Yao Ming – Part 2

2010 April 8
by rahat huq



This post is Part 2 of ‘Yao Ming’.

Yao Ming is victim to the most unrealistic of expectations.

As the league’s “best offensive center”—a title holding more rhetorical impact than actual significance—it is concluded he should be capable of carrying a team by his lonesome.  In light of his weaknesses, such an assumption is wholly impractical.

First, Yao is a poor passer and prone to turnovers.  He does not read defenses well and is slow to react against double teams, often stripped by guards from the weakside.  Based on a few spectacular passes his rookie year, it was believed that Yao would blossom into an elite passing big man.  It has not happened.

In addition, despite his magnificent touch, Yao is also a poor shooter outside of the paint.  The team attempted to position him at the high post, like other Adelman 5’s, to start the ’08 season, and the results were disastrous.

Most troubling of all, though, is that Yao is easily neutralized.  He struggles mightily in the pick and roll and does not fare well against smaller centers.

If fronted, Yao is completely taken out of games.  Under normal circumstances, teams can counter a fronting defense by lobbing the ball over the top of the defender.  However, due to Yao’s slow reaction time and poor hands, he is incapable of gathering himself off the high catch, leaving him prone to weak-side blocks.

Yao can also be fronted by just one player.  As Jeff Van Gundy noted during the broadcast of one playoff game last spring, it is not necessary to sandwich Yao with two players as was done by the Blazers throughout the series.  I would argue that it was this faulty strategy that lost Portland the series.


So this naturally begs the question, if flawed and not truly a franchise player, is Yao worth the max?

In Part 2 of the ‘Discerning Morey’s Philosophy’ series, I had argued that the club should have looked to trade the big man in years past, prior to this latest injury.  However, going forward, the team stands nothing to gain from cutting its ties.

Yao has always fared well against Lakers center Andrew Bynum.

In his current state, Yao’s trade value pales in comparison to his potential real value.

Keeping him (and risking further injury) is justified by the mere possibility of what he could provide in the postseason, if healthy.  In the next few years, any title will undoubtedly have to come through the Los Angeles Lakers.  A healthy Yao would help counter Lakers center Andrew Bynum, forcing him to the bench or rendering him ineffective, making L.A.’s twin-center attack much more manageable to contain.

In addition, for whatever reason, the upper echelon teams in our league typically avoid fronting, preferring more conventional defenses.  Having a low post option such as Yao in the playoffs would be a serious boon.

Letting him walk in free agency would also serve little purpose.  Assuming this summer transpires as expected, renouncing Yao in 2011 would not push the club far enough under the cap to make a splash in free agency.1  (Yao will undoubtedly exercise his player option this summer.2  If still hurt by the summer of 2011, the issue of re-signing him will be a moot point.)

Finally, the business partnerships enabled by Yao’s presence on the roster allow owner Les Alexander to exceed the luxury tax threshold–as he has announced he will do next year–and to also purchase draft picks as he has done every summer.

Thus, we can conclude that there is probably no better use of the cap space allotted to Yao Ming.

The discussion should be about maximizing the return on and protecting him.  If they are going to pay Yao Ming, the Rockets must have him healthy and effective.  They cannot succeed with idle salary.

Going forward, Yao’s playing time absolutely must be reduced.  His feet can no longer take the pounding of prolonged minutes.  Moreover, rather than as a hub, he must be used as a weapon, milked repeatedly against favorable matchups, but sat when ineffective.

Reducing Yao’s minutes would have the added benefit of forcing the team to diversify its attack.  One of the Rockets’ biggest problems last season was their total dependence upon Yao.  The team would force-feed the post and predictably, the offense would stagnate, grinding to a halt.  When he was shut down, everything would unravel.  And far too often, Yao was shut down.

That leads us to the silver lining in this season:  Yao’s absence has enabled the development of some critical elements.  Aaron Brooks has grown into a lethal scoring threat.  The void in the post allowed Carl Landry to blossom to the point of having trade value sufficient to land Kevin Martin, a legit scorer, Jordan Hill, a mobile ‘big’ who could potentially cover some of Yao’s weaknesses, and two draft picks that could bring in even more help via a trade.  Mediocrity will also bring the team’s highest draft pick since Rudy Gay.


For nearly a decade, Yao Ming has been the face of the Houston Rockets.  Throughout his time, the organization has been unwavering in its support.  Steve Francis was traded in some part due to his inability to share the ball with Yao; Tracy McGrady after assuming the lion’s share of the blame for the duo’s failures.  When he returns next winter, it will be the third era during Yao’s tenure of which he will be the centerpiece.

At age 30, for Yao, time is running out.  But there remains hope for a happy ending.  Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskus underwent the same reconstructive surgery and returned for a long and productive career.  The same can happen for Yao.

While he may return to a diminished role, Yao remains the key to the team’s future success.  He is still the foundation; the backbone; the anchor of their trademark defense.  Time will tell how Yao’s story ends.  After this latest setback, most would have hung it up; called it a career.  But Yao had the valor to undergo yet another grueling rehabilitation.    After what he had already overcome, it only made sense to return and try again.


























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  1. A forecast of the team’s cap situation in 2011 is dependent upon a plethora of variables ranging from potential trades, free agent signings via use of the exceptions, the re-signed salary figures for Aaron Brooks, Kyle Lowry, and Luis Scola, and the final projection for that year’s salary cap.  Renouncing Yao in 2011 could put the team below the cap, but not far enough under to pursue a max level free agent.  If Yao’s presence enables ownership to exceed the luxury tax threshold, it would be a better course of action to re-sign him and make further expenditures (via trade/MLE/sign&trade) than to cut ties and sign someone to a modest deal with the money available. []
  2. Yao has long been expected to exercise his player option this summer.  However, The Houston Chronicle reported on March 29, 2010 that because the next collective bargaining agreement is expected to reduce the number of years and value of a maximum contract, there is a slight chance that Yao might seek to opt out from his deal this summer and ink a new one under the current rules.  With that said, even if Yao were to opt out and not be re-signed, the team would still not be far enough under the cap to pursue a max level free agent, unless gutting the entire roster.  We can see that moving forward, there is really no scenario in which completely renouncing ties with Yao Ming would serve any purpose for the organization. []
  • physicsgeekandrocketsfan
    I remember seeing Yao dish out some amazing passes in his first year and its too bad that he wasn't able to develop that. My favorite thing about Yao? Freethrows. A big man who can ice the game at the end from the line, thats not something you see everyday
  • Bill Foster
    Articulate writing, love the frank appraisal particularly with relation to Yao's lack of speed. Seeing as it is impossible to separate the sphere of sport from that of economics, I believe it is also worth noting that Yao whether fit or unfit poses a valuable commercial asset in the Rockets' business aspirations in the Far East. Yao is the face, heart and soul of China and he therefore has unparalleled trade value not only within the NBA but any other major sport.
  • Rahat -

    You know I support what you are doing and its been great, I am a big fan, BUT there are a couple of things that you have said repeatedly that do not sit well with me.

    1. The Yao is not a closer. Is this really accurate? Intuitively I am inclined to disagree. Has he ever been given the opportunity to close when paired with someone like McGrady? I think part of Yao's value is the opportunity to go to him in a ground it out play off match up - which we began to see last year. Yao IS a go to guy when you need desperate points.

    2. Yao is a poor passer (ok only time I have heard you say that was today) BUT Really? My perception of Yao is as an excellent passer capable of finding the cutter.

    Thank you sir.
  • Danny
    "Moreover, rather than as a hub, he must be used as a weapon, "

    I have advocated this position since Adelman came to Houston. It's interesting how you referred to early experiments with Yao as those akin to other Adelman 5s. I really believe that's the crux of the discussion here, who Yao plays for. I personally err on the side of Adelman in that paradigm though. He's a phenomenal coach and a great fit for a franchise that has always played on heart (and won when that heart intersected with talent). But, the thing about Adelman is that he has always built success around quick ball movement and efficient transition (just look at his run with Sacramento). This formula usually requires a stable of small hustlers. Yao, being the "franchise" puts a major yolk on Adelman's shoulders that seemingly handicaps his formula. I believe that's why we see such vanilla "feed the inside up high" approach to dealing with the immobile Yao Ming. His "franchise" anchor in the low post is an immovable chess piece for a mind like Adelman's, but the organization's loyalty to the investment forces Adelman's hand. It's amazing how some of the best basketball from the Rockets comes when Yao is OFF the floor. That's when Adelman shines, when he's not tethered to a slow big. The problem then, is that the remaining chess pieces are all still relative investments (sans the T-Mac experiment) to Yao Ming, and therefore, are not a natural "team" by themselves. By dang it if they don't give it their all. I love 'Adelman-ball': it's so very Rockets' appropriate. I love Yao Ming, for what he is, but it is absolutely astute to say, "rather than as a hub, he must be used as a weapon".
  • Paterick
    I'm a Knicks fan, but always like the Rockets and wished they could take the Spurs or Nuggets' place in the West. It's weird how easy it is to forget how good Yao was. Oh, and we won't ever forgive you for holding us at gunpoint to get rid of Jeffries.
  • bob schmidt
    Very insightful. I love the fact that you are not just a cheerleader, and actually tell it like you see it.

    One interesting question that might be asked relative to Yao's presence in the lineup deals with the intimidation factor when other teams have to prepare to play against a lineup with him in the middle. Stats will never show how many altered shots he creates, or how the offensive game plan for opponents have to be modified.

    As shown in part one of this series on Yao, Dwight Howard has fared poorly against Yao. The psychological effect that seeing him in the paint must cause some opponents to avoid challenging him. Or, it might inspire them to foolishly try to do things to "beat the giant". At the very least, he is disruptive to the normal game plan for most opponents. I would love to see some in-depth study in this area. ( hint hint!) Thanks again for giving Rockets fans objective info to work with Rahat..........
  • rahat_huq
    Bob - I have argued that Yao's greatest impact is actually on the defensive end. From our vantage point, we can't really appreciate just how much space he takes up around the rim.
  • bob schmidt
    So true. He's a game changer when he's in the paint.
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