Tracy McGrady could have been balling with Michael Jordan as a rookie, but he’s glad that never happened.

The former NBA All-Star revealed in June that Jordan overruled a proposed trade that would have sent McGrady from the Raptors in exchange for Scottie Pippen. And when we got a chance to talk to T-Mac about the trade this past weekend, the former All-Star had a pretty interesting reason why he’s happy he stayed with the Raptors, admitting his “career would have probably turned out a little bit differently” had Jordan given his blessing.  

Speaking to us over the phone from China—where McGrady was attending the finals of the NBA 5V5, the Association’s first five-on-five basketball tournament for elite players in the country—we got a chance to chat with him about a variety of subjects including his work in China, the infamous trade that didn’t go down, his new gig as an analyst on ESPN, Nike vs. adidas beef, NBA talent level then versus now, and why he’s disappointed in Kevin Durant.

 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

I know you’re in China working on the NBA 5V5 tournament. What’s your role there?
Basically just being a face for the NBA, being an ambassador for these games and encouraging these guys. Just being a presence; I have a huge brand over here and it’s just awesome to come over here and be an inspiration to these guys that are competing in this game. So I'm looking forward to the games later on.

THE GUYS I WAS WITH, EVERYBODY DIDN’T TEAM UP. WE WERE ALL TRYING TO BEAT EACH OTHER’S A**.

How big is basketball there? Is it comparable to what it is in the States or is it bigger there?
Well definitely basketball has become a dominant sport over the years. I can remember back when I was playing for the Magic, I took trips over here and basketball wasn’t so much as popular as it is now. Now it’s become a global game. I give a lot of credit to Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets and the NBA for globalizing this game and giving all the Chinese fans an opportunity to witness us every night. Back then, they didn’t have the luxury of watching NBA games. Now, with all of the social media and all of the outlets, they’re able to watch games on a night-to-night basis and be more familiar with the games.

What is your favorite part of going to China?
Shanghai, where I am now, is an awesome city to be in. Not only the food is good, but the nightlife is great, the people are great in all the cities i’ve been to in China. But you see a lot of foreigners here in Shanghai. And at night, it’s such a gorgeous site to just witness everything that’s going on around here.

Now I know you have a new career as a basketball analyst on ESPN. Since you’re not too far removed from playing, how do you go about criticizing players who you have relationships with?
[Laughs.] Great question. A lot of the guys that I played with, these guys are superstar guys: LeBron, [Kevin Durant], they were young talent coming into the league [when I played], but these guys are elite players in the game now. But, you know, being removed from the game and going on the other side, it’s a fine line.

I like to critique players game-to-game because I know how difficult the game is, and it’s a tough position to be in. You understand what these players go through on a night-to-night basis and through a whole season. That’s the hardest part about being a player and being on the other side and having to criticize players, because I know how it feels. But hey, if you’re out there playing like garbage I have to call you out. If a guy is calling you out that’s never played the game, I’m definitely qualified to do that.

I’M ACTUALLY GLAD THAT MICHAEL [JORDAN] VETOED THAT TRADE BECAUSE MY CAREER WOULD HAVE PROBABLY TURNED OUT A LITTLE BIT DIFFERENTLY.

Now speaking of young players, when you first came into the league it was revealed this June that in 1997, Michael Jordan nixed a trade that would have sent you to the Bulls and Scottie Pippen to the Raptors. How do you think that trade would have changed the course of NBA history?
I don’t know, man. I know I wasn’t qualified to fill the shoes of Scottie Pippen at the moment, I’ll tell you that. I’m actually glad that Michael vetoed that trade because my career would have probably turned out a little bit differently. I needed to go through the things that I went through in my career, and I’m sure Michael is pretty tough on young players. See what happened to Kwame Brown, and he wasn’t even playing then. So I’m glad I got the opportunity to play up in Toronto for those three years and experience my time up there. But just looking back in hindsight, it would have been pretty damn cool to play with MJ.

Did you ever talk to Michael about that trade?
No. No. You know Nike Jordan guys and adidas guys don’t get along. I don’t know if you know that, but you know now.

Is that an actual beef in the NBA?
Amongst the elites, yeah man. The conversation only goes so far. The friendship only goes so far. It definitely doesn’t extend beyond the basketball court, that’s for damn sure.

Who do you think would have won that trade in the long run had it went through?
I don’t know the other parties that were involved. I don’t know. Looking back, to think that I could have possibly been traded for Scottie Pippen was just unfathomable. Scottie being one of the 50 greatest all-time and what he brought to the Bulls franchise. For them to even consider trading him for an 18-year-old, it was hard to believe that that was even a possibility. So I don’t know.

Was that a big confidence booster as an 18-year-old? Knowing that you could be traded for a Hall of Famer?
No because honestly when everything got vetoed I didn’t even think about it anymore. I had moved on. At the present time, I was like “Can this possibly happen?” Like yeah, I was excited at the time. But once I was drafted by Toronto, I didn’t actually think about being in a Bulls uniform or being traded for Scottie Pippen anymore.

kevin durant and steph curry after USA game
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I know you said on ESPN that the only reason you felt Stephen Curry won MVP unanimously this year is because the league is watered down, and Charles Barkley has made similar comments in the past. How do you think the league today is different from when you played? And was it watered down when you played?
No, I just think the physicality, the style of play was a lot different. Nowadays, I think there’s so many rule changes that have an advantage for a guy like Steph Curry to be able to be the type of player he is. Now he’s still great, but the physicality of the game is a lot softer today the way they play the game. Back when I was playing, I think we had a lot more depth and elite players. There’s a handful of superstars in the league today, but I just think there was more of a variety of players whether it was big men, shooting guards, I think we just had more of that. Some of the elite players in the game today I think is a major dropoff from the guys at the bottom, it’s a major dropoff.

And speaking of the Warriors, obviously the biggest news of the offseason is is that Kevin Durant left to join them. What were your thoughts on that and more generally, what are your thoughts on players leaving their old teams to form superteams?
I was disappointed in the move to Golden State. I wasn’t disappointed that he left, I mean he’s a free agent, he’s able to go wherever he wants. But I just think having a team now coming off a championship run and you have the champs down 3-1, and they come back and defeat you. I just think as a competitor, you would come back and try to dethrone them with the same team.

You’re playing with a top-five point guard in Russell Westbrook. I mean to me, I think OKC is a championship-caliber team. They displayed that; they just had a major collapse in the Western Conference Finals against Golden State. But I was highly disappointed that he chose Golden State to go and play for the other team. I wanted him to stay in OKC.

Now do you think superteams are good or bad for the league?
They’re awful. I think it’s bad considering they tried to change things in the [collective bargaining agreement] to stop all of the superteams. And with the $93 million salary cap, you’re not going to be able to stop that. Teams have so much money to spend on players, it’s like AAU basketball nowadays in the league. Whereas when I was playing you had a superstar on the Orlando Magic. You had a superstar in Boston in Paul Pierce. You had a superstar in Philadelphia in Allen Iverson. You had a superstar in Toronto in Vince Carter. You had Ray Allen, a superstar in Milwaukee. That made it such a competitive league and the guys I was with, everybody didn’t team up. We were all trying to beat each other’s a**.