The final chapter in the far too short career of one of the longest players the NBA has ever known. A man who will go down with the Abacus, Lenovo computers, and Kung Pao chicken among the greatest Chinese exports to the U.S.. Only 2 NBA players of note were taller than Yao Ming in the history of the sport, Gheorge Muresan and Manute Bol, and neither of them approached the skill level or success that Yao possessed. So now the question remains for those keeping score at home:
How do we judge the Yao Ming legacy?
Many will surely suggest (perhaps rightfully so) that Yao’s legacy was his ability to bring the NBA to the most populous nation in the world, forever changing the global reach of basketball. This is true – Yao Ming’s presence in the Internet era meant that it didn’t matter how injured you were; as long as you had millions of faithful Chinese nationals on your side, you were a shoo-in as the starter for the Western Conference All-Star team year in and year out.
Still, it would be unfair to Yao if his final headline was that of the NBA’s premier Chinese ambassador. Yao, simply put, was the greatest center of his size ever. His potential was never quite reached (though I’m not sure if it was far greater than what we witnessed) and we never really had the opportunity to witness him playing at the highest levels of competition, participating in only 4 postseasons during his 9 year career, and lasting at most a couple of rounds in each. NBA fans always waited for Yao to turn into a Shaq-like presence, hoping he would add a ferocity to his game that matched his skill. That was always a struggle for Yao, the perpetual gentle giant.
He could never seem to break through the consistent 20-10 games he would deliver on a night in, night out basis to become the dominant 30-15 force everyone thought he could be. He would show flashes of dominance at times, followed by long stretches where his opponent would effectively take him out of the game. When he was at his best, he seemed like he was toying with the opposing player around the rim, playing a game of volleyball that only he and the backboard were invited to.
In the final analysis however, Yao Ming compared favorably with his contemporaries. Well respected by those he played with, he trailed only Shaq in the decade of the 2000s among true centers. His stats also reinforce this story:
Career Per Game Averages
Career Advanced Statistics Averages
In a comparison against the other 4 great centers of the 90s and 00s – Patrick Ewing, Shaq, David Robinson, and The Dream – Yao’ s numbers aren’t vastly different. Normalized for minutes played, his points and rebounding numbers are nearly identical to his Hall of Fame worthy peers. His incredible free throw shooting (for a player his size) gave him the highest true shooting percentage of the group. While he will never be mistaken for Hakeem Olaujuwon at the defensive end, it’s no doubt his presence in the middle anchored the Rockets for many years.
So is he a Hall of Famer? The honest answer: just based on resume, the answer is no. Too short of a career + lack of playoff success make him a borderline candidate at best. His impact on the international game as well as the novelty of being the most skilled player of his size ever, will undoubtedly be the tiebreaker that gets him into Springfield. His Defensive Rating, which ranks him #2 on this list next to Shaq, would seem to validate that.
And somewhere, halfway across the globe, millions will rejoice.