Tracy McGrady apologists love to point to 2002-03, and in a way, they should. T-Mac was arguably the best player in the world, leading a rag-tag group of misfits to a near upset in the first round against Detroit while putting together one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history. Clyde Drexler apologists love to point to 1991-92, the year he nearly toppled Michael Jordan in both the Finals and the MVP voting.
Two amazing players to watch. Two players who never accomplished as much as we’d hoped. Or expected.
Glide and T-Mac were long, athletic wing players ahead of their time, with Drexler earning himself a spot-on nickname and a place among the NBA’s all-time greats and T-Mac earning the biggest “what if?” mantle in league history.
Yet today, with recent news signaling McGrady might be making a comeback not in basketball but in baseball, we have to ask. Which player was better: Tracy McGrady or Clyde Drexler? We argue. You decide.
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Living in the same city as the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks (that still doesn’t sound right) has taught me a few things about our perceptions of athletic greatness, championships and validation.
Lesson No. 1: Winning isn’t everything.
I’ve watched almost every game of the Russell Wilson era. And by Feb. 1, 2014, I was able to surmise that Wilson is a great quarterback, Marshawn Lynch is a great running back, Richard Sherman is a great cornerback, and the Seahawks have a great defense.
So on Feb. 2, did Wilson become any greater by throwing for a below-average 206 yards in the Super Bowl? Did Lynch’s 39-yard output against the Broncos elevate him on the list of all-time great runners? If Sherman’s end-zone deflection in the NFC title game had gone out of bounds and the 49ers scored on the next play, would that make Sherman any less of a player?
Of course not.
The difference between the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl and not even making it there was slim; certainly not large enough that it should make a difference in how anyone views this team or its place in history.
But as fans and as media, that’s not how we operate. We need that championship as the cherry on top that certifies a player and their team. And for the most part, athletes buy into the same flawed logic.
The reality is that football, basketball and baseball aren’t like tennis, golf and track. One athlete in a team sport cannot control their entire destiny, and winning is not always the best gauge of talent.
Which brings me to the case of Tracy McGrady.
For all of his accomplishments, McGrady’s NBA career has unfortunately been defined by his teams’ playoff failures. Before his last ride with the Spurs in 2013–when he was a late-season addition to the roster and one of the last guys off the bench for the Western Conference champs–McGrady never got close to a championship. In his prime with the Magic and Rockets, in fact, the only time one of his teams made it past the first round was in 2009, when T-Mac was sidelined by an injury.
And so the narrative was written casting T-Mac as a loser, even though he averaged 29.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists in his playoff runs with Orlando and Houston. And that narrative places him permanently below comparably talented but championship-certified talents like Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and Dwyane Wade. And for the sake of this argument, below Clyde Drexler.
Lesson No. 2: Numbers can lie.
Drexler retired with career averages of 20.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.0 steals. He won a title with the Rockets and helped the Blazers claim two Western Conference crowns, plus he won an Olympic gold medal.
T-Mac retired with career averages of 19.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.2 steals, and the aforementioned fruitless postseasons.
Clearly the edge goes to Drexler, right?
Drexler’s career numbers trump McGrady’s largely because when Drexler retired at 35, he was still a full-time starter for the Rockets.
By the time McGrady left the game at 33, injuries had led to significantly reduced roles with the Knicks, Pistons, Hawks and Spurs. Naturally, his career numbers took a hit. But at his peak, T-Mac was good for about 30 points, six boards, five assists, a couple of steals and a block per game–better than or at least equal to Drexler at his best.
So unless we’re punishing McGrady for not walking away when he still had something left in the tank–for playing until the wheels fell off–the stats shouldn’t swing the argument one way or the other.
Lesson No. 3: Trust yourself.
Clyde Drexler was on the original NBA 50 Greatest list, and if they did a do-over, he’d probably make it again. T-Mac probably wouldn’t. Drexler is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. T-Mac might have to wait a few years even after he’s eligible. Add up the stats and the rings, then ask a cross-section of fans, media or athletes who was better, and I’d predict most would pick Drexler.
But I know what I saw. I watched Drexler play and I watched T-Mac play. Both were great. I think T-Mac was better.
T-Mac was more versatile. He was also a better shooter, a better scorer and a better passer than Drexler. In the prime of his career, T-Mac was the best pure scorer in the league (better than Kobe) and maybe the most all-around talented player in the world. He was a 6-8 shooting guard with point-guard skills and small-forward capabilities.
Drexler had a more complete and rewarding career. McGrady values winning like any other elite athlete, so I’m sure he’d trade with Drexler if he could just to get that ring.
Instead, T-Mac might just have to settle for being the better player. Whatever that’s worth.