As our summer mainstay, Aaron was writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. As the summer dies down and the leaves turn, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last third. But it's certainly not done yet! Today we continue with Tyler Hansbrough, Tracy McGrady, Larry Hughes.
Tyler Hansbrough has lived atop the mountain. He was never the most athletic, astonishing, or brilliant of all the players. Never quite had that 'whoa' factor. But he WAS the best player in college basketball, and for one year of Hansbrough's life, records fell and lay vanquished in his wake as his team completed a seemingly predestined romp through the world of college basketball. That Carolina team wasn't undefeated, but it certainly felt like it -- there was an air of dominance and dismissive cruelty to a team that combined one of the greatest college players ever in Hansbrough with a cast of blue-chip talent and the devil-may-care destruction wrought by Ty Lawson's might. The ACC wilted, the contenders sloughed away, and the Tar Heels won the title in such a steadfast march that the Triangle was rocked for months. Hansbrough knew what it was like to be dominant, to have his ad contracts, to be in vogue and in demand. That was then. He was picked just inside the lottery, typecast as a hustle player, and set down to show his skills in the big leagues.
The thing with Hansbrough? He's not nearly as tough on the NBA level as his collegiate career would lead one to expect, which has led to a rather amusing disconnect between what announcers say about him and how he actually plays. Listening to people describe him, you'd think of some fundamentally sound hustle player, this rebounding beast with a knack for tip-ins and loose balls. Good hustle defense, always puts forth a great effort, always working. But reality doesn't always match the storyline, and in this case, it simply isn't quite so. Hansbrough hustles, a bit, but it's somewhat misleading. Ask any Indiana fan and they'll tell you the same -- Hansbrough may go for loose balls, but when he gets the ball, he's about as selfish as it comes. Far from being a willing contributor in a pivoting offense, Hansbrough takes (and rarely makes) about as many terrible shots as is possible for him to take. Reality check -- do gritty hustle players tend to take 40% of their shots from 16-23 feet, making 33% of them?
... No, Virginia. They don't tend to. Among big men, Hansbrough has one of the lowest defensive rebound rates in the game -- part of that is his occasional minutes with the currently missing rebounding whiz Roy Hibbert, and part of that is that he simply can't shoot off a defensive rebound. Why get engaged if he's not taking a shot? His offensive ball dominance leads him to have a higher rate of free throws drawn than most players, which exemplifies the "gritty" narrative (look at all those free throws!), and ends up being the only truly positive impact he has on the floor for his own team. He defends poorly and tends to make stupid choices when ballhawking, and essentially plays like a larger version of Monta Ellis. The man's a human shot vortex. If you brought him to your 21st birthday party, nobody else would get drunk. And for all his supposed "hustle", you often have to wonder if the announcers who praise and highlight it are living in an alternate reality. A reality where Hansbrough actually passes the ball, keeps his offense to a minimum, and does the little things that actually help the team. Instead, he's a defensive sieve who dominates the ball as badly as any chuck-happy shooting guard, rebounds poorly, and finishes at the rim atrociously for his size. If that's what a hustle player looks like, I never want to see a hustle player again.
It's a simple fact that's become a tired, worn-out meme. "Tracy McGrady has never won a playoff series." Hah, look at that guy! He never won a series! What a schlub! It's a very apt little statement, until one considers the context in which the statement occurs and realizes the inherent absurdity of it. Oh, context -- the bane of armchair analysts everywhere. For the sake of completeness, I'll go ahead and list off every single chance McGrady had to win a playoff series in his NBA career.
- 2000: #3 NYK vs #6 TOR. McGrady was a 20-year-old third year when this series occurred. The Raptors were obvious underdogs in the series, having finished the year with a negative efficiency differential to the Knicks' +1.3. McGrady had a poor series against a stout Knick defense, although nowhere near as poor as Vince Carter did. I've only seen the concluding game of the series, but just about everyone looked completely outmatched against an underrated Knicks team that was a few bounces away from making consecutive NBA Finals. Underdog loss.
- 2001: #2 MIL vs #7 ORL. McGrady played extremely well in this series, putting up an average line of 34-7-8 in a fruitless sweep to a dramatically better team. The East was a two-team conference that year, and Milwaukee happened to be one of those two teams. McGrady played all but 14 minutes of the series. Underdog loss.
- 2002: #4 CHA vs #5 ORL. This is the first legitimately disappointing result in McGrady's playoff career. The Magic played quite a bit better than the Hornets did during the regular season, and had everyone but Grant Hill available for the playoffs. McGrady played some amazing basketball, but they still got swept. And once again, McGrady played all but 14 minutes of the series. Despite his solid performance, they should've probably won this one. Legitimate disappointment.
- 2003: #1 DET vs #8 ORL. Alright. This one deserves some special note. This tends to be the go-to when people talk about Tracy McGrady as a disappointing no-results wonder. McGrady's 2003 seasons ranks among the best individual performances any NBA player ever gave the league -- he averaged a stunning 32-5-6 on 46-39-79 shooting despite effectively playing one-on-five offensively and being doubled virtually every shot. He led the league in usage percentage. He assisted on 30% of all baskets scored while he was on the floor, posted one of the lowest turnover rates in the league that year, and led a hilariously bad Orlando roster to a winning record. HE WAS GREAT. For which they earned a first round matchup with a 50-win Pistons team. What happened next is obviously well documented -- McGrady went supernova and brought the Magic to the brink of the second round before Tayshaun Prince shut him down defensively and ended the Magic's season in an excruciating three games. Yes, McGrady said (and I quote) "It's nice to be in the second round" after going up 3-1. He shouldn't have said that. But he still dragged a team with a negative efficiency differential to a strong series lead on a team that was one year away from winning an NBA title. That's pretty excellent. Overachieving underdog loss.
- 2005: #4 DAL vs #5 HOU. If you don't remember exactly how stacked the West was in the mid-aughts, let this matchup jog your memory. In the 4-5 matchup, the 51 win Rockets faced a 58 win Dallas team that had a higher efficiency differential than the Dallas team that won the title in 2011. The Rockets actually had the 5th best efficiency differential in the NBA that season, behind fantastic years from McGrady (who played an obscene 40.8 minutes per game that season -- look it up) and Ming. McGrady stepped up in the playoffs, playing 44 minutes a game and averaging 31-7-7-2-1 on 45-37-82 shooting. It wasn't enough, though. Because even though the Rockets had the 5th best differential, the Mavericks had the 3rd best. McGrady's team was the underdog in a relatively even 7-game series. AGAIN. Underdog loss.
- 2007: #4 UTA vs #5 HOU. This is another "could've been" series -- the Rockets had an efficiency differential two points higher than Utah, and ended up with home court advantage as the #5 seed. The Jazz lost relatively close matches in their first two and blew the Rockets out of the building in the second two, before the Rockets won a close game five and put the Jazz on the brink. But the Jazz demolished the Rockets in game 6, and game 7 ranks as one of the more compelling-yet-forgotten game sevens in recent history. The game was actually tied with 4 minutes left to go -- but Deron Williams set up flurry of Okur threes that effectively sealed the game. Still. McGrady played great in the series (and at the age of 27 played 40 minutes per game in the series, yet again), but this was a disappointment. Legitimate disappointment.
- 2008: #4 UTA vs #5 HOU. And yes, this is partly why 2007 was so compelling. The tables were turned, this time -- Utah still didn't have home court, but they were the markedly better team by any and all statistical measure. The 2008 Jazz actually are one of the more forgotten elite teams of the recent decade -- they didn't rack up an insane number of wins, but their efficiency differential of 6.87 was good for 3rd in the league behind the Lakers and the Celtics. They were a very good team that, in most years, would've been a good bet for a conference finals berth -- instead, they lost a ton of close games and ended up never seeing home court advantage at all. A pity. Anyway, McGrady dug deep and performed even better than he did in 2007, but it wasn't enough. The superior Jazz curbstomped the Rockets in Houston to take a 2-0 lead, split a pair at home, then disemboweled an unsuspecting Houston team in game 6. Welp. Underdog loss.
- 2012: #4 BOS vs #5 ATL. Does this even count? McGrady wasn't a major contributor for the 2012 Hawks, and he wasn't their star. And in fact, I think the Hawks punched a bit below their weight in this series -- it was a winnable series for them that they would've dominated if Al Horford had been on the floor for the whole series. But that certainly wasn't on McGrady's account, who posted decent numbers in spot minutes and played active defense. The main issue with McGrady's playoff performance was the turnovers, which were far too high -- that was mostly because the Hawks were strangely intent on using him as an enormous backup point guard against one of the best ball-hawking guards in the league. Odd. Nevertheless, this is sort of a push -- disappointment, sure, but it certainly wasn't McGrady's fault.
So, what's the count? Two legitimate disappointments in seven chances (or 3/8 if you count Atlanta), and only one of those was a truly embarrassing one -- it's hard to really call a 7-game series where the last game was tied with four minutes to go a vast disappointment. For the vast majority of McGrady's career, he's been cursed with pretty atrocious teams. You could say "well, his numbers are empty", but I don't buy that. As Zach Harper once noted, McGrady was a legend for the majority of the last decade -- he played incredible ball, dragged awful teams to decent records almost singlehandedly, and suffered some of the toughest breaks any star could suffer. But it's hard to see what else he could've done to improve his playoff position. Over his pre-Hawks playoff career, McGrady averaged 42 minutes per game, 29-7-6 averages, a playoff PER of 24.7, a turnover rate of 10.7%, and a usage rate of 35%. Here's a complete list of players whose playoff usage/turnover totals match McGrady's, in those insane minutes.
- Michael Jordan
- Tracy McGrady
So, there's that, I suppose.
People should remember McGrady for more than just his playoff follies -- especially given that the follies are more related to the dismal talent that surrounded him than any extreme failures of his own. They won't, but alas. These last few years, McGrady has been a decent-if-not-amazing player -- a shadow of his former self, for sure, but with flashes of brilliance and an admirable lunch-pail dedication towards doing things right. He was a worthy superstar who, through no real fault of his own, has a sad distinction of being the only 1st team all-NBA player since 1990 to never win a playoff series. As well as the sad distinction of having tied Shaquille O'Neal and Chris Webber for the most distinct teams played for by an all-NBA first team player. This article is a few years old, but updated standings give a top 5 of:
- Tracy McGrady (6 teams -- TOR, ORL, HOU, NYK, DET, ATL)
- Shaquille O'Neal (6 teams -- ORL, LAL, MIA, PHX, CLE, BOS)
- Chris Webber (6 teams -- GSW, WAS, SAC, PHI, DET, GSW)
- Gary Payton (5 teams -- SEA, MIL, LAL, BOS, MIA)
- Tim Hardaway (5 teams -- GSW, MIA, DAL, DEN, IND)
And that's the way the story ends. Not with a stalwart, but a journeyman. Safe trails, T-Mac.
Follow Larry Hughes by calling it a comeback even when it's not.
Larry Hughes is a defensive stopper that cannot play defense anymore. This is something of a problem. In his prime, Hughes was mildly notable for his excellent rebounding, his noteworthy assist totals, and his general command of the well-timed steal or the rotating guard-block. But his real value came from his defense, somewhat of a peppercorn grinder to the spice and flavor the NBA's best and brightest placed on the floor. Absolutely solid defender, and while many decried his selection to the 2005 All-Defensive team, I'm pretty alright with it -- it's sort of the terse engraving on the tombstone of Hughes' career that represents his defense to later generations. Too bad he hasn't played anywhere near that level in almost 3 years -- his defense has been slowly falling off the deep end, and his offense (bad since 2006) has reached levels of disgusting ineffectiveness that boggle the mind and disturb the soul. The man hasn't converted better than 55% at the rim since his 2009 stint with Chicago, and last season posted a turnover rate of 33% -- that means that one out of every three times he touched the ball, he turned it over. That's, uh, not really how you play basketball.
The bigger question with Hughes is less what he can do now on an NBA level (rather obviously nothing, his pre-lockout comeback dithering notwithstanding) but what he could ever do. A constant joke among the media and the fans when looking at the 2007 finals is to note that Hughes started two games -- he didn't play at all in the last two, but he started the first two games and that's pretty dang awful. The thing I'd say to rebute, though, is that he wasn't exactly useless with the Cavaliers. He wasn't great. Don't for one second think I'm saying that. He took roughly 878 more shots than he should've taken in his 3 years as a Cavalier (overall total: 878 shots), and was a clear net negative on the offensive end every time he was on the floor. But you know what? His defense was pretty useful, at least in the macro sense. Hughes has a decent reputation for being a good defender, and in Cleveland, he played at or near his career best defensively. He helped the Cavs perfect their stifling perimeter attack while he was there, and did a damn good job of it. Mike Brown is a good defensive coach, but the personnel you inherit helps a coach develop their style, and it certainly helped his case that the Cavaliers had defenders like Hughes around to help him build his schemes up in the first place. Just like it helped D'Antoni's case to coach an offensive player like Nash. Something to keep in mind in the back of your head, as you watch him clank jumper after jumper after jumper after ... oh for God's sake Larry please stop oh my God.
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At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. Nobody got anyone but Hansbrough right last time, so shout out to me for making riddles that suck.
- Player #277 needs to get back on the court. His team needs him, his city needs him, and watching his team without him is much akin to slicing your eyes out with a rusty steak knife.
- Player #278 is playing like a superstar right now. May not last, but my GOD is he an upgrade for his team. He's played almost unsettlingly well to-date.
- Player #279's hair is playing like a superstar right now. He is on the bench injured. But... THAT HAIR... OH MY GOD.
Sorry for the lack of an update yesterday. Will inevitably happen again, but alas.
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