The Magic's Tracy McGrady may pull a vanishing act after next season
Grant Hill is still in street clothes, coach Doc Rivers has been fired, and at week's end the Magic had extended its losing streak to a franchise-record 19 games. But that's not the worst of it: The collapse has so disheartened Tracy McGrady that he's on the verge of deciding to leave Orlando as a free agent after next season.
Bad luck and bad moves have left McGrady feeling isolated in his hometown. With Hill and sharpshooting forward Pat Garrity (season-ending knee surgery) on the sideline, a threadbare $32 million roster remains, including an undersized front line and seven players with less than four years' experience. Because the team has little that's worth trading, the only hope for a quick turnaround—and a change of heart by McGrady—is based on a successful return by Hill, 31, who plans to attempt another comeback over the second half of this season. "Everything is based on what Grant does," McGrady says. "If Grant comes back and is able to stay healthy and we can add some more players around us, then I'd love to stay here."
After playing only 47 games since he and McGrady each agreed to seven-year, $93 million contracts with Orlando in 2000, Hill underwent a fourth operation on his broken right ankle last March to repair the repetitive fracture and to realign the ankle by surgically reshaping his heel. Both Hill and embattled G.M. John Gabriel are cautiously optimistic that Hill will follow in the steps of Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who has had no recurrence of stress fractures in his left foot since undergoing a similar realignment in 2001. The Magic is hoping that Hill's future will be resolved to its benefit one way or another: Either he returns to full health or his subsequent retirement generates a windfall of $15 million in cap space in the summer of 2005.
To get that money, however, the Magic will need Hill's cooperation: NBA rules state that his salary will come off Orlando's books only if he has played in 10 games or fewer this season. Though Hill is rumored to be unhappy with the medical advice he received from the Magic, which supervised his second and third surgeries, he is open-minded about proceeding slowly—especially if it'll help keep McGrady in Orlando. "What's best for me and what's best for the organization might be the same thing," says Hill, who has begun a program of running at Magic practices.
But T-Mac might already be gone by the time Orlando is able to recruit leading free agents Ray Allen, Kenyon Martin or Antoine Walker in 2005. "Going into next season, I'll probably have an idea if I want to stay or leave," he says.
The talent around McGrady has steadily eroded with the departure of heart-and-hustle teammates like Bo Outlaw, Monty Williams, Troy Hudson and Darrell Armstrong. "They brought in guys that Tracy didn't feel comfortable with," says Armstrong, who went to New Orleans as a free agent last summer. "I asked Tracy if they talked to him about signing Juwan [Howard, the Magic's top free-agent acquisition last summer], and he said no."
Though encouraged by the approach of n ew coach Johnny Davis, who took over on Nov. 18 and installed a fast-break style to pick up the team's sluggish tempo, McGrady was shooting a career-low 41.4% through Sunday's games and his scoring is down almost eight points per game from last season, leading to criticism that he should be doing more to carry his team. "It's not fair," says McGrady, who contends that he's not so much a pure scorer as an all-around playmaker in the mode of Scottie Pippen.
As many as a dozen teams might be able to squeeze under the cap after next season to recruit McGrady, including the Cavaliers, Nets, Nuggets, Spurs, Trail Blazers and—most intriguing of all—the Lakers, who could be $10 million under the cap if Kobe Bryant makes good on his threat to leave and they're able to move Devean George's $5 million salary entering his final year in 2005-06. A friend who's been privy to McGrady's thinking says he's also enticed by the young Pacers; a sign-and-trade to Indiana could pair him with close friend Jermaine O'Neal. "His first choice is to stay in Orlando," the friend says. "He really doesn't want to leave, but he also wants to win."
The Zone Defense Rule
Time for Offenses To Start Adjusting