In defense of Yao, not an obituary

As a sports fan, the “what if” game is never far from my thoughts. Perhaps because of its relative inconsequence compared to science or politics, but sports’ “what ifs” seem more tangible than real life. I know it is narrow minded to take history for granted, to view it as inevitable, because it certainly is not, but it always seems as if my teams miss, by the width of a baby’s toe, the opportunity that would cause a dramatic turn in their fortune.

The big ones for me are:

The 1984 NBA Draft trade that never happened: Houston trades Ralph Sampson to the Bulls for the No. 3 pick (Michael Jordan).

Actually, that’s about it for the big ones, but Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS – “The Greatest Game Ever Played” – is worth noting right alongside The Greatest Comeback Ever, or as Houston knows it: The “there is no God, and I need to cancel the Super Bowl party that I planned during the first half” game.*  I may have been too young to remember the Astros losing to the Mets, but Mike Scott is my favorite Astro(I somehow had his rookie card which, as a 3 year old, I took as my duty to write my name on the back). I remember the Oilers game; I can tell you where I was January 3rd, 1993 (neighbor’s playoff party), down to where I was standing (kitchen) and what view I had of the TV (20 feet straight back).

Of course, I play small games of ‘what if’ with the past decade of the Houston Rockets. What if Yao had a good point guard at some point early in his career? What if Bobby Sura had stayed healthy? What if the Rockets could have won Game 3 or 4 (played in Houston) of the first round of the 2006 Playoffs after taking the first two games in Dallas, when Tracy McGrady played out of his mind, carried the Rockets on offense, and guarded Dirk Nowitzki in crunch time?*

But I do not play what if for the 2002 draft, when the Rockets selected Yao with the number one overall pick. Yao was the consensus choice. The 2002 draft was not a precursor to its 2007 counterpart. There was no Kevin Durant to give David Stern even a modicum of drama at the podium. Although, I remember Dick Vitale vehemently argued for the selection of Jay (nee Jason) Williams (eventual 2nd pick) out of Duke at that spot, even after it became obvious Jay had employed Nick Anderson as his free throw coach.

Amare Stoudemire (9th) and Carlos Boozer (35th) are the only rivals to Yao’s complete hegemony of that draft class, and neither has won anything more than Yao, much less brought a nation of billions to the NBA’s front door. And while Yao has been the consummate teammate and professional, Stoudemire and Boozer have appeared petulant and greedy.* Additionally, both have battled their own chronic injuries. Caron Butler (10th), Nene (7th), and Tayshaun Prince (23rd) were the only other notables from the 2002 class.

Even later, Houston’s front office faced a no-brainer decision in re-signing Yao. He is a fantastic talent, and he generates a presumably large, yet unknown, quantity of “Yao Revenue” from China. No one blames Hemingway’s Old Man for letting himself be dragged out to sea to almost die, even though in the end all he manages to bring to shore is the mutilated carcass of his foe-cum-achievement-cum-conscience – maybe that was a bad analogy.

From drafting Yao to retaining Yao, Houston has made the correct choice. Don’t waste your time second guessing those decisions. It is fairly easy to argue Yao’s top spot amongst the true giants of the game and, perhaps, even a spot somewhere among the average giants, too.

In fact, Yao’s career production generally exceeds that of the centers to which he is most often compared: Rik Smits, Arvydas Sabonis, and Zydrunas Ilgauskus.*** It even appears that Yao’s newly mandated playing time of 24 minutes per game (mpg) could be predicated by the careers of these three “successful” giants.****

Yao’s 23.0 career PER (a metric that encapsulates a players general productivity with 15.0 being league average) is only rivaled by the 21.2 of Sabonis. Smits and Ilgauskus mustered more than adequate averages of 17.9 and 18.8, respectively.

Smits, the Dunking Dutchman, stood 7’4” and played on chronically bad feet which limited him to 26 mpg for his career. Smits began his career at 23 and retired at 33. His minutes peaked at ages 28 and 29 when he averaged 30 mpg. No coincidence then, that he was injured for significant portions when he was 29 and 30 years old. Smits was not only able to return, but return effectively as well. He played three more seasons in the NBA, averaging 26 mpg. During that span he averaged a PER of 19.1 with a career high of 20.2 at age 32.

The 7’3” Sabonis began his NBA career late as a 31-year old rookie in 1995-96. The late start was due to contractual obligations and in part to immigration/political issues during the Cold War. He is generally regarded as the best Euroleague player ever (though Allen Iverson is making a bid to overtake him), having won titles with Real Madrid after averaging 23 and 13 in 1994-95. By the time he made it to the U.S., he was on the down slope of his career. The Trailblazers limited him to 24 minutes per game over the course of his 7 year NBA career. Carefully managed minutes preserved what was left of his balky knees and ankles (he had ruptured his Achilles in 1988), allowing him to average 71 games per season. His 32 mpg (over 73 games) at age 33 were a high.

Ilgauskus, 7’4”, suffered major foot injuries that caused him to sit out most of his second and all of third years in the NBA. I remember avoiding him in fantasy drafts after those seasons because his feet were almost guaranteed to give out over the course of the season. After averaging close to 30 minutes per game during his rookie season, Cleveland reduced his average to 25 and then 21 in his fourth and fifth seasons. Those numbers gradually escalated as he proved more and more durable.

If the Rockets are to blame for anything, a lack of foresight would be it. Basically, these three centers extended their careers because of careful time management after it became evident that 30 minutes per game was unsustainable. At 7’6”, Yao is larger than Smits, Sabonis, and Ilgauskus. That would seemingly necessitate more cautious career management, but Yao gave Houston’s front office a big dose of “Serenity now, Insanity Later.”

Serenity Now – On young legs and less bulk, Yao was able to play in all but two games his first three seasons combined. As a 22 year old rookie, Yao averaged 29 mpg, the lowest average of his career. 29 mpg is higher than the career averages of the other three.

Insanity Later – In Yao’s fourth season Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones combined could not have saved Yao from the injury bug. In seasons 4, 5, and 6, Yao averaged only 53 games but saw an escalation in minutes from 34 mpg in 2005-06 at age 25 to a career high, 37 mpg, in 2007-08.

This season, the Rockets have implemented a time allowance that confers with the sustained health of the preceding giants – 24 mpg. Is it too late? Presumably not, if we are able to use the career arcs of Smits, Sabonis, and Ilgauskus as comparisons. Under careful management, each of Yao’s predecessors returned from injury and contributed at about their career per minute norm. But the question still remains: how much should Yao’s future seasons cost the Rockets…just kidding, I’ll stop.*****

*I know it was only the wild card game, but we were going all the way in the first half.

**This is the T-Mac I choose to remember. I understand the sense of betrayal most have, but he was really good before devastating defeats (the Orlando-Detroit series and the aforementioned Houston-Dallas series) dumped all over his psyche. Now, a bunch of Detroit kids will sound like Ray Kinsella when they talk about T-Mac: “I only saw him years later, when he was worn down by life.”

***Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabar were rumored to be at or above 7’3”, but the others are confirmed as such and possessed a skill-level that would otherwise belie it. Of the six, only Abdul-Jabar experienced sustained, All-NBA productivity. The rest battled chronic injuries to their lower extremities, especially to their feet.

****There is a reason Yao is not compared to Shaun Bradley and Manute Bol. That reason is talent.

*****In the final year of their respective careers:

Smits: 17.3 PER and accounted for 36% of the Pacers’ salary cap in 2000

Sabonis: 20.5 PER and 17% of the Blazers’ salary cap in 2003

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