Monday, March 24, 2003

HEY, I HAVEN'T DONE A BILL SIMMONS POST LATELY: You know, you wouldn't think it would be difficult to remember that there were great NBA players before Michael Jordan. And yet, Bill Simmons seems like the only guy to consistently acknowledge that fact:

For instance, everyone became enthralled by Kobe after his February scoring binge -- playing on a superior team, in a more structured system, with the best center in the league on his side -- whereas McGrady has submitted slightly better numbers this season in relative anonymity. Hey, nobody loves Kobe more than me, but if you don't think McGrady could average 40 a game for an entire month playing next to Shaq, you're crazy. Kobe works harder for his points than McGrady does, and that's the frightening thing about T-Mac -- sometimes it feels like he's just scratching the surface of his abilities, like those games when he scores 48 in three quarters and doesn't seem like he's even breaking a sweat.

You always hear people mention how Kobe is evolving into the next MJ, but nobody ever mentions how T-Mac is evolving into Julius Erving (the ABA version), only with a more reliable jumpshot. He's the second coming of Doctor J. Believe me. Back in the mid-'80s, everyone always compared young MJ to Doctor J -- erroneously, as it turned out, because MJ played much more like an evolutionary David Thompson, the high-flying Denver guard who battled drug problems and never reached his full potential. And now here's somebody who really is the next Doctor J, and nobody ever mentions it.

Did you ever wonder what would happen if Doc and MJ ever met in their primes? The next few years of "T-Mac Vs. Kobe" should serve as a real-life computer simulation. I can't wait to see how it turns out. As an aside, I never thought we would see someone like Doc again -- the way he gracefully carried himself on the court, balanced by how he violently attacked the basket -- and yet here's McGrady doing the exact same thing. It's unbelievable.

Which reminds me, John Hollinger also has some T-Mac appreciation:

Let's not mince words: Right now, McGrady is flat-out the best player in basketball. It's not even a close call. His current average of 32.4 points per game is the highest in the league in 10 years, and if you eliminate players named "Jordan" from the equation, it's the highest since Bernard King averaged 32.9 in 1984-85.

Yet that average actually understates how well McGrady is playing. Here's a trivia question to get things started: Since Christmas, how many times McGrady has been held under 20 points?

While you ponder that answer, let's look at his accomplishments.

For starters, can we give him an Oscar for Best Performance Without a Supporting Actor? Despite a roster that, minus McGrady, would have trouble beating Cleveland or Denver, McGrady has managed to raise his game across the board and drag the Magic into the playoffs. Their current four-game win streak even has them challenging Boston for the No. 6 seed.

McGrady is shooting more -- boosting his shot attempts from 20.9 to 24.1 a game -- but yet also managed the difficult feat of shooting better -- his field-goal, free-throw and 3-point percentages are all significantly higher than a year ago. Having overcome last year's back trouble, the 23-year old simulatenously has shouldered a bigger load while improving his efficiency.

Now, back to that trivia question. The correct answer is zero. McGrady has scored at least 20 points in 40 straight games -- he'll make it a full half-season Monday night against Memphis. He's also been Orlando's leading scorer in all 40 of those games. That accomplishment is a monument to his consistency.

Look closer at his 40-game stretch. He's averaging 33.9 points a game -- even Jordan averaged that many only twice, and other than His Airness, the last player to score that much in a season was Bob McAdoo in 1975-76.

McGrady's raised his game even more down the stretch, averaging an amazing 37 a game over his past 15 contests as he leads the Magic's playoff charge. That includes Sunday night's stellar performance in Miami, when he had 32 at halftime and then put it in cruise control as Orlando rolled to a blowout win.

And yet, when the topic of MVP comes up, McGrady's name is mysteriously absent. Despite putting up the best scoring season in a decade and taking an otherwise talentless team into the postseason, all eyes have been focused westward, toward Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett.

All three are great players and worthy candidates in another year. But McGrady has been head and shoulders above the rest, and in a fair world, his amazing 40-game stretch should have cemented the award a long time ago.

T-Mac is so much fun to watch--just so smooth and effortless-looking. I think I've said this before, but for completely aesthetic reasons I'll always prefer his game over the shot-forcing, ref-baiting Kobe/Jordan style of basketball.

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