BOSTON — I’m at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference for the next two days, and I’ll try to file some updates here and there between the panels and conversations with NBA/geek royalty here.
Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author, is moderating the first panel, which is about the notion, developed by experts who study talent and discussed in Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” that anyone interested in being truly great at something has to practice for at least 10,000 hours to reach an elite level of greatness. The point of the panel, which features Jeff Van Gundy and Houston Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey, is ostensibly to talk about things like the concept of “natural talent,” the importance of work ethic and how to weigh those variables in the draft and in free agency.
Perhaps it was inevitable with the heavy Rockets flavor on the panel, but the discussion quickly to turned to Tracy McGrady — in an unfavorable way. “Tracy McGrady was 1,000 hours of practice,” Van Gundy said, to some pretty loud laughs. “He should be a Hall of Fame player. His talent was other-worldly. He was given a great leg up in the race against other players. He’s as close as I’ve ever seen to someone with a perfect body and a good mind.”
And then Morey got to the heart of it: “McGrady was the most gifted player I’ve ever had on the roster. I do think [his talent] got in the way of Tracy’s development. Much of the game was so, so easy — and you see this in the AAU level, where they have freakishly talented players. When it’s that easy to dominate at that young age, because of your physical tools — his wing span was freakish, his size was enormous, his IQ. But my sense was that all of that did get in the way of Tracy reaching his highest heights.”
Poor T-Mac. But it wasn’t over, yet. Van Gundy came back to McGrady later: “I like a lot of things about Tracy McGrady. I just wish I could have changed his practice habits and his mentality.”
None of this is really disputable — Morey and Van Gundy are far from being the first to say this kind of thing about McGrady, and it’s sad to think about someone that talented failing to work as hard as perhaps he should have.
But maybe those so-so habits — and a series of debilitating injuries — are already starting to obscure what a fabulous player McGrady was at his best. Morey talked about McGrady’s failure to reach his best potential, but in his 2002-03, McGrady put up perhaps the most under-appreciated great season in NBA history. He averaged 32 points per game on 46 percent shooting, including a career-best 38.6 percent from deep. He got the line more than nine times per game. He averaged 6.5 boards and 5.5 assists per game, assisted on 30 percent of Orlando’s baskets when he was on the court (an insane number for a non-point guard, even if McGrady was often the de facto point guard in Orlando) and finished with a Player Efficiency Rating of 30.3. He carried this roster to 42 wins. He turned the ball over on just eight percent of the possessions on which he finished the offensive play. That’s an insanely low number for a high-usage player.
Here is the complete list of players who have finished a full season with a PER above 30: LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, David Robinson, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and McGrady.
In the 2003 playoffs, Orlando took a 3-1 lead over the Pistons in the first round, prompting McGrady to utter the quote that has perhaps defined his career, the one in which he said he was so happy to finally be in the position to win a playoff series. The Pistons won the next three games.
McGrady was great again for a couple more seasons, but a series of injuries to his back, knees and shoulder derailed his career. You can harp on McGrady for his work ethic and perhaps for the failure of his teams to advance in the playoffs (try to find a series his club should have won, though), but he reached some pretty darn high heights in the NBA.
Other highlights from the Gladwell panel:
• Van Gundy referred to Charles Oakley as “a rocket scientist” in terms of his on-court IQ;
• He also called Bonzi Wells fat;
• Justin Tuck, a defensive lineman for the New York Giants, is also on the panel and knew both Jamario Moon and Gerald Wallace in high school. Tuck said Moon was far more talented than Wallace during their teen years, but even then Wallace was the gym rat who worked harder on his game.
• Want to be really sad? Here’s Van Gundy on Yao Ming: “I thought Yao Ming was a model athlete. You take his ability to genuinely enjoy others’ success — which almost hard to find in the NBA — to be as truly happy for others as he is for himself.”
• Van Gundy on Shane Battier: “He had the most unique ability to concentrate on every possession in practice and in games that I’ve ever come across.” Of note: Van Gundy says Battier is not the sort of guy who spends a lot of hours in the gym by himself, working on his game or his shot.