John Lopez
Wednesday December 30th, 2009

Tracy McGrady is on the verge of leaving Houston. Whenever and however that transaction happens, the afterglow will be much like it was when McGrady left Orlando nearly six years ago, and Toronto four years before that.

One of the teams involved will be thrilled to see him arrive. And the other will be relieved to finally be rid of the burden and bother that is basketball's version of Drive For Show.

In 13 highlight-filled, yet unfulfilling seasons, the 6-foot-8, uber-talented McGrady has become a tantalizing tease of a figure. Does he deserve a Hall of Fame bust? Or is he one? The Rockets this week decided to in essence tell one of the game's most supremely gifted players, "We're better off without you."

And strangely, they are. That alone says much about the curious case of Tracy McGrady. In 30-plus games thus far, the Rockets have been one of the league's bigger surprises. They have remained in playoff contention and played superb team basketball despite playing one of the tougher opening stretches and without franchise center Yao Ming (foot surgery). They also have won this winter the same way they won their first playoff series in a dozen years last summer -- without the $23 million McGrady, who underwent offseason microfracture surgery on his left knee.

Rest assured, considering McGrady's immense talent, somewhere out there -- Knicks? Heat? Wizards? Bulls? -- is a potential perfect fit. There is perhaps a coach and situation that may be able to unlock the mystery of a player once considered better than Kobe Bryant.

The Rockets once believed Houston was the place and they had acquired the Final Piece with McGrady. What they got was T-Stat. He filled the box score and the arena. His regular-season and even postseason numbers compared favorably with the biggest of the big names -- including Kobe.

But McGrady didn't win a single playoff series while active in Houston, just like he didn't in Orlando and Toronto. And ultimately, he left town with friends and foes alike scratching their heads.

If numbers alone defined McGrady, he would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. With a pair of scoring titles to his credit, McGrady has averaged 21.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game over his career. But numbers hardly tell the story of how time and again, destination after destination, McGrady has fallen short of the championship level.

He is an old 31, considering the miles McGrady has put on his wheels since jumping to the league out of high school. He also has had back, knee, shoulder, elbow, ankle and assorted other injuries. Nevertheless, McGrady rehabilitated quicker than expected from surgery this year, was logging seven to eight minutes per game and wanted more.

Then the Rockets made the tough, somewhat bizarre decision to try and grant McGrady's trade request, rather than kowtow to his demand for more playing time.

"The way we're playing didn't jibe with [more minutes for McGrady]," Rockets coach Rick Adelman told reporters this week. "Maybe with another team, he can play 25 minutes and they can go to him. I saw the way it was going. It was going to be a difficult task."

Translation: One of the league's all-time greatest talents wasn't worth the trouble. Will the next stop, the next coach, be the one that finally makes everything click? As always, there are tantalizing possibilities circulating out there: McGrady to the Nets, with LeBron James on the way? McGrady and Dwyane Wade in South Florida? The "Next Jordan" finding himself in Chicago. Perhaps ... McMadison Square Garden?

Then again, McGrady's career has made one thing clear: Buyer beware. When McGrady arrived to the league and Toronto as a gifted teen, he was the Next Michael Jordan. By the end of his brief Raptors career, he was known as The Big Sleep, for his lack of work ethic. McGrady once agreed to stay late after practices to work on his game, but only if coaches guaranteed him more minutes per game. The diva reputation was established early.

In Orlando, where McGrady won his scoring titles, he was The Chosen One when James still was riding a Big Wheel. Yet by the time the blockbuster trade to Houston happened, Magic teammates sarcastically called McGrady, "amazing." Why? McGrady said in an interview, "Sometimes I even amaze myself." Players knew better. They knew how he took shortcuts and didn't bring full intensity to every game.

Finally came Houston, where every element for a championship run seemed to be perfectly in place. A playoff series win was almost a given. The 7-6 Yao anchored both ends of the floor. The owner, Leslie Alexander, was one of the best in the league and more than willing to flirt with the luxury tax if it meant bringing in the right complementary pieces.

It ended ugly, but like his previous stops was not without tantalizing moments. He scored 13 points in 35 seconds to pull off a miracle against the Spurs. He posterized Keith Van Horn and Shawn Bradley with drives and dunks that only a handful of human beings could pull off. He averaged big numbers and did great things.

Yet only once in six Rockets seasons did McGrady not miss at least 11 games. Three times he missed at least 35 games. In 20 playoff games as a Rocket, McGrady had the numbers -- 27.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.25 steals. But he never won a single series.

Off the court, his diva-like stylings became too much for all involved. He spurned team doctors when he had back spasms in '06. He showed up for training camp in '08 and announced, four months after arthroscopic surgery, that his knee wasn't well and he wasn't 100 percent. In response to growing criticism in Houston for his act, he hissed, "It's my fault a couple people in the stands ordered Heinekens and they got Budweiser. It's my fault. I'm sorry. It's my fault. Everything is my fault. It's my fault. It's T-Mac's fault."

One NBA player called him, "Half-man, Half-a-season." Another offered the biting, "She-Mac." Last spring, McGrady picked the Lakers to advance to the Western Conference finals. One problem: The Lakers were playing McGrady's Rockets. And earlier this year, when the Rockets weren't ready for McGrady to suit up, he did anyway. He even went through warm-ups, much to the surprise of Adelman and everyone in the Rockets organization.

Enough, finally, was enough. McGrady is going to be dealt. Maybe McGrady's next NBA home will find a happily ever after. Or maybe it will be where the career of one of the greatest basketball talents to ever walk the earth will go to die. With Drive For Show, you never know.

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