Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Rockets finally make a deal for Magic's McGrady

Florida Today

ORLANDO, Fla. - Tracy McGrady's family was asking him to stay in Orlando and there was his new mansion under construction also to consider, but he just couldn't bring himself to stay in an organization where he thought he wasn't wanted.

McGrady's personality differences with new Orlando Magic general manager John Weisbrod led to his asking to leave, and that wish was granted Tuesday when the blockbuster seven-player trade between the Magic and Houston Rockets finally came to fruition.

The Magic sent McGrady, Juwan Howard, Tyronn Lue and Reece Gaines to the Rockets in exchange for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato in a deal that has been in the works for more than a week.

Undoubtedly, McGrady is the centerpiece in the trade. He has led the NBA in scoring the past two seasons, averaging 32.1 points in 2003 and 28 points last season. He could have opted out of his seven-year, $93 million contract after next season and the Magic were fearful of losing the four-time All-Star without getting any compensation.

Such was the case when franchise center Shaquille O'Neal left the Magic in 1996 for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Magic suffered through a disastrous 21-61 season last year and much of the blame was put on McGrady, who was named team captain just prior to the opening of training camp. He tired of the Magic's inability to add significant pieces around him and grew frustrated with the franchise's inability to win a playoff series. Also, McGrady clashed regularly with Weisbrod, who took over as general manager in March, and ultimately McGrady felt he was no longer wanted.

"I felt (Weisbrod) definitely wanted me out of here," McGrady told Florida Today on Tuesday. "I kind of had my mind made up (to leave) when the season ended and I sort of felt like they wanted me to leave anyway.

"But if you're the GM and your star player is thinking about leaving, you do everything from calling to visiting his house or even asking him to wait because you think Grant Hill is finally healthy. But none of that ever happened. I felt like they could care less if I stayed."

Weisbrod was entertaining Francis and Cato on Tuesday night - Mobley will arrive in Orlando Wednesday - and refused to respond to McGrady's comments. The Magic have insisted for weeks that McGrady had informed them that he wanted out months ago and that he reiterated those thoughts when he met with Magic owner Rich DeVos two weeks ago.

Weisbrod said he will discuss the matter Wednesday when the Magic introduce their three new players at a morning news conference.

No place like home

McGrady grew up in tiny Auburndale, 40 miles southwest of Orlando, and considered playing for the Magic the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. He signed with the Magic in the summer of 2000 along with Hill and boldly talked of winning a championship in Orlando. But Hill played just 47 games the past four seasons because of a troublesome fracture in his left ankle and the Magic lost each of their three playoff series during McGrady's tenure in Orlando.

He admitted that it was difficult leaving the place he called home. McGrady regularly had a block of friends and family in the stands for games, and because he played in Orlando, he could regularly make trips back to his hometown.

"I didn't want to leave, man, because this is home to me," he said. "I really thought this would be the final destination of my career. My family didn't want me to leave and I didn't want to leave, but what really hurt me was the shots Magic management had been taking at me lately. That really crushed me, man."

McGrady said last week that his dream would be going to Dallas and teaming with close friend O'Neal, his summer-time neighbor and the person he refers to as "my big brother." But he admitted that the lure of playing alongside of 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming and for head coach Jeff Van Gundy in Houston was equally appealing.

He feels he and Yao can be the equivalent of Kobe Bryant and O'Neal, the Los Angeles Lakers' duo that has won three championships.

"Sitting back and seeing Kobe and how much freedom he has because of Shaq, that's really what I need to win a championship," said McGrady, who scored 62 points in March against Washington, the highest individual total in the NBA in 10 seasons. "They have a great coach in Jeff Van Gundy and they are going to do the things there to put the right pieces around me and Yao so we can win a championship."

The Francis factor

In Francis, the Magic are getting one of the game's most dynamic point guards. He makes up for his relative lack of size with a vertical leap measured at nearly 40 inches. And his dribbling skills are among the best in the NBA, allowing him to get past almost any defender.

But Francis is coming to the Magic following statistically his worst season in five years in the NBA. He averaged 16.6 points, a team-high 6.2 assists and 5.5 rebounds a game, but shot just 40 percent from the floor and 29 percent from 3-point range.

He feuded regularly with Van Gundy over his tendency to gamble when running the fastbreak rather than simply taking the safe play. He also came under Van Gundy's ire when he skipped a team flight the same weekend that the Super Bowl was being played in Houston.

But in Francis, Weisbrod sees a fighter who can be the leader the Magic sorely lacked last season. Weisbrod, a former NHL player, admitted Monday that he was intrigued by Francis the moment he saw him hit a taunting Amare Stoudemire in the chin with an elbow earlier this season.

The Rockets made the playoffs for the first time in Francis' five years this season, but were eliminated by the Lakers. He initially balked at the thought of leaving the blossoming Rockets, feeling that he could eventually win big playing alongside of Yao. But that stance softened following a 20-minute phone conversation following last Thursday's NBA Draft.

Not only is he happy about coming to Orlando, said agent Jeff Fried, but Francis feels he will be the centerpiece to the Magic's turnaround next season.

"It is our understanding that the Magic want Steve to be their starting point guard come opening night next season," Fried said recently.

More dealing?

The same might not be said for Mobley and Cato. Mobley and Francis have played together the past four seasons to varying degrees of success. Meanwhile, Cato is due $7.9 million next season and $8.6 million in 2005-06.

Having already selected power forward Dwight Howard with the top pick in the draft and promised him playing time, the Magic could be poised now to trade Drew Gooden. Orlando could piece together a package of Gooden and Mobley or Cato and get another swingman to replace McGrady.

Howard, Lue and Gaines spent just one season in Orlando. All three were offseason additions that were supposed to help the Magic win a playoff series for the first time since 1996. But Howard failed to mesh with Gooden, and while he was steady, he wasn't spectacular.

Lue replaced fan favorite Darrell Armstrong, but his defense was a disappointment. And Gaines played sparingly after the Magic used the No. 15 pick in the draft on him.

"Reece will be looking at this as a fresh start," said agent Andy Miller, who represents both Gaines and Lue. "It's a win-win situation in that regard for everybody."

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