Who Was Better (Pre-Injuries): Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway Or Tracy McGrady?

Nothing ever stabs as deep as a career cut short. With Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway and Tracy McGrady, three similarly-sized players who were meant to redefine the point guard, shooting guard and small forward positions, it feels like someone took a sword to our guts and twisted. They were all so young, and with so much potential. Even though they all had long careers (Hill, 18 years; Penny, 14 years; McGrady, 15 years), it still hurts. Between knees, backs and ankles, all three suffered through injury-riddled primes cut short by the basketball gods.

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Penny left the NBA behind for good in 2007, and this summer Grant Hill followed him. Then, just yesterday, T-Mac announced his retirement from the NBA, the last of our generation’s greatest “what if?” trio to officially close the door on the Association. Now all we have left are memories of when T-Mac, Penny and Grant were some of the most exciting players the NBA had ever seen.

But who was the best of the three before they suffered injuries? Who was the best in their prime? We argue. You decide.

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You know the story of Grant Hill’s entrance to the league, how he was the next Michael Jordan. Which means you know about his ankle surgeries from 2000-04, his could-have-been-fatal infection in his post-surgery ankle and his career suddenly on the rocks. Knowing all of that — seeing his rise in Phoenix as a born-again bionic man who still took an opponent’s best player on defense — how would you describe Hill?


Though it’s compelling to cite alone his ability to make the Pistons’ mid-90s ketchup-and-teal uniforms look dope as the sole reason he wins, it’s that same qualification — good for a laugh as it is — that in fact lends itself best to Hill’s case. Like fashion, Hill’s game is praised because of its ephemeral quality and remembered because of its smooth appearance. Thanks to his ankle problems, his prime didn’t last long but when you read into the numbers, there’s a whole lot of substance to back up the style.

In a league that champions its gunners, there has to be an immense level of appreciation for the offensive sacrifice Hill took in his prime to produce the way he did. Yes, he was Detroit’s best option from ’94-’00, but he was never the offensive player he could have been because of his effort on defense and distribution, picking up averages of 21.4 points, nine boards and 7.4 assists in ’96-97, or 20.2, 9.8 and 6.2 in ’95-96. Able to make his team better, Detroit went from 28 wins in his rookie season to 46 and 54 by year three.

Hill may not have enjoyed the comparisons to MJ, but he never shied away from their head-to-head matchups. In 15 games against one another from 1995 to 2003, Hill had eight double-doubles and three triple-doubles and came within an assist of a fourth. (That doesn’t include a classic game on Jan. 3, 1998 where Hill went for 31 points, seven boards, six assists and six steals vs. Jordan’s 34 points, nine assists and nine steals.)

It’s that ease, on each end of the floor, that brings me back to taking Hill. It’s a sense of knowing you’re being fooled and still believing, like the eyes seeing the 6-8 forward draining himself on both ends of the court but the brain understanding it as effortless. As true as an NBA on NBC broadcast in the early afternoon, Hill made it look that way even when it wasn’t.

So this smoothness, is it exclusive to Hill? Of course not; however, Hill’s true gift was making every single part of his game just look that way.

Going back and watching Anfernee Hardaway streak across the sky in the 1997 NBA Playoffs was kind of like seeing Heath Ledger transform into the Joker on the silver screen. The emergence of such a remarkable talent was exhilarating, but the experience is tempered by knowing – as we now do – that it would never be that way again.

By the time The Dark Knight hit IMAX screens, Ledger had already succumbed to his vices. And in a bittersweet twist, the most crucial example of Penny’s individual brilliance was also pretty much the beginning of the end.

Hardaway was a wonderfully creative point guard and a lockdown defender, but his rail-thin 6-7 frame just wasn’t built to last, and he had already missed substantial games for the first time in 1996-97 due to injuries.

But after the No. 7 seed Magic lost the first two games of their first-round playoff series to the heavily favored Heat, something just clicked.

Penny willed the Magic to victory in the next two games by scoring 42 and 41 points, respectively. He scored every which way – flawless jump shots off impossibly fluid spin moves, irrepressible slices to the basket, steals he’d take the distance. Penny was a force of nature, almost seeming to physically take out his frustration after Shaquille O’Neal‘s departure stopped a burgeoning dynasty dead in its tracks.

On a Magic squad pretty much bereft of talent, Penny scored 42 points in Game 3; the other four Magic starters combined for six. The Heat simply had no answer for Penny, and it took everything they had to survive his 33-10-6 onslaught in the decisive Game 5.

Penny’s knee gave out the following year, and four surgeries and three teams later, he just wasn’t the same player. He got back to a relatively high level his final season in Orlando and first year in Phoenix, but he never came close to the dizzying heights of the 1997 Playoffs.

With apologies to the Village Voice, permit me to admit critical bias: I was a huge Penny fan. He had the cool name, the cooler nickname. The first jersey I ever owned was a Champion replica of his black Magic jersey, and The Penny II remains my favorite sneaker ever. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like the Lil’ Penny commercials – my favorite was a knowing wink at Jordan’s “Frozen Moment” ad.

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You could make a definitive case that other “next Jordan” candidates were better pre-injury: Grant Hill was an incredible all-around player, and Tracy McGrady was unguardable when inspired.

But Penny’s performance in that Heat series showed that before he broke down, he might have only scratched the surface of how good he could have been. With a slightly better surrounding cast, who knows? Perhaps he makes an Iverson-esque run to the Finals some year.

That said, it’s not as if Penny simply faded away. Nike started retroing Air Pennys a couple years ago, even coming up with some new models, and I was pleasantly surprised to see at-the-time hip-hop rookie J. Cole cite Penny as his favorite player.

I’ll always have to wonder what chapters remained unwritten for Penny. But that doesn’t mean the story that unfolded and his ensuing legacy aren’t significant in their own right.

After all, we’ll always have that wonderful frozen moment in the spring of 1997, when the sky seemed the limit and we dreamed right along with Penny about just how good he could be.

Once upon a time, there were a couple of ballplayers. One was hyper, jittery, had hops but was always slightly in over his head. The other was an older man, slow, goateed-out, shooting flat jumpers and muscling inside with what little he had. These two players – Darrell Armstrong (2000-03) and Juwan Howard (2004) – probably represented the two best consistently healthy players Tracy McGrady ever played with in Orlando.

T-Mac never led his team out of the first round. What did you want him to do? His career playoff numbers (discounting his last two runs with Atlanta and San Antonio when he rarely left the bench) were 29, seven and six. They were even better with the Magic; In his first taste as an alpha dog in the playoffs against Milwaukee, he only went for 33.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 8.3 assists and 3.1 stocks (blocks plus steals) a game, and had Glenn Robinson so shook up the Big Dog felt neutered. Oh yeah… Grant Hill never made it out of the first round until 2010. Penny? He pleads the Kobe on this one because of the presence of some center who was pretty good, but he was still swept the first three times he made the playoffs and then lost both times in the first round as the unquestioned leader (both of their playoff numbers also WEREN’T EVEN CLOSE to McGrady’s).

In 2002-03, McGrady’s PER was 30.3 (14th best single-season mark ever). Grant Hill’s average PER in Detroit was 22.5 (McGrady’s in Orlando: 26.4). Hardaway? He never had one season that was even as good as McGrady’s worst in Orlando. At his zenith, T-Mac made nearly twice as many threes as Penny while Grant Hill made 22 treys in his first five NBA seasons combined. Hill was definitely the best rebounder of the three, but McGrady twice averaged at least 7.5 boards a night. And while people will immediately assume Penny was by far the best playmaker of the three, his assist numbers were very low for a point guard. Both Hill and McGrady excelled in point forward positions, except T-Mac could also spring for 50 or 60.

Defensively, Hill and Hardaway were both excellent. Did McGrady always play up to his potential on that end? No. He also had to carry guys like Bo Outlaw and Pat Garrity on offense for 82-plus nights a year. But when he was in Toronto – playing a similar role to the one Hardaway had w/ Shaq and Hill to an extent in Detroit – McGrady was a ferocious shotblocker. In three seasons north of the border, per 36 minutes, McGrady never averaged less than 1.9 blocks a night (as well as 1.5 steals).

In the years after being traded from Orlando, his career slowly crumbling, Penny Hardaway became the NBA’s Big L. He was a great player, but never quite as good as we make him out to be now. It feels good to reminisce and talk about him as if he was a top-three player when that just wasn’t the case. Same thing with Grant Hill. Hall of Fame talents. They just weren’t there yet. Funny that we don’t have the same love affair with a young McGrady.

If you go by the numbers from 2001-04, McGrady was better during that time than a prime Shaq. Better than a prime Duncan. Better than a prime KG. Better than a prime Kobe. Just look at the company he kept: He was regularly compared with Bryant (who had his best all-around season in 2002-03, but McGrady still might’ve been better) whereas Hardaway and Hill were considered the future and not quite on the level of the game’s best swingmen, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

Stick that T-Mac on the 1995 Magic? No way they get swept in the Finals. Stick that T-Mac with the late-90s Pistons? I’m pretty sure they could get past a very average Atlanta team. Pre-injuries, McGrady was someone who had never been seen before, an offensive mastermind whose scoring skills bordered on obscene. He could also switch to point on a whim, guard another team’s best option with his 7-2 wingspan, and grab 15 boards a night. His individual game had absolutely no holes.

We place Penny and Hill on a pedestal like they were incapable of failure or wrong. McGrady gets the opposite treatment, and has ever since he left Orlando in 2004. Perception can lie. But stats don’t. Here are three seasons. You tell me which one you want:

Player A: 21, 9 & 7 … 1.8 steals, 0.6 blocks … 50% from field, 71% FT, didn’t shoot threes
Player B: 22, 4 & 7 … 2.0 steals, 0.5 blocks … 51% from field, 77% FT, 31% from three
Player C: 32, 7 & 6 … 1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks … 46% from field, 79% FT, 39% from three

To me, it’s not a question. T-Mac – Player C – was the best of the three in their primes. Too bad we’re concerned with the flaws in his resume to appreciate that.

Who would you take?

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