Thursday December 13th, 2007

I watched the Houston Rockets build a 16-2 lead on the Toronto Raptors last Sunday at the Air Canada Centre. Tracy McGrady, a big small forward or a very big shooting guard -- it doesn't matter at this point -- was a free-flowing wonder, an unguardable 6-foot-8 athlete with speed, quickness, ups and perimeter shooting ability.

Then I watched it all come apart. McGrady started missing and, when it was all over, he had hit only one-third of his shots (7-of-21). None of his teammates could get in a rhythm. Steve Francis, who started at the other guard spot, took only four shots. Small forward Shane Battier didn't attempt anything but three-pointers (he made 3-of-5). Center Yao Ming, who played a team-high 38 minutes and had a size advantage on everyone (no surprise there), was just OK with 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting. Backup power forward Luis Scola looked like he had wandered onto a basketball court for the first time in his life. And the Rockets went down 93-80.

After the game, the usually even-tempered Yao went off on his team's lack of toughness, taking care not to except himself. (He is always a stand-up guy.) "I hate this game," he told the Houston Chronicle. "I hated it. It's all on us. Us. I'm one of us."

The next night, after a 100-88 loss in Philadelphia, Yao was steaming again. "When you are soft yourself, everything will feel tough," Yao said. "It's not because they are so tough. It's because of how soft we are. It's weird that we changed that quick. I never had that feeling. I feel like they traded me to another team, a new team I've never been on before."

No, Yao, it's the same old team. And the more I look at a McGrady-dominated team, the more I see one that cannot be a championship contender. I'm not basing this on one early-December road trip, of course. On Wednesday night, the Rockets beat the Detroit Pistons 80-77 despite an unimaginably horrible night from the free throw line -- McGrady missed all five of his attempts and the team as a whole was 6-of-22. The win put the Rockets at 12-11, and I fully expect that they will be battling for one of the mid-level playoff spots in the tough Western Conference.

But a championship team? I don't see it. I'll try to get beyond the fact that McGrady always -- always -- looks like he's coasting. Appearances can be deceiving, of course, and it's the worst kind of ivory-tower analysis to sit at a press table and proclaim that a guy isn't giving his all. So let's leave it at this: If I were a Houston coach or player, I would like to see the franchise player look mad enough to spit nails once in a while.

The main issue I have with T-Mac is the almost total control he has over the Houston offense. Everything is fine when he has a big night and hits, say, 60 percent of his shots, as he is capable of doing. He can get to the basket, he can hit the mid-range jumper and he can make threes, so he can beat teams by himself. But in the long run, one player doesn't beat teams by himself, certainly not other playoff teams.

The most obvious comparison for T-Mac is to the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, who, like McGrady, is either a big small forward or a very big shooting guard who dominates the offense. But James, with 7.9 assists per game compared to McGrady's 5.5, is a far better passer. And when someone dominates the ball on offense, he had better be able to get to the free throw line. James shoots 11 free throws per game, compared to McGrady's 6.7. McGrady can be creative with the ball, but far too often he makes his passes when he has exhausted every other option to score. That makes it difficult for his teammates to find their own offense.

Obviously, much of the Rockets' future success depends on how well McGrady and Yao can mesh. The jury is still out on that. This is the fourth season that T-Mac and Yao have been together, but McGrady missed 35 games in 2005-06 and Yao was sidelined 34 games last season. In '04-05, the one full season they played together, McGrady took 26 percent of the Rockets' shots and Yao attempted 15 percent. So far this season, Yao is at 19 percent and McGrady has taken 23 percent.

But Yao, in my opinion, is hurt less by McGrady's domination of the ball than others. Yao gets his touches largely on predictable set plays when it's clear that the Rockets are going to him; it's the other guys who can't seem to find a rhythm on a McGrady team.

In his two (mostly) healthy seasons in Houston, McGrady has taken 26 percent ('04-05) and 23 percent ('06-07) of the Rockets' field goal attempts. In his six championship seasons with the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan took an average of 26 percent of his team's shots. But Jordan was a far more accurate shooter than McGrady. In Jordan's worst percentage year of those six (46.5 in '97-98, the year of the Bulls' last title) he still shot more accurately than McGrady did in his best seasons (45.7 percent, which he accomplished twice while with the Orlando Magic).

That is not to suggest that McGrady should be Jordan. (Nobody else is.) But James shot 47.6 percent last season while taking 24 percent of the field goal attempts for that inferior Cavs team he dragged to the NBA Finals. Kobe Bryant -- does anyone seemingly dominate the ball more than he does? -- was a 46.3 percent marksman last season while attempting 26 percent of the Lakers' shots. Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, not a guard but someone who does work for his own shots, took 21 percent of the Mavs' field goal attempts in '06-07, hitting a career-high 50.2 percent in his MVP season.

The point is, all of the above great scorers play within a system. Do they take over at times and shoo the lesser lights to the wallflower section of the court? Absolutely. But they do so with greater effectiveness and efficiency than McGrady does.

McGrady's dominance of the Houston offense isn't exactly a new subject. He addressed it himself after the Rockets' loss in Philadelphia (although he brought Yao into the conversation).

"It seems like a lot of teams have figured us out now," McGrady told the Houston Chronicle. "Double-team myself. Double-team Yao. They do that, and that puts the onus on the other guys to make plays. It's not happening. ... We don't know what to do. It's been going like that the past few games. Maybe I need to start [games] not making shots and pass the ball so they could single-cover everybody."

Well, maybe. For the most part, McGrady is either on the ball or calling for the ball, and far too often his teammates don't know what move he's going to make. That leads, ultimately, to inconsistency and, in this opinion, continued early playoff elimination.

But he's good enough that I'm willing to be proved wrong.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.