Saturday, January 15, 2011

Rejuvenated McGrady Making a Difference

Rejuvenated McGrady Making a Difference
By Steve St-Pierre

Tracy McGrady signed a one-year contract with the Pistons this past summer after no other NBA team would offer him a guaranteed deal. After a slow start, T-Mac is beginning to round into form, working up the rotation all the way to the starting five.

A former NBA superstar, McGrady has suffered the past few seasons from various knee, back and shoulder injuries. As a result, nobody wanted to take a chance at signing him for fear that he’d get hurt once again. The Pistons, desperate for some type of splash during the offseason, were the only ones to step up to the plate.

The Pistons continue to struggle, as they did a season ago. Though they were ravaged by injuries last year, they’ve remained relatively healthy this season. Therefore, injuries cannot be used as an excuse. Because the team has struggled, John Kuester, Pistons Coach, has had to change his rotation on numerous occasions.

One of the few positives this season has been the play of McGrady. He’s stepped up as a vocal leader, something the Pistons have not had since trading away Chauncey Billups in 2008. McGrady has also been Detroit’s best ball-handler, so much so that he’s been inserted as the starting point guard.

“He’s had a big impact,” forward Austin Daye says of McGrady. “He’s a knowledgable guy at that position. He’s a playmaker. He’s not just a star player, he’s a playmaker. He can pass, he can score. It’s a great thing for the team.”

“That’s just my game, just having the ball and making plays,” McGrady says. “It opens a lot of stuff up (offensively) once that happens. I told coach, ‘I see a lot of things that can be helpful to our team as far as making cuts (to the basket.)

“I’m always confident when I’m on the court. It doesn’t matter if I’m a starter or coming off the bench.”

Kuester’s probably more grateful than anybody to have the veteran swingman on his roster. He’s had difficulty finding a combination of players to stick with as a rotation. In terms of the backcourt, Kuester had been using Rodney Stuckey as the starting point guard but hadn’t settled on a shooting guard between Rip Hamilton and Ben Gordon.

It appears that Stuckey will now shift guard positions with T-Mac, allowing Gordon to continue coming off the bench. Hamilton, reportedly close to being traded by the Pistons, has been taken out of the rotation entirely.

“This is one of the things that’s crazy about our game,” Kuester says. “And the reason I say ‘crazy’ is sometimes you can’t wait for people’s motors to get going.”

It isn’t just the backcourt that Kuester’s been waiting on. While Tayshaun Prince has held his own at small forward, the Pistons’ post players have struggled to stay consistent. Ben Wallace has been the starting center all season, but he’s clearly past his prime and unable to handle playing in the middle. At power forward, Kuester’s rotated several players in and out of the starting lineup, including Daye, Charlie Villanueva, Jason Maxiell, Greg Monroe and Chris Wilcox.

It’s proven difficult for the players on Detroit’s roster to stay patient and wait for their minutes to come. Players have openly complained about their inconsistent minutes and seem hopeful that a trade involving Hamilton could open up more playing time at least in the backcourt.

“It’s tough because I’m a player, and I definitely want to play,” says reserve Will Bynum. “But I’ve been through it before. It’s (about) just staying positive and just working hard. Everyday I’m getting up the same amount of shots…I’ll be ready whenever the opportunity comes.”

“It seems like when we’re undermanned, guys are a little bit more comfortable,” adds Gordon. “They know they’re going to be playing. They have time to get a rhythm. We’ve got to figure out something that works, that can get everybody going. I think when we do that, we play well.”

Clearly, the Pistons are much more relaxed when they don’t have to worry about looking over their shoulders when they’re out on the floor.

“When we’re having fun, things can come easier for us…” says Villanueva. “…That’s the way we should be playing.”

With a healthy McGrady, the ball’s been moving more on offense. As long as he can handle staying on the floor, T-Mac will likely remain a starter the rest of the season.

“I’m gradually just getting better game by game,” McGrady says. “Confidence-wise, I’m just feeling more comfortable on the basketball court. The last thing to overcome is getting over the mental part when you’re getting over a significant injury.”

It remains to be seen who will emerge as the full-time starter at shooting guard. Stuckey’s a restricted free agent at the end of the season, so with Hamilton’s days in Detroit likely coming to an end Gordon appears to have the best chance of winding up back in the starting lineup between now and the end of the season.

Up front, Prince will remain at small forward. Because he’s also a free agent at the end of the year, there’s a very good chance he, too, could wind up being traded. The long-rumored deal that would send him to the L.A. Clippers for veteran center and Michigan-native Chris Kaman could finally come to fruition.

In the meantime, expect Wallace’s minutes to decrease as Detroit gives extended minutes to Monroe at center. Unfortunately, power forward will likely continue to be a juggling act all season. Injured veteran Jonas Jerebko hopes to return sometime in February, so it’s possible he could wind up starting either at power forward – as he did a season ago – or at small forward if Prince is dealt.

“It’s a long season still…” Kuester says. “…The bottom line is we’ve got to regroup and understand that we hope that (players) learn valuable lessons in these things. If you want to be successful, period, you’ve got to approach your work with a tremendous amount of heart.

“When we’re playing hard, we can compete with anybody.”