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The Life

November 1, 2001
Top Dog
ESPN The Magazine

Chris Palmer wrote our cover feature on Tracy McGrady. We asked him how T-Mac stacks up against AI, VC and Kobe. Check out his take and then cast your vote.

Who's the best player in the NBA?

Not the next Jordan (that's so tired), but the best of the game's young, new stars. He's got to have a can't-miss J, too many moves to count, the ability to make even Travis Knight better (okay, that might be too much ask) and go coast-to-coast for the dunk with his off hand. Actually, he better not have an off hand.

The best player in the game plays airtight D, and possesses a combination of skill, athleticism, intelligence, desire to win, potential and creativity.

And he's gotta be fun to watch, which is why Shaq and Tim don't make my final cut, though both are dominators in their own right. KG and CWebb can do a lot, but they can't do it all. And the Lamar Odom/Steve Francis set is still a few years away from consideration.

So who's No. 1? A good argument can be made for Vince, Allen or Kobe. But I gotta go with T-Mac. He's got all of the above skills, and a work ethic so hard-core he seriously believes he can master every bit of the game. Plus his upside is bigger than Shaq's backside. In short, he's gonna get a heckuva lot better while his contemporaries make steady improvements or level off.

Here's how me and T-Mac see it:

THE PLAYERS

  • Allen Iverson

    What Tracy says: "You have to respect AI. He never gets tired, man. I mean his motor never stops. You have to keep him in front of you at all times. He's too quick for help defense to make a difference. The best thing is to make him shoot. His shot is streaky so that's what I make him do. But don't let him get into the lane because nobody can make difficult shots like Allen. He can shoot over anybody."

    Why Tracy's better: Versatility. McGrady simply causes more mismatches on the perimeter, in the lane and on the block. Bubba Chuck ain't posting anybody and Tracy never gets posted. Ever.

    The league is about big guards and T-Mac is the biggest. Tracy impacts the boards while AI doesn't. McGrady was the only non-C/PF to finish in the top 20 in offensive rebounds. But as far as toughness goes, no one can match AI's heart.

  • Vince Carter

    What Tracy says: "He's got a great step-back J, but I'll still let him shoot it. But if he's on, it's over. His handle is not that good. You have to make him go left. Your best bet is to force him left baseline and hope you get somebody to come over to help and give him contact. That's probably why you don't see as many highlight dunks from him as you used to."

    Why Tracy's better: Tracy's skill level is simply higher. He's a better ballhandler, passer, pull-up shooter and defender. Vince is too much of a nice guy and lacks McGrady's cutthroat mentality.

    VC can still explode for 40 any night but is too reliant on the 3, the one phase of his game that is superior to T-Mac's. McGrady's passing ability allows him to create for others at the top of the key as well as off of penetration and the post. But it's the fact that Vince's D is nowhere near Tracy's that makes this a no-contest.

  • Kobe Bryant

    What Tracy says: "It's close, we have the same type of game. He's quicker than me so I let him shoot. If you let him drive, he'll get the and-1 or dunk. I can block his J though. Just look at the 2001 All-Star game and you'll see what I mean. I blocked him three times when they came to Orlando last year. I think he had a season low. I feel I'm as good a defensive player even though I haven't made all-defense yet. But that will come."

    Why Tracy's better: The most difficult case to argue, because KB's got two rings. But both were named All-NBA second team last year. Their jump shots, ballhandling and passing are dead even. Both are outstanding defenders, but Tracy's longer arms allow him to defend a wider variety of players just about anywhere on the court. T-Mac was the only non-C/PF to finish in the top 20 in blocked shots. (Do we have a theme here?)

    Tracy can also seamlessly shift to point guard and create more opportunities than Kobe without worrying about scoring (KB's 0.4 assist edge is because he had better finishers last year). This is tough, but the nod goes to T-Mac.

    THE CONCLUSION

    If there's still some doubt in you're mind, here's the clincher: no player in the top 10 has developed less of his overall potential than McGrady. Remember the upside thing. In other words, it's possible for him to have another Most Improved Player year without picking up the hardware.

    Kobe and AI are fine-tuning their games, and Vince's skills will improve but he's near his ceiling. Vince, Kobe, AI, if you guys disagree, holla. But for now, it's T-time.

    Chris Palmer covers The NBA Life for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at christopher.palmer@espnmag.com.



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