Publish date:

No Trace The Magic's Tracy McGrady may pull a vanishing act after next season

Grant Hill is still in street clothes, coach Doc Rivers has been
fired, and at week's end the Magic had extended its losing streak
to a franchise-record 19 games. But that's not the worst of it:
The collapse has so disheartened Tracy McGrady that he's on the
verge of deciding to leave Orlando as a free agent after next

Bad luck and bad moves have left McGrady feeling isolated in his
hometown. With Hill and sharpshooting forward Pat Garrity
(season-ending knee surgery) on the sideline, a threadbare $32
million roster remains, including an undersized front line and
seven players with less than four years' experience. Because the
team has little that's worth trading, the only hope for a quick
turnaround--and a change of heart by McGrady--is based on a
successful return by Hill, 31, who plans to attempt another
comeback over the second half of this season. "Everything is
based on what Grant does," McGrady says. "If Grant comes back and
is able to stay healthy and we can add some more players around
us, then I'd love to stay here."

After playing only 47 games since he and McGrady each agreed to
seven-year, $93 million contracts with Orlando in 2000, Hill
underwent a fourth operation on his broken right ankle last March
to repair the repetitive fracture and to realign the ankle by
surgically reshaping his heel. Both Hill and embattled G.M. John
Gabriel are cautiously optimistic that Hill will follow in the
steps of Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who has had no
recurrence of stress fractures in his left foot since undergoing
a similar realignment in 2001. The Magic is hoping that Hill's
future will be resolved to its benefit one way or another: Either
he returns to full health or his subsequent retirement generates
a windfall of $15 million in cap space in the summer of 2005.

To get that money, however, the Magic will need Hill's
cooperation: NBA rules state that his salary will come off
Orlando's books only if he has played in 10 games or fewer this
season. Though Hill is rumored to be unhappy with the medical
advice he received from the Magic, which supervised his second
and third surgeries, he is open-minded about proceeding
slowly--especially if it'll help keep McGrady in Orlando. "What's
best for me and what's best for the organization might be the
same thing," says Hill, who has begun a program of running at
Magic practices.

But T-Mac might already be gone by the time Orlando is able to
recruit leading free agents Ray Allen, Kenyon Martin or Antoine
Walker in 2005. "Going into next season, I'll probably have an
idea if I want to stay or leave," he says.

The talent around McGrady has steadily eroded with the departure
of heart-and-hustle teammates like Bo Outlaw, Monty Williams,
Troy Hudson and Darrell Armstrong. "They brought in guys that
Tracy didn't feel comfortable with," says Armstrong, who went to
New Orleans as a free agent last summer. "I asked Tracy if they
talked to him about signing Juwan [Howard, the Magic's top
free-agent acquisition last summer], and he said no."

Though encouraged by the approach of new coach Johnny Davis, who
took over on Nov. 18 and installed a fast-break style to pick up
the team's sluggish tempo, McGrady was shooting a career-low
41.4% through Sunday's games and his scoring is down almost eight
points per game from last season, leading to criticism that he
should be doing more to carry his team. "It's not fair," says
McGrady, who contends that he's not so much a pure scorer as an
all-around playmaker in the mode of Scottie Pippen.

As many as a dozen teams might be able to squeeze under the cap
after next season to recruit McGrady, including the Cavaliers,
Nets, Nuggets, Spurs, Trail Blazers and--most intriguing of
all--the Lakers, who could be $10 million under the cap if Kobe
Bryant makes good on his threat to leave and they're able to move
Devean George's $5 million salary entering his final year in
2005-06. A friend who's been privy to McGrady's thinking says
he's also enticed by the young Pacers; a sign-and-trade to
Indiana could pair him with close friend Jermaine O'Neal. "His
first choice is to stay in Orlando," the friend says. "He really
doesn't want to leave, but he also wants to win."

COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES McGrady (1) needs a healthy Hill to help the depleted Magic getback on its feet.