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Houston, You Have McGrady

Times Staff Writer

In a move that gave Houston a pair to challenge Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant as the NBA’s greatest tandem -- or replace them if they break up -- the Rockets acquired Tracy McGrady, the league’s leading scorer the last two seasons, to go with 7-foot-5 Yao Ming.

After a week of confusion, the deal was the one originally agreed to, with Orlando sending McGrady, forward Juwan Howard and guards Tyronn Lue and Reece Gaines to Houston for guards Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley and center Kelvin Cato.

McGrady, who just turned 25, was an All-Star in each of his four seasons in Orlando after signing a $93-million deal as a free agent in 1999.

McGrady arrived with Grant Hill, but ankle injuries limited Hill to 47 games in four seasons. The Magic didn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs in the first three and fell apart last season, toppling to 20-62.

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With McGrady holding an opt-out clause, effective next summer, Orlando General Manager John Weisbrod, a former New York Ranger hockey player who took over in March, pressed him for a commitment, noting, “I have no intention of starting the season with an ‘I don’t know.’ ”

When no commitment was forthcoming, Weisbrod put McGrady on the block. McGrady gave the Magic two teams he would go to and one, Houston, came up with the package Weisbrod sought.

Francis, 27, a three-time All-Star, was known as Stevie Franchise in his first four seasons, when he averaged 20 points, 6.4 assists and 6.2 rebounds.

His scoring average fell to 16.6 last season under defense-minded Coach Jeff Van Gundy, but the Rockets made the playoffs. They lost to the Lakers in five games, but Francis averaged 19 points, 8.4 rebounds and 7.6 assists in his postseason debut.

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Francis’ running-mate, Mobley, 28, is a five-year veteran who averaged 21.7 points three seasons ago and has a 17.1 career average. Young and mistake-prone, the guards were also known as “the knucklehead backcourt” among Houston insiders, who wondered how compatible they were with Van Gundy.

Weisbrod claimed the deal stalled while he considered “other options.” Nevertheless, the Magic didn’t seem interested in any of the proposals that flooded in, including Indiana’s offer of Ron Artest, Jonathan Bender and Fred Jones.

Francis’ dismay at being traded seemed more to the point. When the deal was announced, his agent, Jeff Fried noted, “He’s already been through a rebuilding period.”

Fried reportedly contacted five teams, seeing if he could find one that would spring Francis from Orlando. One reportedly was Seattle, which Fried hoped would offer Ray Allen.

Looking as if he were trying to backstop himself in the draft in case Francis didn’t relent, Weisbrod traded for Denver’s No. 20 pick, point guard Jameer Nelson. That night, however, Francis and Weisbrod talked by phone. Francis agreed to play in Orlando. “We meshed,” Weisbrod said.

“In a weird sort of way, I kind of liked [Francis’ reluctance] because it told me the guy was loyal to his team. He’s been in Houston for five seasons and he’s battled with those guys and given his blood, sweat and tears. His reaction was better than getting some guy who just got on a flight and moved on to the next city without any emotion.”

From that point on, the deal was back on, as originally conceived. The trade was announced after Francis and Weisbrod had met Tuesday in Orlando.

McGrady has questions to answer after a lame season, despite his scoring numbers -- a 28.1 average over the last four seasons. He missed 15 games and finally pulled the plug on March 26 “to rest my knee for the Olympics.” Then he pulled out of the Olympics.

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Nevertheless, the potential of a great perimeter player and a great, big center was demonstrated by O’Neal and Bryant, who won three titles, amid disagreements. The Pacific Division might be losing one of its great powers, but the new Southwest might have added one.

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On the Move Again

Houston acquired Orlando’s Tracy McGrady, the league’s leading scorer the last two seasons, as part of a seven-player deal Tuesday. A look at McGrady’s career scoring averages:

*--* Yr. Team FG% 3P% FT% Pts. 97-98 Toronto 450 341 712 7.0 98-99 Toronto 436 229 726 9.3 99-00 Toronto 451 277 707 15.4 00-01 Orlando 457 355 733 26.8 01-02 Orlando 451 364 748 25.6 02-03 Orlando 457 386 793 32.1 03-04 Orlando 417 339 796 28.0 Totals 447 354 756 21.4

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