If I had to guess, I would say that Bill Simmons’ article on Tracy McGrady is about a million words long. Seriously I stopped counting the paragraphs at 20, and I think I was about half way down the page.
Trusty notepad++ is telling me that it’s only 5180 words. It calculates that using a formula, and maybe there’s a flaw in the equation that estimates the count. Even though I felt like I was going line by line through the “Affordable Care Act“, I trust notepad++’s estimate over my own.
The piece makes some good points, notably McGrady’s poor supporting cast and his aversion to practice. In his Simmonsian way, he finds time among the 10^4/2 words he uses to take a pot shot at Patrick Ewing*. You know that guy that hasn’t suited up in 12 seasons, and was drafted before J.R. Smith was born. For sure the phrase “beating a dead horse” is derived from one of Bill’s ancestors.
Beyond that, Simmons makes the case that McGrady was one of the league’s better players because at one time he was Kobe Braynt’s equal.
We want to remember the eight-year stretch from 2001 through 2008, when McGrady’s production was barely different from Kobe Bryant’s production.
Player A (reg. season): 26.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 5.5 apg, 44-34-75%, 21.8 FGA, 7.4 FTA, 24.2 PER, 32.7 usage
Player B (reg. season): 29.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 5.3 apg, 45-34-84%, 21.9 FGA, 9.0 FTA, 25.0 PER, 32.6 usage
You probably figured out that Player B was Kobe. (True.) But you had to think about it. This goofy exercise gets harder when you compare T-Mac’s playoff averages from 2001 to 2008 (35 games) with Kobe’s playoff averages over that same stretch (102 games).
Player A: 28.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.3 apg, 43.4 mpg, 45-33-81%, 22.6 FGA, 8.3 FTA, 22.5 PER, 31.1 usage
Player B: 29.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 6.5 apg, 42.6 mpg, 43-30-75%, 24.5 FGA, 9.1 FTA, 25.4 PER, 35.3 usage
You probably figured out that Player B was Kobe. Wrong. It was T-Mac. Those 35 playoff games became part of his legacy, for better or worse — superduperstar numbers for someone who obviously couldn’t be a superduperstar because (hold on, I’m grabbing my sports radio voice) let’s be honest, folks, superduperstars should make the second round! We judge these guys by playoff wins first and everything else second. Most of the time, it’s totally fair. In T-Mac’s case, it’s not totally fair. Kobe had Shaq and Phil, and later Gasol and Odom, with a slew of Horrys and Fishers and Rices mixed in. T-Mac’s best teammates were Yao Ming, Grant Hill (played 46 games in four years with McGrady), Mike Miller, a washed-up Dikembe Mutombo, a really washed-up Patrick Ewing, and a really, really, really washed-up Shawn Kemp.
Both players are 6-7-ish swingmen. At their peak, both players could do it all: pass, rebound, defend, and score. And Bill would have you believe that the only differences between the two was their supporting cast and their moxie. I won’t deny that both of those things, in it of themselves, are true. However that’s not what made Kobe Bryant a ring-bearer and Tracy McGrady an avid June vacationer.
Both players were pretty similar to the naked eye; they were turn of the century poor-man Jordan clones. They could score from anywhere on the court, with moves and counter moves to befuddle their opponent. Using an omnipresent eye, they could find an open teammate for an easy score. And when these gifts weren’t enough, they could rely on exceptional physical ability beyond the average N.B.A. athlete.
As you can see from above, Simmons attempts to statistically show these similarities. He uses a variety of stats, although I’m not really down with the per game ones. Unfortunately, he cherry picks his numbers and leaves a few vital stats out. Certainly this next stat would have been among the the first ones I would have looked at:
One of those numbers is above average and the other is below. T-Mac and Kobe both were taking a lot of shots at their peak, but Kobe was doing so at an efficient manner, where T-Mac was unable to do it at a rate equal to the typical N.B.A. player. Now .026 (or 2.6% for those that like percents) may not seem like much, but let’s expand that chart a bit, and examine more closely.
|Name||TS%||ft/36||ft missed/36||fg missed/36|
Equalizing their minutes (Kobe played about a season’s worth more minutes), McGrady averaged 92 more missed shots per year, and 1099 fewer free throws made. In other words, for every 36 minutes they played, Kobe made 1.6 more free throws and T-Mac missed one shot from the field.
One way to look at this data, would be to say that assuming both played about 40 minutes per game, subbing T-Mac for Kobe meant the Lakers would be three points worse every game they played. Three points doesn’t seem like much in a game where the scores end up in triple digits. However in 2001, the first year of Simmons comparison, the Lakers’ (56-36) point differential was +3.4 points per game, and the Magic’s (43-39) was +1.0. That’s less than three points per game.
It’s true that basketball mathemagics doesn’t work exactly that way. Unlike what Berri-ites would have you believe, it’s not as simple to sum individual stats across players and teams to come up with an exact win total. My example isn’t meant to say that Kobe and T-Mac were 10ish wins apart or even 3 points per game apart. Rather my goal is to show that efficiency matters, and shouldn’t be ignored as Mr. Simmons chose to do.
The Bryant-McGrady comparison is one that passes the eye test. Much like my estimation of words in Simmons’ article, the eye test fails over a large count over a long period of time. No one could possibly detect a 0.26 difference in true shooting percentage over 20,000 minutes played. Just as overvaluing Ronnie Brewer, Amir Johnson, or Reggie Evans because only their numbers say so, comparing T-Mac favorably to Kobe with just a squint is improper analysis.
Simmons tries to pull a fast one by using statistics to show how close they are. And I’m sure the anti-stat crowd that read his article threw their hands up in the air for a “Hallelujah” on how stats can’t detect the difference between a Hall of Famer and an overrated All Star. The irony is clear, because I don’t think anyone who puts a big value in true shooting percentage would send T-Mac to the Hall. Rather he’ll get selected, eventually, and people will overlook his playoff failures as happenstance, much like Simmons did. They’ll assure themselves that it’s the right decision because “7 straight All Star Games” and “he led the league in points per game twice!” They explain his failure to lead a team not on his inefficient shooting (he had a TS% over 53.5 precisely once in his career!), but his teammates and some inherent flaw in his character. Don’t believe me? Simmons already has begun beating that drum:
T-Mac’s brilliance was never infectious like that. He always looked half-asleep. He didn’t have a nasty streak. He wasn’t larger than life. He was just really, really, really great at playing basketball. That’s it. If you want to pick McGrady’s career apart historically, or even make the case that he’s not a Hall of Famer, this is the easiest argument to make against him.
When I mentioned Van Gundy’s desire to retroactively stick T-Mac on the ’99 Knicks, Rivers countered that T-Mac also would have killed it on Doc’s ’93 Knicks team, flanked by Riley, Oakley, Ewing, Anthony Mason and everyone else, saying, “He would have had protection. He would have had some idiots getting his back — we were REALLY nasty that year. Yeah, he would have fit in there.”
That should tell you all you need to know about McGrady’s Hall of Fame credentials. He just needed to be on a 60-win team to be successful. Makes perfect sense.
* Here’s my pro-New York anti-Bill Simmons fantasy: Patrick Ewing is named coach of the Celtics, and goes on to win championships with mediocre talent in 18 of 21 seasons. The three failures come during Ewing second term as Mayor of Boston, where he presides over the rebuilding of City Hall, Logan International Airport, and the public transportation extensions to Dorchester and Roslindale. Ewing’s success prompts Simmons to rethink his world philosophy, and he leaves the sports punditry world. Bill spends his latter years as New York City subway engineer, where he ekes out a happy existence.
See, a happy ending! I don’t hate the guy, just his constant pissing on New York.