This is a picture of a roller coaster with the words: T-Mac on D - He was a Coaster!

Tracy McGrady on Defense: A Ton of Talent and Coasting

Tracy McGrady’s defense, like his career as a whole, did not live up to the immense talent he possessed. McGrady actually posted decent career statistics on defense but he also had a reputation for coasting. Given his immense tools, T-Mac was always considered a disappointment on defense.  

What do stats say about Tracy McGrady on defense?

Advanced statistics can give us a look at a player’s career without the biases and weaknesses of our memories. It is very much true that advanced stats are much better at capturing a player’s effectiveness on offense than on defense. But, even given that limitation, it is a great way to look back at players from the past and get an honest look.  

Basketball Reference lists five defensive statistics in its advanced statistics section. They also list defensive rating in their per 100 stats, which attempts to measure a player’s defensive effectiveness per 100 possessions.  I will look at each of those numbers individually for McGrady below. 

When taken together, the numbers tell somewhat of a confusing story. T-Mac mostly has bad reviews on defense. He had  a reputation for coasting and not playing too much D. 

I have written a number of these articles exploring the defense of all-time greats on offense. Generally, their statistics line up nicely with their reputations, which I usually read up on first. 

McGrady’s reputation was fairly poor. I expected the numbers to be bad. They are not. McGrady’s advanced defensive statistics say that he was pretty decent on defense. 

Individual Skill Defensive Stats 

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As a bigger wing, you would expect McGrady to get some rebounds but hardly to dominate the glass. He did just that. His career defensive rebounding percentage of 15.0% was good – ahead of fellow all-time-great wing Kobe Bryant, but well behind most good bigs. 

Scouts generally expect that good athletes will get either steals or blocks on defense – often both. It’s true when scouting college players and true in the league as well. 

McGrady was a freak of an athlete and he got both.  His career block percentage of 1.9% was good. He finished 148th on the all-time NBA career block percentage list. 

In his early years, McGrady was unbelievable at blocking shots. His 4.5% and 4.4% block percentages in his 2nd and 3rd years would have left him in the all time top 30 if he could have sustained those rates. 

The top 30 are nearly all centers. McGrady also had the most ever blocked shots for a non-big in his 3rd year in the NBA. 

His block percentages did drop off throughout his career and he was well below his own career average for nearly every year in his career. It was those outlier early years holding up the number. 

McGrady’s steal percentages were a little more consistent throughout his career. He finished at 2.0%, which was good for 195th on the all time list. His steal percentages dropped some toward the latter years of his career, but did not have the same kind of outlier years as his block rates. 

Good defenders usually get steals, blocks or both and Tracy McGrady was no exception. His steal rates were decent and fairly consistent. His block rates were crazy high in his early years but settled to a much lower level. 

Overall Advanced Defensive Stats

Defensive rating essentially measures how many baskets a player gives up per 100 possessions. T-Mac finished with a 104 rating finishing 157th on the all time list. 

Defensive box plus/minus is an estimate of how many points a player gave up per possession when compared to a league average player & team. McGrady finished with a career rating of .5. 

To give some context to that number, Magic Johnson finished with a career rating of 1.60 and he was widely considered an average defender. Meanwhile Dominique Wilkins’ defense was rightly considered god-awful and he finished with a -1.1. 

So McGrady was pretty clearly a better defender than Nique but probably not quite at Magic’s level – at least if this one statistic decided everything.

Defensive win shares is a complicated stat that attempts to measure how much a player contributes to his team while on the floor. 

T-Mac finished with 36.4 career defensive win shares and is ranked 136th all time. 

While that ranking seems high, and the top twenty in defensive win shares are nearly all excellent defenders, long careers tend to give a player more win shares. 

Wilkins provides some good context here as well because his defense was so clearly bad. He finished with a 35.1 defensive win shares – not too far behind McGrady.  

T-Mac’s career defensive statistics are better than his defensive reputation was. He got steals and blocks – even if the crazy blocks of his early career buoyed that statistic a bit. 

He also has decent overall defensive statistics – not amazing, but decent. His box plus/minus and defensive rating are both indicative of a player who was not a total liability on defense. 

Did people think T-Mac was a good defender while he was playing?

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Tracy McGrady has one of the biggest divides I have ever seen between career defensive statistics and reputation. You would think he was awful if you just read the stories about him. 

Early in his career, McGrady was considered a strong defender with nearly unlimited defensive potential. He was a freak athlete and people thought his defense would grow with everything else. 

But it didn’t. That was likely due to the fact that McGracy, as he admitted, did not practice that hard

People said McGrady coasted on defense. He was held up as the prototypical example of the modern player carrying the load on offense but resting on D. 

McGrady was mostly called T-Mac but his other nickname speaks to the coasting. He was also called the Big Sleep in part because it fit his cool, laid back style. 

There is certainly something to be said for being a chill person. But NBA defense is not an area where that trait leads to success. No one ever considered calling Michael Jordan a nickname with sleep in it! 

McGrady’s reputation was not helped by the fact that his teams did not win. McGrady famously never made it beyond the first round of the playoffs.

There are many explanations for that, but defense could certainly be a part of it. It is a two-way game. Playing mostly one way gets exposed in the playoffs. 

McGrady also suffered from many injuries that likely slowed down his defense throughout his career. 

Jeff Van Gundy was quoted calling McGrady “an unbelievable” defender” when T-Mac was a young player. But it is likely that Van Gundy was speaking to McGrady’s ability and potential rather than his actual production on defense. 

By the end of his prime years in Houston, both general manager Daryl Morey and coach Jeff Van Gundy were critical of his work ethic. 

It seems clear that watchers of his career did not consider Tracy McGrady to be a good defender. He had the ability to lock an opposing player down for a stretch, had nearly unlimited defensive potential early in his career and even played great D for some of his early years. 

But McGrady’s actual defensive output during his career did not live up to that potential. He coasted, failed to improve, suffered from injuries as his career went on and did not produce enough on D to impress observers. 

T-Mac was voted to 7 All-NBA teams, but never to any All-NBA defensive teams. 

Was Tracy McGrady better than Kobe Bryant on defense? 

Kobe and T-Mac were compared often throughout their careers. And Kobe was most certainly considered the better defender than McGrady.

Kobe was voted to 9 All-NBA first defensive teams and 3 second teams. He was considered a killer on defense in addition to being a sniper on offense. 

The table below compares the two players’ career advanced defensive statistics. 

StatisticKobe (rank on all-time NBA top 250 list)T-Mac (rank on all-time NBA top 250 list)
Defensive Rebounding %12.7% (NR)15.0% (NR)
Block %1.0% (NR)1.9% (148)
Steal %2.1% (159)2.0% (195)
Defensive Rating (lower is better)105 (NR)104 (157)
Defensive Box +/--.1 (NR).5 (194)
Defensive Win Shares50.7 (43rd)36.4 (136)

This is certainly surprising! T-Mac appears to have had better career numbers on defense than Kobe. I am not entirely sure how to respond to this. 

When collecting this information, knowing both Kobe’s reputation and his defensive accolades, I assumed it would lean heavily in Kobe’s favor. It did not. 

Kobe had more career defensive win shares. But I have plenty of evidence that career defensive win shares are greatly influenced by playing many years and being on the court a lot. 

Other than win shares, nothing favors Kobe except a slight edge in steal percentage, and this is very close. If you look at the numbers, these two appear to be similar defenders. 

I do believe the All-NBA Defensive awards are often flawed. The voters often choose players based on reputation rather than performance. They also seem to like to vote for good two-way players rather than voting strictly on defense.

But Kobe made 12 all-defensive teams. There is almost no way the voters could be so wrong as to say someone who was a similar defender to Tracy McGrady was a great defender 12 times!

And defensive statistics are limited – much more so than offensive stats. In this case, I am going to lean heavily into the reputations of these two players. 

Tracy McGrady was an average defender with great skill. Kobe Bryant’s stats show that he may be a bit overrated on defense. But not so overrated as to be overtaken by T-Mac. 

Kobe Bryant was almost certainly a better defender than Tracy McGrady. 

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Summary: Tracy McGrady on Defense

Tracy McGrady had decent career defensive statistics but even some of those, like block percentage, were a bit of an illusion. McGrady had the skills to be a great defender but he never was. He coasted too much and did not improve throughout his career. Ultimately, McGrady was not an awful defender, but the way he under performed his potential gave him an even worse reputation on D than he probably deserved. 

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