NEWARK, N.J. – Tracy McGrady forever will be remembered on the wrong side of the superstar alliances, a career of what-ifs with those Grant Hill and Yao Ming partnerships perishing with fractured bones and twisted ligaments. Between Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard, McGrady had been the smaller, sleeker franchise star wanting to leave the Orlando Magic.
Now at 32 years old with the Atlanta Hawks, the knee operations behind him, McGrady has been seared with the scars of professional regret. He won scoring titles, earned tens of millions of All-Star votes and made tens of millions of dollars. As history goes, it’s never worked out right for T-Mac. No titles, no finals, no significant advancements in the playoffs.
Nevertheless, McGrady was one of the originals who inspired franchises to clear salary-cap space, to partner with another All-Star, and few have lived the free-agent frenzy like him. Yes, McGrady knows of Howard requesting a trade to the New Jersey Nets to play withDeron Williams, but he doesn’t care about the Nets’ shiny new arena in Brooklyn, the Russian billionaire owner willing to spend and spend. For whatever it’s worth, T-Mac doesn’t see Howard and the Nets.
“I can’t see him coming here,” McGrady told Yahoo! Sports late Tuesday inside the visiting locker room at the Prudential Center. “If it’s just Dwight and D-Will, he’s better off just staying in Orlando. You want to go to a team that’s championship caliber, and just him and D-Will won’t get it done. There’s got to be other pieces around to make it look sweet.”
In the most awkward game of the young season, the depleted Nets play the Magic on Thursday night in Orlando. The Nets’ Brook Lopez is out several weeks with a broken foot, and the starting five and bench surrounding Williams is beyond brutal. The Nets have gutted themselves for the cap space to re-sign Williams and sign Howard this summer, entrusting the franchise’s future on the belief they will secure the best center on the planet.
If Howard goes elsewhere, so does Deron Williams, and, yes, general manager Billy King’s plan would come tumbling down. It’s a bold gamble, the highest risk-reward scenario in memory – the kind that unfolded with Orlando and the Chicago Bulls in the 2000 free-agent market for McGrady, Grant Hill and Tim Duncan.
It’s so hard for players to visualize a different day for the Nets, a Brooklyn arena that still is under construction. And so much easier to make a case for the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks and an owner, Mark Cuban, who is fully engaged in the championship chase. After watching the Nets offer no resistance to the Hawks in a 106-70 dismantling Tuesday night, T-Mac’s vision of Howard’s future had been further validated in his own mind.
“D-Will is from Dallas,” McGrady said. “You’ve got Dirk Nowitzki there. They’re going to have [cap space] there. That looks sweet. Dirk. D-Will. And then you get Dwight Howard. That’s it, right there.”
The Mavericks will have space for one star, but after possible contract buyouts and an amnesty waiver, it would still take a team to accept the final two years left on Shawn Marion’s contract to get the Mavericks near $30 million in room next summer to sign Williams and Howard. “And that would be really hard because they don’t have a first-round pick [to send with Marion] until 2014,” one league executive said.
Now in the late stages of his career, McGrady has tried to climb aboard one of these super-teams, one of these championship contenders. There was no room for him in Miami, nor Los Angeles, nor Chicago. The Hawks are a good fit, a team that needs him for its bench. McGrady played a pain-free, productive season for the Detroit Pistons a year ago, and there was life in those legs as he scored 12 points against the Nets on Tuesday. He’s come to peace with his standing in the sport, a superstar no more. Still, McGrady has been dutiful in his work with renowned trainer Tim Grover at Attack Athletics in Chicago, and the reward has been a second act for his reconstructed knee.
“There’s so many stars in this league, and we come and go,” McGrady said. “I’m not what I used to be, but I’m still able to go out and help a team win ballgames.”
In retrospect, McGrady is realistic with what could’ve been. He doesn’t speak of missed championships with the Magic and Rockets, but of the genuine possibilities. “If Grant had been healthy when I was in my prime in Orlando, just think of what we could’ve done when the East was so weak,” he said. “And there’s no doubt in my mind we would’ve played in the Finals in  when Yao and I got hurt in Houston. We had Ron Artest,and [went seven games] with the Lakers. … I wish it would’ve worked out.”
As the original owner of a lifetime shoe deal with Adidas, a man with no championships, no glistening playoff legacy, McGrady rejects the idea that Howard ought to let his endorsement-earning power with the shoe company dictate anything about his desire to play for the Bulls. For Adidas, there’s far less of a return on Howard’s stardom to have him sharing the Chicago stage with the company’s biggest endorser, Derrick Rose.
“You’re going to have other endorsements because you’re playing in a big-ass city like Chicago, and because you’re [bleeping] Dwight Howard,” McGrady said.
And a Howard-Rose combination?
“Hell yes, championship,” McGrady said. “Championship. There’s no doubt about it.”
At the end in Orlando in 2004, there came a threshold of no return between McGrady and the organization. He had to leave, and the Magic finally moved him to Houston. Clearly, the Magic are rightfully resisting that moment of truth with Howard, but it’s probably inevitable they’ll have to trade him before they lose him to free agency. Superman’s a different kind of franchise star, an irreplaceable Hall of Fame center.
“I’ve been watching Orlando play, and I think they let it go too far – to where they can’t compete for a championship,” McGrady said. “Dwight’s going to find a sweeter spot for him next year with him being a free agent, with D-Will being a free agent, and Dallas already having an established star there. … Yup, Dallas.”
And then he laughed and said, “You heard it from me first.”
McGrady doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting on Dallas’ salary cap to make it happen – that’s someone else’s job. He took one look at the Nets, and made an understandable declaration. Williams won’t handle this losing well this year, and everyone knows that. This is the highest-risk, highest-reward gamble of all with the Nets: Howard or bust.
“If you think another place looks sweeter, it might not be sweeter than where you are,” McGrady said. “If you’re competing in the playoffs, and you’re a couple pieces away, sometimes it’s better to try and make it work there. In the Dwight situation, though, I think Orlando has made some bad moves.”
McGrady shrugged and smiled. He finds this scenario so fascinating, perhaps because he sees it all through the unique prism of experience. Once, the whole NBA was clearing salary-cap space for Tracy McGrady, and now it’s Dwight Howard. Now it’s someone else. McGrady knows the drill. As he said, so many stars in this league, and they all come and go. On his way out, T-Mac watches one more go down that jagged journey chasing a championship, and he’s living proof this pursuit often ends with far more regret than it does rejoice