Long losing streaks, like that endured by the Orlando Magic until Monday's win over the Phoenix Suns, are devastating. It cost Doc Rivers his job and threatens the job and reputation of general manager John Gabriel. It chased away fans and brought national ridicule. It also turned Tracy McGrady from a great player to a great talent.
Because the teams of great players don't lose 19 consecutive games.
Only four teams in NBA history have lost more consecutive games in one season than the Magic did. They were the 1995-96 Grizzlies, the 1997-98 Nuggets, the 1972-73 76ers and the 1993-94 Mavericks. It won't take long to check: There was no Hall of Famer or future Hall of Famer on any of those teams. Should McGrady get to the Basketball Hall of Fame, which many have predicted with the impressive start to his career, he would be without peer. Because no great player has ever been through that bad of a stretch.
Which raises the question: If McGrady is so great, how could he let the Magic lose 19 straight games?
It's the question that was most asked around the NBA during the Magic's streak.
And the answer is fairly simple. McGrady is a great talent, not a great player. He has great abilities, but he's missing that intangible which the truly great ones have, the one the media and public explain in clichés -- the fire in his belly that won't let them lose.
Forget Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas. Can you imagine a Kobe Bryant team, even without Shaquille O'Neal, losing 19 straight? You figure he'd just do something to win a game somewhere along the way.
It's ironic because this is what we thought about Vince Carter, who seems more comfortable now than ever. Carter, with Toronto's acquisition of Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall, can float around most of the game and then produce at big moments. That was the plan when McGrady was drafted by the Raptors. We all know the story, of how McGrady wanted out of Carter's shadow, wanted his own team and wanted to be "The Man." Funny how they all want to be the man while remaining kids for so long.
It's what McGrady is -- a kid. He faced the crisis of his basketball life during the losing streak and the collapse of the Magic, and he froze. He didn't know what to do or whether he could do anything to change it. It was sad to watch McGrady play the last few weeks. Once energized on defense, he was casual. He ran the perimeter looking for shots. He's so good he could make many of them and still average more than 20 points. He rarely went into the post to demand the ball or attacked the basket. He took the easy way out.
He's never been known as a hard worker off the court or in the offseason, which is why they feel around the Magic organization he's had those troublesome back problems. He didn't seem to want to work at this losing streak as well.
Meanwhile, back north of the border, McGrady's departure from the Raptors was the worst thing to happen to the franchise, Carter and McGrady. It's not unlike Stephon Marbury's ill-advised jump to the New Jersey Nets and away from Kevin Garnett. Those two could have been one of the league's great pairs and both would be talking about competing for championships instead of making the second round of the playoffs.
Carter and McGrady would have been something to see. It still would have been Carter's team, as those things go. But Carter really doesn't want the responsibility of carrying a team. He is too unselfish for true greatness. McGrady could have had the major role, but he would have had to defer perhaps down the stretch in games and then in interviews. His ego and youth wouldn't allow it. So both, like Garnett and Marbury, dream about the second round.
Garnett, like McGrady, hasn't been past the first round of the playoffs. But don't doubt his greatness. Sometimes the opposition is just too good. Sometimes you're born at the wrong time, like Karl Malone and Charles Barkley when Michael Jordan happened to be playing. And how many titles would Hakeem Olajuwon have if Jordan didn't take a break? Or Dominique Wilkens when Larry Bird was around, or Clyde Drexler and Buck Williams when Magic Johnson and the Lakers were around.
Garnett has been kept from going anywhere in the playoffs, but that's mostly been because of Tim Duncan and Shaq. McGrady has been stymied by Glenn Robinson, Baron Davis and Chauncey Billups. It doesn't diminish him, but it suggests he's not quite where we all put him.
There are other factors at work for McGrady these days, though.
It's pretty clear the Magic is a team that doesn't complement him and one he doesn't seem to feel comfortable with. McGrady was close with Mike Miller, who was traded for the somewhat goofy Drew Gooden. McGrady also was said to be fond of Darrell Armstrong, who was forced out by Rivers, whose move couldn't have endeared him to McGrady.
More significantly, Miller and Armstrong complemented McGrady's game. McGrady could penetrate and then find one of the perimeter shooters in Miller or Armstrong. And Armstrong, especially, could penetrate and take pressure off McGrady. Plus, Rivers ran a system of play well suited to McGrady by spreading the floor with drivers and shooters. The Magic was woefully weak up front and the consensus was without adding Gooden they probably wouldn't have made the playoffs last season, when they were on the verge of advancing to the second round after taking a 3-1 lead on Detroit. Too bad it was the first season of the seven-game, first-round series.
But Gooden and free-agent signee Juwan Howard are interior players who don't do much to free McGrady. Tyronn Lue isn't the kind of point guard to break down the defense. One gets the feeling while watching the Magic that McGrady has just thrown up his hands in exasperation and accepted the fate of the team.
It's not what the great players do. They find a way to get it done, to get that game, instead of surrendering to the distractions and frustrations. McGrady did this time. But let's also remember, he's just 24, the same age Jordan was entering his third NBA season and searching for his first trip to the playoffs' second round. The kids who come out of high school are asked to mature quickly when, in fact, they're likely to take much longer. They've all had it much too easy in basketball with too little discipline and when the times or situations demand more, they often struggle.
McGrady is going through his trial now. It may well make him into the star people suggested he was. He's proved he's not there yet, but the distinction isn't out of reach.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.