Big ticket to punched ticket

CHICAGO -- Was it really almost 10 years ago when Jerry Krause met a 21-year-old millionaire at O'Hare, figuratively down on bended knee, blank check in hand?

Has it been nearly a decade since the once-proud, six-time NBA champions wooed the 6-foot-8 combo guard from Mars, Tracy McGrady, the "next" Michael Jordan, with a brass band and dancing girls and a costumed mascot?

What's that saying? Like sands through the hourglass ...

In the summer of 2000, McGrady was feted at his gate by the Luvabulls, a band playing "Sweet Home Chicago" and Benny the Bull. All they were missing were some fire-eaters and snake charmers. And, oh yeah, a shot at landing him.

With McGrady recently exiled by Houston, the organization finally tired of his act, you have to wonder if a team now would even send a cab to pick him up.

At the time, the world at his fingers, McGrady all but patted Krause on his melon and went about his merry way to Orlando, where he joined Grant Hill as a powerhouse duo that accomplished absolutely nothing in their tenure, aside from saving millions in income tax.

In the decade since that fateful meeting, McGrady's teams have won exactly zero playoff series to the Bulls' one. The Bulls are still looking for that big free-agent score, while McGrady is once again looking for a new home. Things have changed, things have stayed the same.

With scant days until the end of 2009, we're finally at the tail end of those ubiquitous "end of the decade" recaps. And 2000 doesn't seem so long ago. But think about McGrady then and think about him now, all but gone from a scrappy Rockets team devoid of star power, and a decade seems like a lifetime.

Krause thought he would make a splash that summer, but he was cruelly rebuked by the free agents, including Eddie Jones, who also got the band/mascot/women treatment.

"It is part of what we do now," Krause said in a USA Today article in 2000, seemingly unaware he was turning the franchise into a laughingstock. "It's part of the league. It's part of the culture."

Oh, that Krause, always with his finger on the pulse of the league. Can you imagine LeBron James' face if he landed Air Force Bron-Bron (no way he flies commercial) and saw a horn section on the private tarmac? Unless it was The Roots, he'd be flying back over Toledo by the time they hit the chorus. That kind of stuff is small-time in 2010, and John Paxson wisely eschewed that approach when he took over the job. Then again, he signed Ben Wallace. So he's not perfect either.

Although McGrady wound up in Disney country, watching the 2000-01 Bulls was like riding the tea cups after a night at Pleasure Island. That team finished 15-67, with the likes of Marcus Fizer, Khalid El-Amin, Dalibor Bagaric and Corey Benjamin getting some burn alongside legitimate pros like Brad Miller, Ron Artest and Elton Brand. So much for Krause's rebuilding plan, right?

At 30 years old, T-Mac (I loathe these initial-half-a-surname nicknames, but like a J-Lo song, they're catchy) can still ball, or at least score 20 points on 40 percent shooting, but with so much wear and tear and so little charisma, he's almost a non-factor in NBA discussions while saddled with a bad back and perpetually sour mug.

With the Rockets dangling him like a minnow over a cement pond, his only value to a team is his expiring contract -- all $23.2 million of it. No contenders, according to early reports, are even interested in his services. McGrady, a two-time scoring champ, is not even a gate attraction anymore. When is the last time a couple guys got together and said, "T-Mac's coming to town!" The first George W. Bush administration?

McGrady's career hit a total lull last season, when he showed up to camp out of shape, played below the rim and ultimately, as rumors of a trade from Houston swirled, waited until mid-February to get microfracture knee surgery. He played just 35 games and -- wouldn't you know it? -- the Rockets came together with Ron Artest on the floor and McGrady on the bench.

While McGrady's future is being decided, he will reportedly stay in shape by working out at Tim Grover's gym, Attack Athletics. McGrady spent time there the summer to prepare for this season, not that it has done much good so far. Don't think this is a sign he's going to finally sign with Chicago. McGrady has about as good a chance of taking over for Vinny Del Negro as he does of actually playing for the Bulls, unless Houston buys him out and he signs for the minimum. But the Rockets are playing hardball right now, trying to get some team to bite on a trade.

McGrady's legacy is as a high scorer on mediocre teams. In his testament to anal-retentive fandom, "The Book of Basketball," ESPN's Bill Simmons rated McGrady as the 75th best player in NBA history, in between Joe Dumars and Artis Gilmore. It's probably higher than what he deserves, but still way lower than what he was capable of becoming, with his skill set.

McGrady was destined to be one of those guys who had to wait until his late 30s to suit up for a championship contender and be content for a ring he didn't really earn.

That time is coming sooner than we once thought.

As his career idles at the crossroads of Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury, perhaps more than anything else, the only thing that stands out about McGrady's tenure, the one thing that separates him from his peers in the upper echelon of the league is that he has yet to win a playoff series.

Heck, even Tyrus Thomas has
won a playoff series. Derrick Rose almost won one last season, and he was a middle school legend when McGrady first turned free agent.

McGrady has played 38 playoff games in seven different trips -- three times with Orlando and Houston and once with Toronto -- and he has never made the second round, losing three consecutive seven-game series.

McGrady has averaged 28.5 points in his playoff cameos, to go with 6.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists. Kobe Bryant, the best peer of McGrady's generation, has averaged 24.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists. Bryant's numbers are lessened ever so slightly by limited opportunities in Bryant's first two trips and the strain of playing 121 more postseason games.

And Bryant has won four NBA titles, which is a little more important.

Since coming to the NBA straight out of high school in 1997, before salary restrictions were in place, T-Mac has earned more than $137 million, and that's not counting his salary for this season.

Would it have been worth half of that investment to have had signed him in 2000? We'll never know the answer, but we do know that McGrady has never been able to truly carry a team. (Who knows what would have happened if Hill would have been healthy in Orlando?) And he has never made the players around him good enough to win when it counts. He has led the NBA in scoring, piling up points in the winter before hibernating in late spring.

It absolutely would have been nice to have McGrady here during those lean years, but now he's just another example of the excess of the NBA, a dispiriting reminder that promise doesn't always lead to success.

With 2010, and the ensuing free agent frenzy approaching, it's a good lesson to heed.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.