Commentary

WHICH COMES FIRST, TEAM OR T-MAC? THE ROCKETS ARE ABOUT TO FIND OUT

Updated: July 10, 2012, 2:37 PM ET
By Chris Palmer

THE T-MAC FILE BORN May 24, 1979 SIZE 6'8", 210 STATS 21.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 4.1 apg

One lousy 61-loss season is all it took to transform Tracy McGrady from one of the best players in the league to an overrated superstar whose selfish ways were hurting his team. At least according to new Magic GM John Weisbrod. "I think a superstar is defined by wins, by making the players around him better, and by making the team better, Weisbrod said. So he dealt McGrady to Houston, where he'll team with Yao Ming in a frontcourt that transforms the Rockets into a potential Lakers-like title machine. Now it's time for T-Mac to deliver. McGrady's career has been defined by huge numbers, spectacular highlights and the steady green light. But is he willing to be option No. 2 in order to help the Rockets reach No.1?

1. ORDER IN COURT Upon first meeting McGrady, Jeff Van Gundy talked with him about where he was most comfortable on the court. (T-Mac favors the 17-footer from the left baseline and penetrating down the right side from the top of the key.) "You definitely want input on their spots, then you go from there," Van Gundy says. "Going from there" generally translates into playing Van Gundy's trademark style: slow, defensive, half-court basketball. ("We hardly ever worked on our running game," says departed point man Steve Francis.) This will be the first time in a long time that T-Mac's team will play a style dictated by someone other than him.

2. MING DYNASTY John Amaechi. Shawn Kemp. Steven Hunter. Pat Garrity. Just some of the low-post "threats" T-Mac has teamed with in Orlando. Yao is a different story: he requires constant double-teaming, which will open up driving lanes for McGrady. In his welcome-aboard press conference, T-Mac repeatedly praised Yao as the prime reason Houston was his top choice. "He's going to get me my championship," McGrady said. T-Mac can opt out of his seven-year, $93 million contract after next season. Whether he will depends largely on how well he clicks with Yao. But don't expect a Shaq/Kobe personality clash here. "If I need to sacrifice and give Yao the ball," says McGrady, "then that's what I'll do." Only time will tell.

3. STAR POWER With the dismantling of the Lakers, Houston is now among the league's marquee attractions, putting T-Mac on center stage. But even with lowly Orlando, McGrady's No.1 jersey was the league's third-best seller. The week after the deal, sales of Rockets merchandise tripled. Fallout in Orlando, though, was harsh: Weisbrod was soundly criticized by local media, and even received two death threats. But T-Mac's not ready to pull up stakes quite yet. Right now he's overseeing the construction of a 43,000-square-foot pad in Central Florida, where he plans to live in the off-season with wife ClaRenda and their 18-month-old daughter, Layla Clarise.

4. WIDE OPEN In his four years in Orlando, McGrady averaged 22.7 shots per game (second in the league over that time). Van Gundy has never had a player take more than Patrick Ewing's 19.2 in 1995-96. Something's gotta give. That likely will be McGrady, the youngest player in almost 30 years to average 30-plus points a night. He knew before signing with the Rockets that he would have to defer to Yao; Van Gundy insists his center get a touch before the first shot. But Yao will help T-Mac's game more than hinder it. An excellent midrange jump-shooter, T-Mac will benefit from the space Yao will create for him, thanks to pick-and-rolls on the wing. "I wouldn't be surprised if Tracy went out and scored 30 a night," says a rival Western Conference assistant.

5. WIN OR GO HOME Before the trade, Van Gundy asked assistant coach Ewing for his opinion of T-Mac. Ewing assured him that McGrady had the character and leadership skills to build around, insight the future Hall of Famer gained while playing alongside McGrady in 2001-02. But despite their sparkling individual resumes, neither Van Gundy nor McGrady has ever led a division-winning team. "As far as showing we're championship material," says Van Gundy, "we both have a lot to prove."

Chris Palmer

ESPN the Magazine