When we think of Tim Duncan and the greatness of him and his career, one of the things we think about is how he spent his entire career as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. Because of that, Duncan and the Spurs are synonymous with each other in a way that transcends so many player and organization relationships.
But, as Duncan put it, he was “very close” to leaving and signing with the Orlando Magic in the summer of 2000. Much like the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010, Orlando heavily recruited Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, and Tim Duncan.
The Magic brought out the entire arsenal to get them to sign with the team. Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady signed, but Duncan ended up remaining with the Spurs. As Grant Hill recalled recently on ESPN’s “The Jump” by saying:
“I made my visit with Tim Duncan and I was at the dinner when someone in Tim’s entourage—I’ll just leave it that way—asked Doc ‘can significant others travel on the plane?’ And Doc said no. And the energy at the table… my wife said he should have just lied, he should have said yes.”
As someone who grew up as a Tracy McGrady fan—the fandom starting shortly T-Mac joined Orlando after seeing plenty of his highlights on ESPN—that was heart-wrenching. And yes, McGrady was on the show for that story, and his reaction tells it all.
The ramifications of what could have been are interesting to explore in terms of the rest of the NBA. If Duncan and McGrady bring success to Orlando, does Doc Rivers end up in Boston? He arrived in Boston in 2004, and it’s an interesting scenario to explore.
We can’t guarantee the Magic a championship, but they would have certainly been close and maybe that leads Doc to stay in hopes of reaching the top with T-Mac and Duncan. If he stayed, who would have coached the Boston Celtics? Would that have affected the Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen transactions in the summer of 2007? Maybe Garnett still leaves (they annoyed him by quietly shopping him before the 2007 draft)—and then it affects Minnesota’s ability to draft Kevin Love. And what about Ray Allen? Allen and Garnett were both on teams that stunk in their last year with the Seattle Supersonics and Minnesota Timberwolves finishing with poor records, so it’s not a stretch to assume that they leave either way.
And let’s not forget about the San Antonio Spurs. Tim Duncan and the Spurs won four championships—2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014—after he chose to stay with them. If Duncan isn’t in San Antonio rivaling Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, then do the Lakers get to more NBA Finals? Would Shaq have left?
Let’s get the obvious out the way: OF COURSE YOU SAY YES TO TIM DUNCAN AND YOU MEAN IT, DOC. WHY, DOC?!
Now that that is off my chest, let’s examine how Duncan to Orlando would have impacted T-Mac and Orlando. Duncan was already averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in each of his first three seasons. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) was 22.6, 23.2, and 24.8 in his respective first three seasons, and his lowest Win Shares was 8.7.
If Tim Duncan joins T-Mac in Orlando, that clearly propels a team that went 43-39 and was the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s not a stretch to say that Duncan helps McGrady lead the Magic to fight for the top of the East. Duncan’s Win Shares for the 2000-2001 season was 13.2 with a Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) of 5.9. Duncan would have been starting instead of either Bo Outlaw, John Amaechi, or Andrew DeClercq.
It looks like Duncan would have been better served starting over Amaechi or DeClercq—whose Win Shares was 0.0 and 2.5, respectively, during that season. So Duncan’s Win Shares is 10-13 more than either of them. It’s safe to say that it propels them to the top three in the east that season, and they remain in the top for years after.
But T-Mac never caught a break during his career. His first contract with the Toronto Raptors ended after his third season and he wanted his own team. Instead of becoming a dynamic duo with his cousin Vince Carter, he left to be closer to home in Orlando and team up with Grant Hill. (But, as we’ve established already, did not team up with Tim Duncan. Thanks, Doc.)
In the spirit of never catching a break, Hill only played in 47 games from the 2000-2001 to the 2003-2004 season—McGrady’s time with the Orlando Magic. The best teammate McGrady played with regularly was Mike Miller in Orlando. After McGrady left Toronto, Vince had a career year–27.6 points per game and a 25.0 PER–while the Raptors won 47 games during the season. The Raptors took the Philadelphia 76ers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the playoffs that year. McGrady’s time in Orlando consisted of teammates like Darrell Armstrong, Bo Outlaw, John Amaechi, Andrew DeClercq, Monty Williams, Jacque Vaughn, Gordan Giricek, Drew Gooden, and older versions of Shawn Kemp, Horace Grant, and Patrick Ewing.
After he was traded to the Houston Rockets, he teamed up with Yao Ming. As we all know, Ming and T-Mac didn’t have full time with each other either. (And Ming clogged up the lane, so it probably wasn’t the perfect fit for McGrady.) After their first season together in 2004-2005–in which Yao played in 80 games–Yao played in 57 games, 48 games, and then 55 games in his respective next three seasons. That averages out to 53.33 games per season. To put this in another perspective, Ming played in the 2004-2005 playoffs and the 2006-2007 playoffs. McGrady played in the 2007-2008 playoff series—the final full season of his great prime—without Ming. The following season, Houston added Ron Artest (Metta World Peace) to play with McGrady, but T-Mac just played in 35 games due to injury. McGrady’s time in Houston was spent playing with–aside from Yao Ming–Metta World Peace, Shane Battier, Rafer Alston, Chuck Hayes, Luis Scola, Dikembe Mutombo, Bobby Jackson, Mike James, and Carl Landry.
Injuries and the teams built around McGrady did not help drown out the what ifs we now entertain when we look at his career. The “never made it to the second round” narrative stuck on him, but you can see that a variety of circumstances, mixed with being unlucky, hindered the winning that he could have achieved.
We still have the 13 points in 33 seconds to complete a comeback against Spurs. We still have the 22-game winning streak in the 2007-2008 season–a good chunk came after Yao Ming went down with injury. We have the NBA All-Star game MVP. We have the two scoring titles after averaging 32.1 points per game and 28.0 points per game in his last two seasons with Orlando. He was an a newer version of Scottie Pippen, while able to score at will. He could guard any position, score, pass, and make his teammates better through his unselfishness. And he was the main rival to Kobe Bryant during his prime.
And we have the fact that McGrady was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. His career might be surrounded by a lot of what ifs, but we know that he finally caught a break with the Hall of Fame.