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The Works: Tracy McGrady in Exile

Aug 11, 2010 – 9:00 AM
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In The Works today: the Positional Revolution rages on; a good, young ref is hard to find; and we introduce the inaugural League Pass Cup.

But first, some thoughts on the return of Tracy McGrady.

So Selfless It Hurts: Even before this Miami Heat team came together, fans of the NBA have had a deep-seated bias against ring-chasing. This not-so-nice term refers to a veteran, well past his prime, who joins a contender to fill the void in his legacy. Post-Heat, it can be any player, at any point in his career, putting himself in a remarkable position to win. But I digress. Tracy McGrady is going to join the Pistons.

If anyone still thinks about the Pistons, it's generally to bemoan the Ben Gordon or Charlie Villanueva contracts. This team has so thoroughly fallen off the map that no one's bothered to strip Joe Dumars of his genius belt. Head coach John Kuester was an early example of the LeBron James Effect -- the one where James makes everyone he comes into contact with about a thousand times better.

And this, my friends, is where McGrady has chosen to play out whatever career he has left in him.

It seems like ages ago that we were debating whether T-Mac was a choker, or faker, or anything other than one of the most unfortunate basketball stories of the last decade. He turned up with the Knicks after a long absence -- that is, if you don't count the false comebacks his own Rockets team didn't want -- and showed little that reminded us of who he once was. McGrady is news because there's nothing else going on, and we have a Pavlovian response to his name. Even if, last we checked, it was mostly a call to kvetching.

I once thought that an aged McGrady might be able to contribute to a team with his passing and feel for the floor. Sadly, that's not the case. He comes to the Pistons as a broke-down scorer whose physical appearance has started to catch up with his weary game. Detroit hasn't made much of a commitment here, but the fact remains: Tracy McGrady chose the Pistons.

For that, no one can fault him. The man still believes he can play, and wants to prove it. He isn't interested in tagging along on someone else's championship ride. McGrady isn't even dropping down into the middle of a young team scrambling to find an identity, as was the case with Allen Iverson's anti-climactic return to Philadelphia. There's nothing doing in Detroit, and McGrady, for better or worse, will get a chance.

It's admirable, in its own way. But for T-Mac, this signing is horribly misguided. At best, it returns him to a shadow of his former, controversial self. Even if, through some miracle sent from above, he were to return to scintillating 2001-2002 form, McGrady would be a virtuosic scorer on a dismal squad. There is really, truly nowhere for him to go but down as a featured player.

Maybe no one else wanted McGrady. Still, you have to give him credit for not taking the easy way out. A ring chaser, he most certainly is not. Yes, you could even say that McGrady is making a point of finishing up on his own terms.

Yet at the same time, what exactly are his terms? There were always questions and doubt surrounding McGrady, even when he was leading the league in scoring and single-handedly putting the Magic in the playoffs. His inability to make it past the first round of the playoffs could numb you with its pathos, even turn you against him. It eventually became clear that T-Mac had been deteriorating all along, and was melancholy in a way that didn't mix well with repeated disappointment.

In the absence of a loud mouth and bad attitude, it's hard to say what separates a tragic figure from a loser. Maybe McGrady deserves to go out like this, throwing up meaningless, arc-less shots for a team no one notices. But even if he never inspired the same fire and fidelity as Kevin Garnett did, or got as close as Chris Webber, McGrady remains a player you still want the best for.

He can no longer do it for himself; based on past history, he may not have ever been able to get himself there. Now, though, McGrady might as well join up with a contender. In his case, it wouldn't be a mortal sin. McGrady, at least, would be released. Maybe his career still wouldn't make sense, but at least we could feel like he had found some sort of peace as a pro.

Except there's one last detail, one that makes this signing into yet another unfortunate chapter in a career that should've died some time ago. McGrady did want to be a part of the Heat, suggesting that he would have been fine as a bit contributor to someone else's championship. The trouble was, the Heat weren't interested.

So here we have Tracy McGrady in exile, right up until the end. Not because it's the noble or right thing to do, but because some players just don't seem fated to ever have things go their way. Not even when it comes to time-honored shortcuts. He did it his way, and he -- and we -- will presumably all be the more miserable for it. (BS)

Cry for the King: The great Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star talked to Ronnie Nunn, boss of the NBA's referees, and the former official made a pretty wild remark about the NBA's so-called bias in favor of star players.
"To be perfectly honest, star players get fewer calls than they deserve. They probably deserve more calls. (Star players) play through contact that would make one believe the contact wasn't significant enough for a foul. And then you look at it on tape and you see, 'Wow, he really got bumped on that play, but he swirled around it and he made it look easy.' And so, the no-call was incorrect."
Eat that, Tim Donaghy. This makes inherent sense -- if Kevin Martin averages seven free throws a game, shouldn't LeBron James or Dwyane Wade get 20? Perhaps there are subconscious time-based triggers for the bias against and for stars. Wouldn't it make sense that referees act as Nunn describes, that officials are tricked by talent into missing calls early in the game, but then know every Kobe Bryant dribble-drive earns an automatic foul in crunch time?

That could make the supposed late-game favoritism for stars seem stronger than it actually is. Everything is relative, and going from 0-to-60 feels a lot more crazy than going from 40-to-100.

The question is how to fix the screwjobs refs are handing star players. (That's tongue-in-cheek, in case you can't tell. I know ref talk makes everyone militant.) The zebras can't very well call more fouls on those guarding stars early in games, especially in this new era of talent consolidation. In other words, the Heat don't need the help.

But toning down the late-game whistles only exacerbates the problem, which is that star players are being treated like the common proletariat. LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh may need to pull The Takeover Part II and infiltrate the ref ranks to fix this. (TZ)

We Can Work It Out: Did you ever wonder why all revolutions invariably fragment or collapse? It's not because everybody changes when they get a little bit of power. That's what the Man wants you to believe.

The sad truth is that, while a common cause can bring people together, at some point, everyone looks around the room and realizes that they're different. It's one thing to want the same goal; it's another to all agree on the how, what, where, when and why of the matter. So it will be with the Positional Revolution.

To the best of my understanding, Rob Mahoney is looking to develop new descriptors that, presumably, will enable him (and maybe Rick Carlisle) to make better sense of the Mavs roster. Actually, scratch that; the goal will be to employ this wanton mishmash of talent, capable of so much and so little, in a way that actually puts their skills to optimal use. It's about the proper application of the unusual. Unusual, of course, only because we have labeled them good-for-nothing.

The problem with the Mavs doing this? We're dealing with a crazy, mixed-up situation where the only answer might be to break with convention. Otherwise, the team will sell itself short. Their star player, Dirk Nowitzki, is exactly the kind of enigma that demands a redistribution of basketball labor. You simply can't plug Dirk in at the four, turn him loose, and then presume that the rest of the team can putter along like a typical line-up.

But Rob is forced to look for ad hoc descriptions and configurations because, in Dallas, the principle has been nearly accidental. It's a revolution brought on by both Dirk's strange burden and the current group of players they have assembled -- not a deliberate need to screw with the order of things.

The opposite of this would be the Thunder. Kevin Durant is much like Dirk, and as a result, Sam Presti has set to putting together a roster of unorthodox youngsters who complement each other. Say what you will about Jeff Green; accuse Russell Westbrook of becoming more and more ordinary. The team still depends on chemistry -- not just getting along, but being able to work together in a way that depends on their originality, not their ability to fill a preordained role.

(Yes, there are roles in OKC, but they correspond to players, not formulas.)

In Miami, we see something similar to Dallas: at least three guys, four if you're a Mike Miller fan, whose function on the court is not self-evident. No one knows exactly what terror the Heat offense will unleash upon the league. Except it stands to reason that LeBron, Wade, Bosh and Miller will not fit together like your average NBA team.

However, they have one huge advantage over the Mavs: the possibility of playing basketball where, from possession-to-possession, roles change on a dime, position is truly meaningless, and the opposing team is left on its heels at all times. I have heard some folks idly refer to them as the NBA's answer to the Total Football pioneered by the Dutch in the seventies.

That the NBA's very own Axis of Evil could also end up being one of its most innovative, even progressive, teams is yet another form of violence they might well visit upon the league. If you follow them to the future, who knows what awful price might await there? (BS)

2010-11 League Pass Cup: Speaking of soccer, that sport has at least 75 different tournaments and interleague competitions to fill up the year, from the Champions League to the UEFA Cup to the Copa Libertadores. The wonderful reality is that even if your team stinks it up in league play, there are all sorts of other opportunities for glory! The lower end of the NBA needs that, badly.

As such, The Works presents the inaugural League Pass Cup, honoring the teams that only real heads will ever see this season. With the release of the 2010-11 NBA schedule, some teams aren't feeling the national TV love. We picked seven -- in honor of the NBA's League Pass Broadband Choice package, in which fans can pick seven teams to follow all year; these teams will compete with each other to be the best of the invisible. (In honor of the ethic we're shooting for, the trophy will also be invisible.)

Your contenders, none of which have more than five nationally televised games this season (even including NBA TV!): Minnesota, Toronto, Detroit, Indiana, Cleveland, New Jersey and Philadelphia. These teams will play a bunch of games against each other; whoever has the best record in those games will be named League Pass Cup champion.

The 76ers have to be the early favorite, with the Cavs and even Pistons holding realistic chances. After being on national TV 30 times in each of the past few years, casual NBA fans are going to think the Cavs got contracted, or abducted by aliens. (TZ)

The Works is a column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller).
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