Could D'Angelo Russell be right about McGrady?

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Honestly Tracy McGrady might have been the GOAT!

The above tweet by Los Angeles Lakers rookie D’Angelo Russell no doubt made people wonder what his teammate Kobe Bryant might think about that.

There are also people who think Bryant is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).

How do they compare?

Looking at each player's best season

In 2002-03, McGrady put together his best season. He led the NBA in scoring at 32.1 points per game, averaged 6.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists, and finished with a player efficiency rating of 30.3.

At that point, the only other non-big man in NBA history to finish with a PER of 30 or more in one season was Michael Jordan, who did it four times, the first time coming in his age-24 season in 1987-88. In his age-23 season, McGrady was also the youngest player (regardless of position) to finish with a PER of 30. So in terms of players 23 or younger, McGrady was the GOAT.

Although there’s not much debate about who had the better career, there’s plenty of evidence to make the argument that McGrady’s peak was better than Bryant’s.

Bryant’s best season by several standards (scoring, PER and win shares) was 2005-06, when he averaged 35.4 points and dragged a team that started Smush Parker, Chris Mihm and Brian Cook to the playoffs.

Here’s where Bryant supporters scoff at the notion that McGrady was on Bryant's level: So they both led the league in scoring? Kobe averaged over three more points per game!

McGrady also accounted for more than two more points off assists per game, and when you consider he did so for a 2002-03 Orlando Magic team that averaged a point less than the 2005-06 Lakers, both accounted for 46 percent of his team’s points – a wash.

Looking at nontraditional statistics

Here’s where the nontraditional numbers support McGrady. McGrady’s PER was two points higher than Bryant’s, and he finished with more win shares. While within a tenth of a point on 2-point field goal percentage compared with Bryant, McGrady shot a better clip from beyond the arc, resulting in a higher effective field goal percentage.

But what about defense? Kobe’s an all-league defender!

Yes. In 2005-06, Bryant was first-team All-Defense. Basketball-Reference.com’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus estimates a player’s defensive impact per 100 possessions compared to a league-average player. In general, it passes the smell test.

Of the 10 players named All-Defense last season, none finished with a negative Defensive Box Plus-Minus. In 2002-03, McGrady was basically average, finishing at minus-0.1. He averaged twice as many blocks as Bryant in his peak season and nearly one fewer foul per game.

Bryant in 2005-06 finished with a defensive box plus-minus of minus-1.5, the second-worst mark of his career and the worst by any Lakers rotation player that season.

What about a three-season perspective?

Taking a look beyond just their best season, the same argument can be made looking at their best three-season span. For McGrady, we’ll use 2001-02 to 2003-04 and for Bryant, 2005-06 to 2007-08.

Both led the NBA in scoring twice during their respective runs. And although Bryant’s peak average was higher (31.7 points per game to 28.6), the advanced metrics point to McGrady having the superior three-season run.

In addition to a better three-season PER, McGrady has the edge over Bryant in both Offensive and Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Considered an offensive genius, Bryant ranked fourth in the NBA with an Offensive Box Plus-Minus of plus-6.2 during his three-season peak.

During his three-season peak, McGrady’s Offensive Box Plus-Minus was plus-7.6, which easily led the NBA and would have also been the best by any player during Bryant’s three-season peak. The difference between McGrady and the player with the second-best mark from 2001-02 to 2003-04 (Ray Allen) was the same as the difference between the second-best and 11th-best, putting McGrady on a level of his own during the best three-season stretch of his career.