Tracy McGrady’s value is in his vision

Back in December, the Atlanta Hawks made the shrewd move of signing Tracy McGrady to hedge against the loss of Jamal Crawford. It was an under the radar move, but so far McGrady has looked fantastic, continuing his evolution from dynamic scorer to savvy playmaker. Not only is McGrady posting his highest PER (19.2) since 2007, but Synergy Sports ranks the 32-year-old as the most productive pick-and-roll facilitator in the NBA.

McGrady was always been a savvy creator for himself and others, but until the last couple of seasons his role has always been as the primary scoring option. His overall usage in pick-and-roll sets has trended downward but his prevalence for creating for others has increased. What was once a bonus of his dynamic offensive game has become the primary source of his on court value.

Surrounded by younger and more athletic scorers, McGrady has redefined his game by utilizing his excellent court vision. Though he can no longer explode around the corner like he once could, he remains an excellent shooter (54% shooting on jumpers this season) which still forces defenses to overload the ball side of the court.

The vision that McGrady’s former coach Jeff Van Gundy often celebrated has been excellent on his pick-and-roll possessions. About 70 percent of his passes for shots have come not to the pick and pop man, but to shooters on the opposite side of the floor. Not surprisingly this has yielded a wealth of open jumpers–his teammates are shooting 78 percent with an adjusted field goal percentage of 94 percent (!!) in these scenarios. Furthermore, despite having the third lowest usage rate of his career, no member of the Hawks roster has a better adjusted plus/minus at this point.

In the Hawks, McGrady has found a perfect setting to thrive late in his career. He was wildly inconsistent last season with Detroit due to overuse. Atlanta coach Larry Drew, however, has shown a knack for utilizing high-impact, low-minute players in the past such as Jason Collins. McGrady has emerged as another valuable contributor in this fashion, lacking the same scoring punch and shot making ability as Jamal Crawford, but proving a perfect complement to a generally trigger happy lineup.

In many ways the former All-Star’s use with the Hawks resembles how Hedo Turkoglu fits in with the Orlando Magic– but with a smaller usage rate. Neither is an elite level athlete off the dribble, so the preference is to have them play a two-man game on one side of the court with a big man who commands the defenses attention on rolls to the basket. This space gives them the chance to read the defense at their pace and decide whether to attack or distribute. With their excellent size and vision, they do a great job of creating angles to throw the ball across and over the defense.

Of course these are only the early returns of a young season. The announcement that Al Horford will miss the next three to four months not only eliminates McGrady’s favorite partner in crime for the pick-and-roll, but ultimately could force him to shoulder greater scoring responsibility. Recent history suggests that a higher usage rate will lead to a drop in McGrady’s efficiency, but T-Mac claims he hasn’t felt this good physically in several years. If he can find some more support in Horford’s absence, he may continue his graceful transition into his second career as a savvy role player.

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