Can T-Mac Learn from Bob?

Tracy McGrady has finally found a home.  The league scoring champion in 2002-03 and 2003-04 has landed with the same team that recently employed the scoring champion from 1998-99, 2000-01, 2001-02, and 2004-05.  Yes, T-Mac – following the same path recently blazed by Allen Iverson – is going to MoTown.

The Answer’s stay in Detroit was hardly memorable. Joining a team that won 58 games in 2007-08, Iverson and the Pistons finished with only 39 wins in 2008-09.  But after winning only 27 games in 2009-10, the Pistons have once again turned to a former scoring champion.

The hiring of a former scoring champion is actually a familiar story in Detroit.  In the mid-1980s the Pistons acquired Adrian Dantley from the Utah Jazz (a story told in this forum back in 2007). And in the late-1970s, the Pistons acquired Bob from the Boston Celtics.

Who is Bob?  Basketball-Reference reports an abundance of information on each NBA player.  Included in all the stats is each player’s nickname.  For example, Tracy Lamar McGrady Jr. is also known as T-Mac.  And Robert Allen McAdoo Jr. was better known as Bob

Bob? Not B-Mac?  You would think a player who led the NBA in scoring in 1973-74, 1974-75, and 1975-76 could have done better in the nickname department.  

Although nicknames are fun, these are not the focus of our story.  No, what we want to do is take a look back at the career of B-Mac (I mean Bob) and see what lessons this can teach T-Mac.

From Productive Scorer to Unproductive Winner

Our Bob story begins with the tale told by Wins Produced.  McAdoo entered the NBA in 1972.  The 1972-73 season was the last NBA season before the league tracked steals, blocked shots, offensive rebounds, and defensive rebounds.  So calculating Wins Produced before 1973 is difficult. Starting in 1973-74, the box score that we know today – with the exception of turnovers for individual players (turnovers for individuals was added in 1977) – was complete.  So if we can guess how many turnovers a player committed, we can calculate Wins Produced.

For McAdoo we know his turnovers-per-minutes in 1977-78.  So if we assume he turned the ball over at the same rate before that season, we can then calculate Wins Produced.  And consequently we can report McAdoo’s Wins Produced from 1973-74 to the end of his career.

According to Wins Produced and WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes], McAdoo’s best season was 1973-74.  That was the only season he managed to produce at a rate that doubled the average performance at his position (average WP48 is 0.100).  Although McAdoo offered less after 1973-74, he remained an above average player as long as his home was within the state of New York. 

In 1979, though, the Boston Celtics – without consulting Red Auerbach or player-coach Dave Cowens – acquired McAdoo from the New York Knicks. McAdoo averaged twenty points per game for the Celtics.  His overall production, though, was quite low.  And in September of 1979 he was sent to the Detroit Pistons. 

Here is how that transaction is described at Basketball-Reference.com:

September 6, 1979: Traded by the Boston Celtics to the Detroit Pistons for a 1980 1st round draft pick (Rickey Brown) and a 1980 1st round draft pick (Joe Barry Carroll). This exchange was arranged as compensation for Boston signing veteran free agent M.L. Carr on 1979-07-24.

About a year later we see the following transaction at Basketball-Reference.com reported for Joe Barry Carroll:

September 9, 1980: Traded by the Boston Celtics (as a 1980 1st round draft pick) with a 1980 1st round draft pick (Rickey Brown) to the Golden State Warriors for Robert Parish and a 1980 1st round draft pick (Kevin McHale).

Just to recap:  Bob McAdoo is forced upon Red Auerbach.  Auerbach, though, manages to turn a player he didn’t want into M.L. Carr, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale.  Yes, McAdoo clearly helped the Celtics.

As for the Pistons…. well, McAdoo really never did much.  In 1979-80 he appeared in 58 games. Yes, he did average 21.1 points per game.  But McAdoo only produced 0.9 wins with a WP48 of 0.020.

Unfortunately, most of his teammates weren’t much better.  The Pistons in 1979-80 only won 16 games.  Dick Vitale began the season as the team’s head coach, but departed after just twelve games (and four of these victories).  Vitale never coached again in the NBA (not sure what happened to him).  Looking at the individual players we do see that Bob Lanier produced 5.4 wins before he was sent to the Milwaukee Bucks for Kent Benson (who produced in the negative range for the Pistons that season).  John Long and Terry Tyler also combined to produce 13.1 wins.  But after the Tyler-Long-Lanier trio, the remaining Pistons combined to produce less than one win.

The next season wasn’t much better.  The Pistons won 21 games, with McAdoo only played in six games.  And then in March of 1981 he was finally waived.  So the Pistons surrendered the number one pick in the 1980 draft for a player who ultimately produced less than one win for the team.

The McAdoo story – from Bob’s perspective – got better after he left Detroit.  After playing briefly for New Jersey, McAdoo was traded to the LA Lakers in December of 1981.  In LA, McAdoo’s reputation was transformed.  Here is how his time in LA is described in his official bio at NBA.com.

On Christmas Eve, 1981, the Lakers surprised McAdoo and most observers by acquiring his rights from the Nets for cash and a second-round draft pick.

The move, widely questioned at the time, paid off for both the player and the team. McAdoo discovered he could flourish in the role of substitute, and the Lakers used his contributions off the bench to win the 1982 NBA Championship.

“Every place I went, I was supposed to be the franchise-saver,” McAdoo recalled of his unhappy wanderings in the Dallas Morning News in 1984. “An awful lot of pressure went with that. I was supposed to do all the scoring and all the rebounding. I was tired of losing and tired of being traded.”

With the spotlight off him, McAdoo blossomed as a Laker. In 1982-83 he averaged 15.0 ppg, although he spent 32 games on the disabled list with a toe injury. The Lakers reached the NBA Finals again, but they were trounced in four straight by a powerful Philadelphia 76ers team.

In 1983-84 McAdoo’s 13.1 ppg led all nonstarters in the NBA, even though he played fewer than 21 minutes per game. The Lakers rolled through the regular season and the playoffs, meeting the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. In a classic seven-game series the Celtics prevailed, despite McAdoo’s 14.0 ppg in the postseason.

Los Angeles returned to the Finals in 1985 for the fourth time in McAdoo’s four Lakers seasons. This time the club would not be denied, exacting revenge against the Celtics in six games. McAdoo averaged 10.5 ppg during the regular season and 11.4 in the playoffs.

If we look at the above productivity numbers we see that McAdoo actually did very little for the Lakers.  His per-minute scoring numbers were actually similar to what he did earlier in his career.  McAdoo, though, did far less rebounding and made fewer trips to the free throw line. He was also more prone to commit fouls and had fewer assists.  In sum, in LA McAdoo just focused on scoring and ignored most other aspects of the game.

Despite this drop-off in overall production, McAdoo is considered a successful player in LA and a less successful player in Buffalo.  Of course it is obvious why the perspective on McAdoo would change.  In LA – where he got to play with Magic Johnson – McAdoo got to play for a winner.  In Buffalo – where he didn’t get to play with Magic (or anyone who was that productive) – McAdoo got to play for a loser.   And since we know people tend to think players on winners are “good” and players on losers are “bad”, it is easy to see why McAdoo’s reputation changed for the better even as his overall production declined.

Lessons for McGrady

Bob McAdoo’s career appears quite similar to what we have thus far seen from T-Mac.  Consider T-Mac’s career Wins Produced numbers.

These numbers are similar to what we saw from McAdoo.  Early in his career, T-Mac was a very productive scorer.  As he entered his late twenties, though, his production declined.   These are not the only similarities.  Like McAdoo, T-Mac’s most productive seasons did not end with playoff success.  And like McAdoo, T-Mac has taken his game to Motown, where he can expect to be part of a loser.

Given these similarities, it is clear what McGrady has to do.  He needs to focus on his scoring in Detroit. If he can prove to people that he can still score, then his time in Detroit will be a success. No, scoring for Detroit probably won’t help the Pistons win much.  But McGrady only has a one-year contract with the Pistons. If T-Mac scores in Motown, he can score another contract with a contender.

If McGrady can become a scorer off the bench for a contender, especially a contender that advances far in the playoffs, T-Mac — just like Bob — can see his reputation improve in the twilight of his career.

It is important to emphasize that from McGrady’s perspective, the other aspects of the game need to be ignored.  The McAdoo story (a story confirmed by study after study of player evaluations in the NBA) teaches that scoring keeps you employed in the NBA.  And if you score for a winner – even if you are not really producing many wins – people will think you are a winner.  This was true for Bob, and it is likely to be true for T-Mac as well.

- DJ

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