One lonely, awkward 4x6 picture with Bill Worrell. A Christmas card, two pieces of junk mail and a pair of tube socks. That's all that appears left of Tracy McGrady in Houston.
Sure, fights followed by kiss-and-make-up sessions are nothing new to McGrady in six seasons with the Rockets. He's gone from king of the city to being booed for his mere image on the big screen on more than one occasion. Then, two weeks ago, the pendulum appeared poised to swing in the other direction, when he surprisingly received a standing ovation in his season debut returning from microfracture surgery on his left knee.
But one stroll into the Rockets' Toyota Center locker room on Tuesday revealed a sense of finality that we hadn't seen before. A locker that remained full even a year ago following surgery was almost completely empty. Players sought to avoid McGrady conversations like the plague.
Most telling, head coach Rick Adelman appeared more relieved and calm than in weeks, particularly since McGrady began his "comeback" by playing eight largely ineffective minutes per night, then complaining through the media for more time.
By now, it's obvious McGrady is who Adelman thought he was. And the Rockets are letting him off the hook, granting him an indefinite leave of absence until he can be traded.
"I watched him in practice, and we saw the same things that we saw last year when he was hurt," Adelman said. "People want to write about who he was two years ago. He isn't that right now."
Monday's leaked announcement of McGrady and the Rockets (19-13) parting ways, likely in a trade before the February deadline, initially came via anonymous sources and was later confirmed in a vague, brief statement from the organization.
But interviews before and after Tuesday's 108-100 win over New Orleans (13-16) finally provided some color. Reading between the lines, the dispute appears every bit as bitter as most suspected.
"He wanted more playing time, and we weren't ready to give that," Adelman said. "It wasn't going smooth. It was being pushed, and it got to a point where the pushing wasn't going to continue. It's going to be what is best for the team and not for one individual."
Adelman cited the Nov. 18 game at Minnesota as an example of his frustration with McGrady's temperament. In early November, McGrady and his representatives -- just as they did with news of his season-ending surgery last February -- leaked that date to the media as his target for return, instead of to the team paying him an NBA-high $23 million this season.
In addition, that date came well before the Rockets' next scheduled full practice (Nov. 23), a setting in which general manager Daryl Morey insisted the Rockets would need to see McGrady before even considering putting him on the floor.
The Rockets, of course, did not allow McGrady to play in that game. Then, he infamously showed up to the game in uniform, declaring himself ready to play. To McGrady, it seemed a partial attempt at humor. Adelman wasn't amused.
"He wanted to show that he was ready to play or whatever. I didn't think it was real cool," Adelman said in a somewhat-mocking tone. "I told him at the time, 'Look, we're a team here, and we're trying to develop something to get us through this year with the [Yao Ming] injury.'"
Nearly a month later, rookie swingman Chase Budinger went down with an ankle injury, and the Rockets needed an able-bodied wing to fill the void. Beginning December 15 against Detroit, Adelman agreed to give McGrady eight first-half minutes a night.
But as evidenced by his 3.2 points on 36.8 percent shooting and matador defense, McGrady wasn't ready for any minutes of greater significance. Tracy's ego, however, disagreed, and that was the last straw for a Rockets' team seeking to rely on outstanding team chemistry in the absence of All-Star talent.
"I said at the time he could play seven or eight minutes so that he would have a reason to just go out and attack. The one game [home vs. Clippers] he did that, he looked good. The other games, he didn't.
"I didn't know what the answer would be after 7-8 minutes," Adelman said. "Do you go up to 15, up to 20, then you do that for one or two games and it was going to have to be 30? It seemed that was the direction it was being pushed, and I was not comfortable."
Adelman said that a year ago, he could allow a hobbled McGrady to try and find his form on the court and run the offense through him, because the presence of Yao and Ron Artest gave "a lot more room for error".
But with the new-look Rockets emphasizing ball movement and the transition game, Adelman said this year's team did not have that luxury.
"He's such a smart player that he can be effective, but it has to be a certain way," Adelman said. "The ball has to go through him. Defensively, he was certainly struggling with that a bit as well. He truly believes he can turn it on [in game action], but the way we're playing didn't jive with that."
From here, the future of McGrady rests in the hands of Morey. It will likely remain there for a while. Because his play and attitude on the court remain subpar, his primary trade value remains as an expiring contract. And any significant value for such a contract is unlikely to come until the days immediately preceding the February 18 trade deadline. By then, other teams have fewer games to sell tickets for and are more willing to throw in the towel on their current seasons.
Early talks, as expected, involve rival teams attempting to lowball the Rockets in hopes they would accept less value simply for the immediacy of having McGrady gone.
But Morey, considered by most as one of the top general managers in the NBA, is too intelligent to fall for that. Plus -- as far as the Rockets are concerned -- he's already gone, the team is playing just fine, and the mood is anything but disappointed.
"I had a feeling this was going to happen," Adelman said. "He's made it clear he wants to move on, and we'll see what we can do. This is the one day we talk about it, and I hope we can move on.
"These [players] need to be consistent and stay with it, and for them to do that, I have to do it too. I can't be worried about what's going on in another area of the organization. It didn't work out....Maybe this is the best thing."
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