As Basketball Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady turns 42, we look back to one of the biggest what-ifs in NBA history…
On June 25, 1997, the Toronto Raptors used the ninth pick in the NBA Draft to select Tracy McGrady, an 18-year-old Florida native that wrapped his prep career at Mt. Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina.
June 24, 1998, saw the Raptors make a draft-day trade to acquire the highflying Vince Carter, a 21-year-old Florida native that had just wrapped an impressive three-year career at the University of North Carolina.
MORE: Where would Carter go in a 1998 redraft?
Florida natives. Distant cousins. Raptors.
In under 365 days, Toronto had acquired two future Hall of Famers to be the future of an essentially brand new franchise - not too shabby.
Only the pairing didn't last long at all.
MORE: The five chapters of Carter's legendary career
The date is April 30, 2000, it's Year 2 of the McGrady and Carter era, and the Raptors are facing elimination down 0-2 in their first-ever playoff series. It's all tied up at 78 with 1:11 remaining before the defending Eastern Conference Champion New York Knicks tap into their championship DNA to ring off a 9-2 scoring run over the next 60 seconds.
Down seven with nine seconds left on the clock, McGrady failed to connect on a 23-footer that wouldn't have done much aside from making the final score look a bit closer. It would be the final shot attempt of Toronto's season.
Just like that, the magical first postseason run of a five-year-old franchise was over. Three losses - by a total of 12 points - to the class of the East was nothing to scoff at. This team was so close, yet so far; moral victories can't extend a season.
And McGrady's impending free agency loomed.
It quickly became evident that a Toronto return wasn't in the plans for the 21-year-old, who in July 2000 told The Chicago Tribune, "I want to go somewhere where I would be the first option. I think I'm a guy to really make things happen."
That he did, and Orlando was the choice as "not too many superstars get a chance to play at home." Bold considering where he was at that point in his career, but he quickly lived up to the self-imposed label, becoming a bonafide superstar over the next seven seasons.
But by the end of his career, McGrady had some regrets, telling Dave Feschuk of The Toronto Star, "In hindsight, looking back, obviously, I wish I had stayed in Toronto. There's no doubt we could have contended for a championship. I think about that often."
We think about it often, too, Tracy, we do. And it begs the question…
What if Tracy McGrady stayed in Toronto?
For a moment, let's ignore the impossible-to-predict ripple effect around the league and take things at face value, based on how things went for both the Raptors and McGrady following their breakup, from the 2000-01 season, onwards.
In 2001, the Raptors burst onto the scene, coming one game shy of the Eastern Conference Finals while in Orlando, Tracy became T-Mac, the league's Most Improved Player, who averaged over 26 points per game.
As a Raptor, he'd still be known as Tracy - at least in the regular season - and wouldn't be "Most Improved" just yet, but one thing's for sure: The second round series with the Philadelphia 76ers would look much, much different.
The series that's known for its epic one-on-one battles between Carter and Allen Iverson would be remembered for an unfair battle as McGrady and Carter took turns carving up the Sixers defence, combining for offensive outputs the Sixers just didn't have the firepower to match.
In their sixth year of existence, the Raptors would have a date with the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
If the Big Three of Sam Cassell, Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson didn't have an answer for AI's Sixers, they definitely wouldn't have an answer for the duo of Vinsanity and McGrady, who was now widely known as T-Mac after a monster dunk over Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo in the second round.
A hard-fought series with the Bucks is over in six games and the Raptors are headed to their first-ever NBA Finals. (Sound familiar?)
There, Kobe and Shaq's Los Angeles Lakers would be just too much for the Raptors, but the future was bright - McGrady was 22 and Carter 25, and the best days were ahead.
In reality, Carter's 2001-02 season was marred by an injury that ultimately held him out of the NBA Playoffs. But with McGrady, things are much much different. Instead of a first-round exit, Toronto rallies around its other star to make things interesting in the postseason yet again.
This is the year that T-Mac shows what he's really made of, becoming an All-Star calibre player and earning Most Improved Player honours as he leads the Carter-less Raptors to the second round before falling to the Boston Celtics in the second round of the postseason.
MORE: Raptors thank Carter for 'a lifetime of memories'
The weight of yet another postseason exit bears heavy, but in 2002-03, the dynamic between Carter and McGrady goes from No. 1 and No. 2 to 1a and 1b, a formality that only depended on the night.
Also working in their favour was that the East - and the league - was wide open.
The pair would see the majority of its successes from 2003 to 2008, becoming the best perimeter duo since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, a maple version. While Mike and Scottie were able to win six, the duo of VC and T-Mac claims two titles, exacting revenge on the Lakers in 2004 behind Carter's Finals MVP before defeating Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in 2006 thanks to McGrady's Finals heroics.
Thus shifted a change in power as a 30-year-old Carter would take a backseat to the younger McGrady for the remainder of their time as a duo.
All good things must come to an end and McGrady would relish the opportunity to go home, joining the Magic for his final big payday as a free agent two years after hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy with Carter.
The Magic would have some success but come up short in reaching the ultimate goal of an NBA title while Carter retires a lifelong Raptor forever associated with delivering Toronto its first-ever NBA title and playing a part in putting basketball on the map in Canada alongside McGrady.
As a no-brainer, No. 1 and No. 15 hang side-by-side in the Scotiabank Arena Rafters. Not so bad, right?
Of course, we all know how things really went and while we wonder "what if," the way things played out wasn't so bad, either.
20 years after that first-round loss to the Knicks, the Raptors have championship DNA of their own, raising a championship banner to the Scotiabank Arena rafters by winning their first-ever title in 2019.
As for McGrady, he fast-tracked into superstardom with the Magic and Houston Rockets before spending time with a few teams around the league and retiring in 2013. Health issues for McGrady were yet another "what if?" but he still was a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection in 2017.
Carter, who was traded to the New Jersey Nets in 2004, completely reinvented himself as a player, becoming the first-ever player to play in 22 NBA seasons, taking the floor at 43 with plenty of juice left in his legs.
As he has taken the floor for the final time, expect to see Carter on that Hall of Fame stage in Springfield in four short years.
Don't be surprised if T-Mac is the person he elects to stand next to him on that day - even if their time as teammates was short-lived.
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