Up, Up and...?
The Raptors want to believe Tracy McGrady won't fly the coop
There's no longer any question that the Raptors will make the
playoffs. The only issue hanging in the balance is how high a
seeding they'll get in the postseason. While Vince Carter's
aerial acrobatics and last-second heroics have received most of
the attention during Toronto's late-season surge, an equally
vital ingredient has been the play of 6'8" Tracy McGrady, the
20-year-old former high school phenom who has blossomed as a
Since coach Butch Carter inserted McGrady into the lineup on
Feb. 25, the Raptors had gone 11-2 through Sunday's game,
bringing their record to 39-26, the fourth-best mark in the
Eastern Conference. McGrady's versatility has enabled Carter to
use him at both guard spots and at small forward. Knicks coach
Jeff Van Gundy was so impressed with McGrady's play against New
York last month that he has likened Carter, McGrady and 6'6"
guard Doug Christie to the Bulls' trio of Michael Jordan,
Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper.
There's one snag in that comparison: McGrady may not be around
to help Toronto build a dynasty. As recently as last week,
sources close to him said he'll bolt the Raptors when he becomes
a free agent this summer. Toronto vice president and general
manager Glen Grunwald refuses to believe it until it happens.
"I've heard all the rumors that he's leaving, but I haven't
heard that from Tracy," Grunwald says. "We had very frank
discussions with him before the [Feb. 24] trading deadline. We
told him, 'Tracy, we'd love you to stay. You're our first
choice. But if you don't want to stay, then we need to talk
about where we can trade you that will make us both happy.' He
said no to that. He's never told us he doesn't want to be here."
Then again, Shaquille O'Neal never told the Magic he was leaving
in the summer of 1996, but once the Lakers feverishly cleared
salary cap room to accommodate him, he took a hike. Stephon
Marbury didn't let the Timberwolves know he wanted out,
either--until a week before last year's trading deadline, when
he demanded to be sent to the Nets. Young stars often have a
hard time telling the only team they've been on that they want
to make a break, and the team often deludes itself into thinking
it can find a way to make the relationship last.
McGrady is deeply loyal to his agent, Arn Tellem, and to Adidas,
which signed him to a $12 million endorsement deal. Both Tellem
and Adidas want him to play in the U.S. to enhance his marketing
potential. "I'm sure they have their agendas, but Tracy has
assured us he'll make his own decision," Grunwald says.
In the meantime McGrady's stock keeps rising. He has always been
a gifted offensive player, but by putting the clamps on
All-Stars Grant Hill and Allan Houston in recent weeks, he has
given his reputation as a defender a huge boost. "If ever there
was a Generation X version of Pippen, he's it," says Pacers
president Donnie Walsh. "As good as Vince Carter has been, this
kid has been playing just as well, and he's doing more things.
He can handle the ball, he can rebound on both ends, he's gotten
to the point where he can shoot it, and he's playing great
Yet it's likely that Toronto has groomed McGrady to be someone
else's star. When O'Neal's free agency was pending, rumors were
rampant that he wanted to play in Los Angeles. Orlando's front
office was aware of the talk, but felt its offer would surpass
all others. "In retrospect, I suppose you could call us naive,
but you have to remember where we were," says Magic senior
executive vice president Pat Williams. "We had just been to the
Finals. We were destiny's darlings. We were young, exciting, a
team on the rise, and we're supposed to trade the guy?"
Who can blame the Raptors for feeling the same way? They were
smart not to deal McGrady last month, particularly since they
received no offers of close to equal value. They're trying to
establish themselves as a playoff threat, and they can't do that
without McGrady. Besides, management believes it can persuade
the kid to stay.
Providing him with starter's minutes and calling his number more
has helped make McGrady happier in Toronto. The Raptors public
relations staff is putting the finishing touches on a highlight
video to promote his candidacy for the Sixth Man Award. Grunwald
says there are other plans in the works for providing "ways for
the fans to show how much they appreciate Tracy."
Will it be enough? McGrady likes warm weather cities--such as
Orlando, where he's building a house--and while he's shown no
jealousy toward Vince Carter, surely he wonders what it would be
like to be with a team on which his star would be the brightest.
Toronto can pay McGrady $87 million over seven seasons, or $20
million more than any other team is permitted to under the
collective bargaining agreement. If they can't persuade McGrady
to stay, the Raptors could work a sign-and-trade deal with the
Magic for, say, a first-round pick plus Corey Maggette or
Darrell Armstrong. Toronto could argue they made out O.K., the
way Minnesota did when it ended up with Terrell Brandon and
Wally Szczerbiak for Marbury.
The Raptors say they aren't interested in sign-and-trades. They
hope that if their playoff ride is as thrilling as they believe
it will be, McGrady will want to stay around. "We'll make our
case," Grunwald says. "We'll be dealing with reality. The other
teams will be dealing in sales pitches."
Vilification of Juwan Howard
The High Price Of High Pay
Wizards forward Juwan Howard has tried to make sense of it. How
could a total stranger hate him so much that she'd stalk him,
even impersonate his mother, just to get close enough to him to
tell him what a lousy, no-good, (expletive) bum he is? "She
was," says Howard of the woman who stalked him earlier this
season, "one angry lady."
When the NBA voided Howard's deal with the Heat in July 1996 and
he re-signed with Washington for seven years and $105
million--or an average annual raise of $11 million over his
previous salary--he knew that expectations for his play would
rise exponentially. Fine. But nobody told him there would be
death threats. Nobody told him the home crowd would boo him when
he touched the ball. After years of mail from adoring fans and
autograph seekers, how do you prepare for reading stacks of
letters laced with messages that are ugly, even menacing?
Howard has become the most vilified player in the league.
Wizards fans boo him because in 1998 either he or Chris Webber
had to go to shake up the team; since nobody would touch
Howard's contract, Webber was sent to the Kings, for whom he has
become an All-Star. They boo Howard because, while he puts up
decent numbers, he makes superstar money and can't change the
course of a game. They boo Howard because he steadfastly refuses
to say what they want to hear: that if he could do it over, he'd
take less money. "I don't know how he does it," says Washington
point guard Rod Strickland. "If I were him, I'd be cursing
people out all over the place. He just stands there and takes it."
Howard is an albatross around the neck of new Wizards boss
Michael Jordan, who tried to unload him before the trading
deadline. He's the key to Washington's future--only because its
hopes hinge on getting rid of him. "It's not like I'm the worst
player in the league," says Howard. "I could see if I missed
every shot, or I slacked off on the court, or I didn't work in
practice, or I was some kind of hothead who popped off all the
time. But I don't fit that description."
No, Howard is punctual, polite, a regular in the weight room.
"Juwan has done everything I've asked--except swing the ball
when guys are open," says Washington coach Darrell Walker.
Howard doesn't lack for confidence. "I still feel I'm one of the
best players in this league," he says. "No one can guard me
man-on-man. That's why teams double me every night. My peers
respect me. These people [who are booing], many of them don't
really understand the game."
In his defense Howard notes that he has had to play small
forward most of the season, even though he's a natural power
forward. "I can play the three, but it absolutely takes away
from the things I do best," he says. "Let me get the ball with
my back to the basket, and I'm unstoppable."
How different would Howard's life have been if commissioner
David Stern hadn't voided the contract he signed with Miami
because it circumvented the salary cap? Would he be more
effective playing beside a dominant low-post center like Alonzo
Mourning? "I'll never know; he'll never know," says Heat coach
Pat Riley. "It's a hard question to answer. The only thing I
think is that he would have been a power forward here. That's
where I saw him. I would have never played him at small forward."
There have been whispers that Miami still is interested in
Howard, but the reality is that the Heat would have to execute a
multiplayer swap to make the numbers work. Besides, Riley has
fallen in love with another power forward, P.J. Brown--and he
makes a mere $5.1 million a year.
Hughes the Man
Warriors Have Hope at Last
Warriors guard Larry Hughes still checks out his old 76ers
teammates every chance he gets. He'll sneak a peek at the
highlights on TV or glance at the Sixers' box score in the
newspaper, but don't misunderstand: Hughes isn't longing to
return to Philadelphia. "The best part [about being with Golden
State] is my being able to make a mistake, and not worry about
getting yanked and wondering when I'll ever get a chance to make
it up," he says. "In Philly, I never knew when I was going in or
for how long. It's hard to get a rhythm going that way. I play
with a rhythm now."
He also plays with the kind of youthful abandon that put him in
Sixers coach Larry Brown's doghouse. Warriors general manager
and coach Garry St. Jean concedes that Hughes, a 21-year-old
shooting guard, could use some "reining in," but the Feb. 16
three-way trade that brought Hughes and forward Billy Owens to
Golden State for John Starks and a No. 1 pick in 2000 has
breathed hope into what was a hapless franchise. "Being old
school, it's refreshing to have a young guy like Larry who's
committed to winning," St. Jean says. "He has a lot of pride. He
wants to be a special player, and he knows he doesn't have it
all figured out yet. He's a good listener. He's going to get
The Warriors' staff has been impressed by Hughes's mastery of
the little things. For example, how in transition he goes up
straight for his jumper instead of drifting in the air,
something even some veterans have trouble doing. Or how well he
plays the two-man game, throwing post players soft passes they
can actually catch. On the negative side, St. Jean wants Hughes,
when he's in traffic, not to drive all the way to the rim, so he
can have the option of kicking the ball out. And yes, Hughes's
defense is weak, but already he's figuring out how to fight
through, instead of over, screens.
Golden State has endured a wave of injuries, including forward
Antawn Jamison's strained left knee, which will keep him out the
rest of the season. While some fans bemoan the lost opportunity
to have Hughes and Jamison play together, St. Jean puts a
different spin on it. "At least now," he says, "we've got
something to look forward to."
Line of the Week
SuperSonics guard Gary Payton, March 16, versus the Grizzlies:
42 minutes, 12-26 FG, 5-5 FT, 30 points, 16 assists, 3 steals, 4
rebounds. While Shaquille O'Neal steals all the headlines, the
"other" MVP candidate continues to rack up astounding numbers.
For the latest scores and stats, plus Phil Taylor's NBA mailbag,
go to cnnsi.com/basketball.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN McGrady is vital to Toronto, but his agent and his shoe company prefer that he play for a U.S. team.
COLOR PHOTO: MITCHELL LAYTON/NBA PHOTOS
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN (MARBURY)
COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/NBA PHOTOS (CASSELL)
Here's how Juwan Howard's numbers through Sunday stack up
against those of a handful of other forwards who, like Howard
(above), have been All-Stars but weren't selected for this
PLAYER PPG RPG FG% 1999-2000 SALARY
Juwan Howard, Wizards 14.9 5.6 46.1% $15 million
Larry Johnson, Knicks 11.0 5.3 43.7% $11.9 million
Shawn Kemp, Cavaliers 18.1 8.8 40.2% $10.8 million
Vin Baker, SuperSonics 17.1 7.9 45.7% $9 million
Derrick Coleman, Hornets 17.3 8.3 46.8% $7.4 million
Christian Laettner, Pistons 13.3 7.1 47.5% $6.1 million
Around The Rim
Allen Iverson continues to drive 76ers coach Larry Brown batty
by minimizing the importance of things like shootarounds, one of
which Iverson skipped last week because, he said, he had a
headache. But Brown can take comfort in this: He has an escape
clause in his five-year, $25 million contract that he can
exercise at the end of any season. Another club could sign him
without having to compensate Philly....
Rasheed Wallace's league-high total of technical fouls was 28
through Sunday, and Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy is worried that
his lone All-Star can't control his emotions. Wallace's fifth
ejection of the season came last Thursday, when he was tossed
with five seconds left in a 96-92 loss to the Timberwolves....
The Pacers will try to accommodate seldom-used Chris Mullin by
moving him this summer to a team seeking veteran wisdom--which
might mean Mullin's return to the Warriors. Mullin has one year
left at $4.1 million and would be the ideal mentor to young
players like Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison....
Memo to Vince Carter's camp: If you're upset that your star was
left off the original list for the U.S. Olympic team and think
he doesn't want to go to Sydney as a fill-in for the injured Tom
Gugliotta, then say so, because the notion that he can't play
because he's going to summer school doesn't fly. According to
North Carolina's Web site, courses in Chapel Hill end on Aug. 3.
The Olympic training schedule doesn't begin until Aug. 24.
What would happen if the clients of agents David Falk and Arn
Tellem clashed on court? With four of the league's top 20
scorers, Falk has the advantage, but Tellem's backcourt has the
clear edge in trash talking.
Falk's Guys Tellem's Team
Antoine Walker (Celtics) SF Kobe Bryant (Lakers)
Elton Brand (Bulls) PF Antawn Jamison (Warriors)
Alonzo Mourning (Heat) C Olden Polynice (Jazz)
Allen Iverson (76ers) SG Reggie Miller (Pacers)
Stephon Marbury (above, Nets) PG Sam Cassell (above, Bucks)
Keith Van Horn (Nets) 6th Tracy McGrady (Raptors)