NBA History: 50 best NBA players of the 21st century

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Tracy McGrady
Tracy McGrady, Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons /Allsport /

. SG. Orlando Magic. Tracy McGrady. 20. player. 38

50 greatest NBA players from 21st century: 20. Tracy McGrady

Tracy McGrady split his best years between Orlando and Houston, where he was one of the century’s premier offensive wings. A two-time scoring champ and seven-time All-Star, McGrady had little trouble putting the ball in the basket. He was a deadly three-level scorer, with quick-twitch athleticism and a sizzling mid-range package.

While McGrady’s playoff success was distinctly limited, his regular seasons were often magical and memorable. His famous 13 points in 35 seconds against the Spurs in 2004 is celebrated annually. McGrady won both his scoring titles with the Magic, and in 2003 — with averages of 32.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists — finished fourth in MVP voting.

Postseason success or not, McGrady inspired an entire generation of players. He’s on the shortlist of players who the younger generation sought out on tape and emulated. The easiness with which he scored the ball was intoxicating; he single-handedly kept Orlando relevant, then formed half of a transfixing duo in Houston next to Yao Ming.

We in the NBA media have a bad habit of overvaluing rings, especially in the context of individual greatness. Basketball is a team sport, and more often than not, good players don’t win a championship because of the teams around them, not because they themselves weren’t good enough. McGrady had his hardships in the postseason, but he’s in the Hall of Fame for a reason.

New York Knicks. Carmelo Anthony. 19. player. 27. . SF

50 greatest NBA players from 21st century: 19. Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony is one of the greatest individual scorers of his generation. The 2013 scoring champ has struggled to carve out success in the playoffs, but Anthony’s regular season exploits are that of a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He has influenced the game more than many realized — a one-man film session who, even amid the rapidly changing landscape of NBA scoring, can teach young players a thing or two about getting buckets.

One could justifiably call Anthony the most effective isolation scorer of the century. He’s craftier and cleverer than he will ever get credit for. Anthony understands how to exploit his man one-on-one better than just about anyone. His bag of pump-fakes, jab-steps, and hesitation moves made it damn near impossible to fully contain him in his prime. Anthony operates with the patience of a cobra ready to strike — lulling his defender to sleep before unleashing impeccable footwork and a silky jump shot.

Defense has never been Anthony’s strong suit, and yes, neither the Nuggets nor the Knicks ever amounted to much in the postseason during Anthony’s tenure. Even so, we are talking about a player who averaged over 20 points per game in each of his first 16 NBA seasons. A player who, from the very start, could score at will with the best of opponents.

Anthony has long been overshadowed by his own draft class and friend group. When you’re so inextricably tied to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul, it can be difficult to hold the spotlight on yourself. And yet, Melo was more than capable of doing so over the course of his career. He is one of the truly special scorers this century has given to the basketball fandom.