Inside The NBA

February 17, 2003

The Lone Star Blues
With Grant Hill out, Tracy McGrady has to carry the load in
Orlando

This was not how Tracy McGrady planned to celebrate his third
All-Star Game--by throwing up in the locker room during the
player introductions. "I was feeling weak, like I was about to
pass out," he said.

But the flu wouldn't keep him from missing Michael Jordan's
farewell as an All-Star. As play began and McGrady broke a sweat,
he started to feel better; then he took over the game, scoring 17
points in the third quarter and 29 overall in the East's 155-145
double-overtime loss in Atlanta. The 6'8" McGrady's versatility
was on full display at Phillips Arena as he moved from playing
point guard to dunking spectacularly on the break to defending
against the game's MVP, Kevin Garnett. And all that on an empty,
grumbling stomach.

It helped that McGrady saw none of the gimmick defenses that he
routinely faces in Orlando, where, he acknowledges, his
supporting cast is weaker than it's ever been. (The Magic was in
ninth place in the East at the break, with a 24-26 record.)
"Having to do everything by yourself, it's tough," the
23-year-old McGrady says. "I don't like saying that because it's
a team sport, but that's just how it is."

Upgrading will be difficult. Because McGrady and Grant Hill take
up roughly half of Orlando's cap space, the team doesn't have the
flexibility to acquire a major inside player. McGrady knows that
the Magic's prospects hinge on Hill's left ankle, which has been
operated on three times over the last three seasons--and,
according to McGrady, will probably soon go under the knife a
fourth time. Last week G.M. John Gabriel said that Hill will rest
his ankle for at least another month, after which doctors may
perform "minor" surgery to alleviate what they believe is
tendinitis.

"I don't know how Grant can come back," McGrady says. "But he's
fighting, and I'm not giving up on him. I know a lot of people
who would have hung it up already if they were in his position."

The only benefit of Hill's absence is that it has accelerated
McGrady's development. "He reminds me of a young Julius Erving in
a lot of ways--his length, his athleticism," says 76ers coach
Larry Brown, who will coach McGrady on the Olympic team over the
next two summers. "There's nothing he can't do." With a
league-leading 30.4 points per game, T-Mac is on his way to
becoming the youngest player to average 30 points since Bob
McAdoo in 1974-75. "It's not what I want to do," he says of his
increased offensive output, "but I feel like I've got to score a
lot for my team to be in games."

McGrady's primary goal is to carry Orlando past the first round
of the playoffs. It will be hard for him just to make the
postseason while having to beat double teams at one end and
defend the best player in the fourth quarters of close games at
the other. Asked how much energy he'll have left after the
regular season, McGrady says, "Great players can't get tired in
the playoffs."

Magic coach Doc Rivers believes that his All-Star is the league's
MVP, but McGrady demurs, saying the award should go to a player
on a championship contender. That's why he disagrees with those
who feel that he's become a better player than Kobe Bryant. "Kobe
does have Shaq," McGrady says, "but the kid can play, you can't
take that away from him. I'm chasing him. He has three rings, I
haven't been out of the first round."

The Nets' Richard Jefferson

Unspectacular Leap Forward

Nets forward Richard Jefferson had the hops to earn one of the
four spots in the slam dunk contest, but his heart wasn't in it.
He didn't throw the ball down in Atlanta so much as drop it over
the rim. "In college he was the same way," says former Arizona
teammate Gilbert Arenas, now the Warriors' point guard. "He'd run
through the lane wide open, everyone would be waiting to see what
he would do, and then he'd just lay the ball in. He's always
playing under control."

Style points mean little to Jefferson, who has played a vital
role in New Jersey's rise over the last two seasons. The Nets
aren't as deep as they were during last year's run to the Finals
after the off-season trade of Todd MacCulloch and Keith Van Horn
(who was moved to make room for Jefferson in the starting lineup)
as well as injuries to Dikembe Mutombo and Rodney Rogers. Yet
Jefferson has, in his measured way, risen to the challenge,
averaging 15.1 points, shooting 53.3% (second best in the NBA)
and defending aggressively. "Every single possession is important
for us," says Jefferson, "so I can't take a night off."

Jefferson's ascent has been greatly aided by Jason Kidd, who
alternates between cussing him out and patting him on the back.
After an early-season slump that culminated in an 0-for-7
shooting night in a loss at Milwaukee, Kidd invited Jefferson to
his house for dinner and some soothing advice. "A lot of eyes
were on me and how I was going to do after the trade," Jefferson
says. "Jason told me, 'Don't worry, it's a long year, and I have
all the confidence in the world in you.'"

The 22-year-old Jefferson likewise has confidence in his
teammates. He dismisses those who predict that New Jersey will
have problems integrating Mutombo into the lineup when he returns
in mid-March from surgery on his right wrist. Though the Nets
were 10--6 with the 7'2" Mutombo and 24-9 without him at the
break, Jefferson points out that they had resolved to pull
together in his absence. "Our defense picked up because we knew
we didn't have Dikembe back there to block shots anymore,"
Jefferson says. "If we keep playing that way when he comes back,
then his shot blocking and rebounding are going to start our fast
break and help our offense even more."

An even bigger issue for the Nets will be resolved this summer,
when Kidd becomes a free agent. In Atlanta he acknowledged that
he'd be tempted by an opportunity to play with Tim Duncan in San
Antonio, but Kidd says that the 6'7" Jefferson is one of his main
incentives to stay in New Jersey, predicting that he will be
among the league's elite once he moves to his natural position of
shooting guard. Ten years from now, Kidd says of Jefferson,
"He'll have plenty of All-Star games under his belt and a couple
of rings. And if he has a couple of rings, hopefully that means I
was with him."

Foreign Affairs

Out of This World

After the U.S.'s disastrous sixth-place finish at the World
Championships last summer in Indianapolis, two senior officials
involved in the selection process say that USA Basketball will
not rely on NBA All-Stars for the 2006 tournament in Japan. "We
doubt that we'll be able to convince the best ones to go," says
one official. Another high-ranking official believes USAB will
draw its team mainly from first-and second-year NBA players with
the promise that they will be groomed to play in subsequent
Olympics. The absence of the league's finest would not only be a
huge setback for FIBA, which wants nothing less than the best
players at its showcase tournament, but would also jeopardize the
U.S.'s chances of winning the worlds--and with that title an
automatic bid to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

For the latest NBA news, plus analysis from Jack McCallum, go to
si.com/basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES McGrady might become the youngest player to average 30 points since 1974-75. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS COLOR PHOTO: NOREN TROTTMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Jefferson has flair in the air, but he prefers to pass up a flashy play for a solid one.

around the Rim

Nuggets rookie Maybyner Hilario prefers to be called by his
nickname, Nene (NAYnay, which means baby in Portuguese). He plans
to change his name to Maybyner Nene-Hilario or simply to Nene,
either of which would allow him to use Nene on the back of his
jersey. The move would make him more marketable in his native
Brazil, where most top athletes are known by a one-word
nickname.... After Phil Jackson asked Kobe Bryant to be more
assertive offensively, Bryant averaged 40.2 points in five
straight wins before the All-Star break. "He's carrying the
team," says Shaquille O'Neal. "He's carrying me sometimes." ...
All David Robinson has received so far on his farewell tour has
been a collection of CDs from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in
Cleveland, a piece of the court in Philadelphia and special
introductions in a few other cities.... Here's a measure of Flip
Saunders's excellence: In his seven full seasons as the coach of
the Timberwolves they have the league's best record in games
decided by three points or less (50-26).

scout's Take

On LeBron James, whose high school eligibility was temporarily
restored last week after it had been revoked because he accepted
two vintage jerseys worth $845:

"None of this changes my opinion that he's a good teammate and
that he's coachable: He knows how to play, which is a strong sign
that he respects his coaches. He's more prepared for the NBA than
anybody who's ever come out of high school, and he'll probably be
the best player and the leader on whatever team drafts him. He'll
have some tough times starting out, but I put him in the category
of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant--he can have an impact in all
areas of the game. You only hope that he's mature enough to
prevent the people around him from changing all of his good
qualities. Maybe this jersey incident will help him avoid making
a bigger mistake when he's in the league."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)