different
Tracy McGrady is Player B and Player A is Kobe Bryant. Without the names and later careers attached to them, could you tell the difference between the two? If you had evaluated both players at the age of 24, would you have been able to determine which player would have the better career?
Through age 24, Tracy McGrady had led the league in scoring in back-to back seasons, been named Most Improved Player, been named to four All-Star teams, and been named All-NBA four times. He had finished in the top 20 players in the league in assists per game, steals per game, and blocks per game. He was a legend in the making.
Most NBA players are at their best around ages 26 through 29, as you can see in the table below.
The player who performs at a league average production rate between ages 21 and 24 would usually be expected to reach 120% of league average production rate during his prime. Superstars, on the other hand, often experience drastic leaps forward in their performance.
We don’t know whether or not Tracy McGrady would have been able to improve on his stellar pre-injury performance. McGrady was already among the best players in the league; he was, by definition, part of a small sample size.
Attempting to anticipate what a member of this elite group of players might do during their prime is tricky business. The most we can say with confidence is that if he had not been injured, TMac would have been at least as good in his prime as he was in the years leading up to his prime. He might have been even better. All we can do is wonder “what if?”
What if McGrady had been healthy enough to continue leading the league in scoring? What if his dynamic jump shot had been allowed to develop unhindered by back and lower-body injuries? He shot 38.6% from 3 on six attempts per game at 23, then shot 33.9% on 7.7 attempts per game the nest season at age 24. What if injuries had not robbed McGrady of the dynamic athleticism that made him such a good rebounder? We may never know, but we can wonder.
Old TMac Was a Great Playmaker
BY age 26, injuries began to plague TMac. In the 2005-06 season, back spasms limited McGrady to 47 games. He shot a career-low 40.6% from the field and recorded his worst 3-point shooting percentage in six years.
The following season saw McGrady continuing to fight through injury. He committed 3.0 turnovers per game, easily the worst mark of his career, and collected only 5.3 rebounds per game. Positively, TMac emerged as a distributor on a surprising Rockets team with 6.5 assists per game. He was still capable of fantastic scoring spurts, whenever he was healthy enough to play.
Shoulder and knee injuries destroyed what was left of McGrady’s athleticism in 2008-09 in what would prove to be his final campaign as a true star. Even his free throw percentage fell to a career low of 68.4% as the physical toll wore away at his shooting efficiency.
The final four seasons of McGrady’s career saw him appear in 189 games for four franchises. He returned to the bench, and his shooting efficiency declined even further. In the midst of degrading physical skills, however, McGrady expanded his game unexpectedly as a passer and off-the-dribble playmaker. In 2007, 2008, and 2009, McGrady assisted more than 25% of his teammates’ field goals while he was on the court in each campaign. Even as a less and less effective scorer, McGrady took on just as much of the playmaking load for his teams as ever. The table at right compares McGrady’s assist percentage across the different stages of his career. As is readily apparent, TMac developed continuously as a passer in spite of having the ball in his hands somewhat less in the injury-ridden third phase of his career.
What If Tracy McGrady Had Never Gotten Injured?
Before suffering numerous injuries, Tracy McGrady was one of the best players in the game. By age 23, he had established himself as an MVP-level superstar, and he was still improving. When injuries began to impact his performance, McGrady remained a dangerous weapon as a scorer and a passer. His rebounding and defense suffered as his athleticism declined, but he was still a star. By the time he reached 30, TMac’s physical skills had degraded so noticeably that he had to depend on his ever-developing passing ability to keep him in the league.
If he had never gotten injured, McGrady would have been an MVP candidate for at least four more years (ages 26-29, the normal prime of a player’s career). Given his previous profile, it is likely that McGrady’s three-point shot would have continued to develop as a more and more dangerous weapon. With his athleticism intact, we could have seen a prime TMac who was still able to crash the boards and make momentum-changing plays on defense. Combining that preternatural giftedness with his improved court vision and passing IQ, TMac could have been an unstoppable force in the vein of LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard. Tracy McGrady had a great career, but we are left to wonder what might have been if only he had been healthy.
Greg is the author of The Basketball Bible, a 1,000 page ebook full of explanations, analysis, and visualization of NBA statistics. His analysis of the NBA appears at his blog, https://greekgodofstats.com/, along with a statistical database of the most accurate and comprehensive statistical model in the NBA analytics community. Follow Greg on Twitter @greekgodofstats and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GreekGodofStats/.