What If …

How different would NBA history be if certain players stayed healthy? Yes, injuries are apart of the game and our favorite players deal with them year in and year out on a nightly basis for 82 games a season (even more if they make the playoffs). For some players, when you see them fall you just know they will bounce back better than before, almost like nothing happened.

But for some, they never fully get back to being the player they once were and will bounce around from team to team on one-year deals until they ultimately retire. I’ve seen this happen a few times to some players I loved watching and I always find myself wondering “What if?” “What if he stayed healthy?” “Would he have won a ring?” Those questions can’t be given definitive answers, but they do lead to great debates.

Here in this short series I’m going to mention some of my personal favorites who I enjoyed watching who’s careers were shortened due to injuries….

This man was more than just Vince’s cousin and he would make sure to stamp his name in the NBA’s history books and carve out his own legacy as one of the greatest scorers the NBA has ever seen. Yeah that’s right, I’m talking about “The Big Sleep” himself Tracy McGrady. When T-Mac entered the league he was one of few who would do so coming straight from high school. Of course people were skeptical, one person even saying that “he would be out of the league after three years”.

Tracy would go on to prove every one wrong and after his first three years in Toronto where he was an important cog in that Raptors wheel, he would have that chance. At 21 years of age Mac found himself on the Orlando Magic who were coming off of a .500 season finishing 41- 41. Darrell Armstrong led the team in scoring with 16.6 but it was obvious that they could use a player who could score at will.

In steps T-Mac, who in his first year with the magic averaged 26.8 PPG and showed that he was more than capable of putting the ball in the basket. I mean let’s be clear here, Tracy was addicted to getting buckets. Standing at 6'8" with the ability to play both the two and the three, Tracy would feast on cats with his deadly pull-up jumper, his superb ball-handling, and if he caught you lacking in the paint (whether alone or with help) he could sky over you with a monster dunk or hit you with one of his patented self-lobs we grew accustomed to seeing from him.

By 21 Tracy was already an All-Star and one of the best young players in the game. (Orlando seriously needs to bring those jerseys back) After his stellar first season as a member of the Magic, Tracy would put up 25.6 PPG on 45% shooting claiming another All-Star selection. The season afterwards… would be nothing short of legendary.

THIS MAN WOULD GO ON TO PUT UP AN ASTONISHING 32.1 PPG ON 45% SHOOTING!!!!!!!!! (seeing a trend here?). Again another All-Star selection making three in a row and also would hold the title as the scoring champ for the 02–03 season. His first three years in Orlando he played on average 76 games a season.

By this time Everyone knew who Tracy McGrady was and it wasn’t because he was Vince’s cousin or that he was in the infamous 2000 NBA dunk contest (won by Vince Carter). It was because of his stellar play and ability to lead the Magic to the playoffs three consecutive years. Yes, the Magic were eliminated early in the playoffs those years, not even making it out of the first round. But you would think he would finally see a breakthrough eventually right?

Did I already mention that the Magic need to bring these back immediately?

Tracy would follow up his insane season from last year by crowning himself as the scoring champ again, this time averaging a solid 28 PPG on 41% shooting from the field with another All Star appearance. But how did the Magic do overall? They finished with a disgusting record of 21–61 and it was clear that rebuilding was their only option. Although the McGrady experience led to playoff appearances, the Magic couldn’t capitalize and would end up trading Mac to the Houston Rockets, a trade that would send shockwaves throughout the NBA.

Now in Houston with a couple of teammates who came over from the trade, and now being partnered up with the one and only Yao Ming. Houston had a lot of potential to do big things and once again the question was… would this be McGrady’s big break?

First two seasons (04–05 & 05–06) McGrady was an All Star and averaged 25.7 and 24.4 PPG respectively, but what was more alarming besides the Rockets being put out in the first round by the Mavs in seven (Insert T-Mac on Shawn Bradley poster) and not even making the playoffs the following year. Was how many games T-Mac didn’t play. Tracy was only 26 and in the 05–06 season he missed 35 games. yeah, he was an All Star but no one wants to miss almost half of a season. He would bounce back the following season missing only 11 games, be named and All Star, but once again be put out of the playoffs again in the first round by the Jazz.

Tracy is still young and at 27 he’s still a bucket getter and when you look at that rockets team in 07–08 they were STACKED. Finishing with a record of 55–27 things looked good for the Rockets. But what about T-Mac? T-Mac only played 66 games and only averaged 21.6 PPG, was not named an All Star and would once again lose in the first round of the playoffs.

This was a player who at one point we looked at as a future MVP maybe even an NBA champion, we looked forward to the battles between he and the late great Kobe Bryant and we all loved using him in NBA Live (Don’t even front like Live wasn’t it back then). But now we’re left asking ourselves “What the hell is going on with McGrady?” Constant back and knee injuries would wreak havoc on Tracy throughout his career and in the 08–09 season it would only get worse.

T-Mac would only play 35 games after having arthroscopic surgery on his knee the year prior, he would deal with chronic knee pains on top of his aching shoulder and back. He would only average 15.6 PPG and it was clear to everyone that he was a shell of his former self. Crazy thing about all this? HE WAS ONLY 29!!!

From 32.1PPG at 23 to only 8.2 PPG at 30 and eventually playing professionally in China it was obvious that the T-Mac we all loved to watch wouldn’t be making anymore appearances. He wouldn’t soar through the air like he once would nor would he throw himself those self-lobs we looked forward to seeing at one of his seven All Star games. The only thing we could do now is ask ourselves “What if?”

But don’t get it twisted T-Mac was and always will be a DOG (and a Hall of Famer). He was one of those players that had opposing teams circling the Raptors, Magic and Rockets whenever they appeared on the schedule. He was capable of exploding for a big game whenever he felt like it and could not be stopped from getting to his spot on the court. T-Mac is a legend through and through, one that the game will never forget.

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Mars Robinson

Freelance NBA writer and host of NBA podcast “No Bias” Twitter: @marsjoint @nobiaspod