To Hill and Back
Can Tracy McGrady salvage the season for the Magic after another Grant Hill injury?
The holidays weren't so happy for the Magic, which two months ago had hopes of reaching the Finals. For the second straight season Orlando stumbled into the new year with a sub-.500 record (15-17) and the sobering knowledge that Grant Hill, who underwent season-ending surgery on his left ankle on Dec. 19, won't be coming to the rescue.
It's a bad case of d�j� vu for Tracy McGrady, who a year ago overcame Hill's absence and the team's 14-16 start to carry Orlando into the playoffs with a 43-39 record. Last season the 6'8" McGrady attacked nonstop and forced opponents to play at his frenetic pace, but his task is more complicated this time. The off-season acquisition of free agents Patrick Ewing and Horace Grant—brought in mainly for their playoff experience—has changed Orlando's scrappy, heart-and-hustle approach of recent years. "We have more skilled guys who are less athletic," says coach Doc Rivers, "and they need Tracy to set the table for them."
It's asking a lot of a 22-year-old in his second year as a starter to shine individually while incorporating teammates into a set offense. McGrady, though, sees that new role as the next step in his development. "I definitely have to lead every night," he says. "What I need to do is trust my teammates. Last year I felt I had to take most of the key shots, but it can't always be like that."
Rivers wants to see McGrady become more consistent at setting picks, playing fierce defense and establishing a Jordanesque standard of all-out play. "It provides a huge lift when a guy as talented as him is diving for loose balls," says forward Pat Garrity.
Through Wednesday, McGrady had scored 20 points or more a league-leading 25 times despite missing three games and half of the preseason because of back spasms, a result of his admittedly lax approach to stretching. "We've seen a healthy Tracy for only 10 games this year," Garrity says.
McGrady hopes to get help from 6'8" Mike Miller, the 2000-01 Rookie of the Year, who added 12 pounds of muscle while working out with McGrady and trainer Wayne Hall last summer. Though Miller was averaging 16.3 points and shooting a respectable 45.2% through Wednesday, Rivers describes him as a defensive liability and "a reluctant scorer at times, which is strange for such a good shooter."
The 21-year-old Miller acknowledges that the Magic needs him to develop quickly. Last week he helped force the Pistons' Jerry Stackhouse into missing his last eight shots in an 87-78 Orlando victory that snapped a three-game losing streak. "It's his time," McGrady says of Miller. "He wouldn't get this opportunity if Grant [ Hill] was here."
One player who might have helped in Hill's absence was forward Bo Outlaw, who was traded to the Suns on Nov. 16, 10 days before Hill reinjured his ankle. "What Bo brought to this club—his rebounding, defense, enthusiasm and energy—is something we can't get back," says Grant. The trade made sense at the time. By shedding Outlaw's $6 million salary, the Magic can go $13 million to $16 million under the cap after next season, when Hill and McGrady will be the only players under long-term contracts. The list of potential free agents for the summer of 2003 includes Tim Duncan (who came close to signing with Orlando two summers ago), Baron Davis, Jason Kidd, Antonio McDyess, Andre Miller, Jermaine O'Neal and Theo Ratliff. At this point the only other teams who are likely to have enough cap room to offer a huge contract to a free agent are the Bulls, the Clippers and the Spurs.
If Hill somehow recovers from the third operation on his left ankle in 20 months to join McGrady and a big-time free agent in 2003-04, the Magic will have a trio the equal of any in the league. During his 14 games this season Hill led the Magic with 8.9 rebounds per game and was second in scoring (16.8 points) and assists (4.6) while helping at point guard. It's no coincidence that only a week after Hill went down, 33-year-old playmaker Darrell Armstrong started experiencing back problems. "I hate it," Rivers says, "but we can't ask Darrell to press the ball the way we like to because he's struggling physically."