Up, Up and...?
The Raptors want to believe Tracy McGrady won't fly the coop
There's no longer any question that the Raptors will make the playoffs. The only issue hanging in the balance is how high a seeding they'll get in the postseason. While Vince Carter's aerial acrobatics and last-second heroics have received most of the attention during Toronto's late-season surge, an equally vital ingredient has been the play of 6'8" Tracy McGrady, the 20-year-old former high school phenom who has blossomed as a starter.
Since coach Butch Carter inserted McGrady into the lineup on Feb. 25, the Raptors had gone 11-2 through Sunday's game, bringing their record to 39-26, the fourth-best mark in the Eastern Conference. McGrady's versatility has enabled Carter to use him at both guard spots and at small forward. Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy was so impressed with McGrady's play against New York last month that he has likened Carter, McGrady and 6'6" guard Doug Christie to the Bulls' trio of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper.
There's one snag in that comparison: McGrady may not be around to help Toronto build a dynasty. As recently as last week, sources close to him said hell bolt the Raptors when he becomes a free agent this summer. Toronto vice president and general manager Glen Grunwald refuses to believe it until it happens. "I've heard all the rumors that he's leaving, but I haven't heard that from Tracy," Grunwald says. "We had very frank discussions with him before the [Feb. 24] trading deadline. We told him, 'Tracy, we'd love you to stay. You're our first choice. But if you don't want to stay, then we need to talk about where we can trade you that will make us both happy.' He said no to that. He's never told us he doesn't want to be here."
Then again, Shaquille O'Neal never told the Magic he was leaving in the summer of 1996, but once the Lakers feverishly cleared salary cap room to accommodate him, he took a hike. Stephon Marbury didn't let the Timberwolves know he wanted out, either—until a week before last year's trading deadline, when he demanded to be sent to the Nets. Young stars often have a hard time telling the only team they've been on that they want to make a break, and the team often deludes itself into thinking it can find a way to make the relationship last.
McGrady is deeply loyal to his agent, Arn Tellem, and to Adidas, which signed him to a $12 million endorsement deal. Both Tellem and Adidas want him to play in the U.S. to enhance his marketing potential. "I'm sure they have their agendas, but Tracy has assured us hell make his own decision," Grunwald says.
In the meantime McGrady's stock keeps rising. He has always been a gifted offensive player, but by putting the clamps on All-Stars Grant Hill and Allan Houston in recent weeks, he has given his reputation as a defender a huge boost. "If ever there was a Generation X version of Pip-pen, he's it," says Pacers president Donnie Walsh. "As good as Vince Carter has been, this kid has been playing just as well, and he's doing more things. He can handle the ball, he can rebound on both ends, he's gotten to the point where he can shoot it, and he's playing great defense."
Yet it's likely that Toronto has groomed McGrady to be someone else's star. When O'Neal's free agency was pending, rumors were rampant that he wanted to play in Los Angeles. Orlando's front office was aware of the talk, but felt its offer would surpass all others. "In retrospect, I suppose you could call us naive, but you have to remember where we were," says Magic senior executive vice president Pat Williams. "We had just been to the Finals. We were destiny's darlings. We were young, exciting, a team on the rise, and we're supposed to trade the guy?"
Who can blame the Raptors for feeling the same way? They were smart not to deal McGrady last month, particularly since they received no offers of close to equal value. They're trying to establish themselves as a playoff threat, and they can't do that without McGrady. Besides, management believes it can persuade the lad to stay.
Providing him with starter's minutes and calling his number more has helped make McGrady happier in Toronto. The Raptors public relations staff is putting the finishing touches on a highlight video to promote his candidacy for the Sixth Man Award. Grunwald says there are other plans in the works for providing "ways for the fans to show how much they appreciate Tracy."