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The Book of Yao

That’s all folks. On the same day the last space shuttle was launched, the most famous Rocket has been permanently grounded.

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

Patrick Ewing 1183 34.3 0.504 0.74 9.8 1.9 1 2.4 21
Yao Ming 486.00 32.50 0.52 0.83 9.20 1.60 0.40 1.90 19.00
Shaquile O’Neal 1207 34.7 0.582 0.527 10.9 2.5 0.6 2.3 23.7
David Robinson 987 34.7 0.518 0.736 10.6 2.5 1.4 3 21.1
Hakeem Olaujuwon 1238 35.7 0.512 0.712 11.1 2.5 1.7 3.1 21.8

Career Advanced Statistics Averages

Patrick Ewing 21 0.553 0.505 106 99 45 81.4 126.4 0.15
Yao Ming 23 0.596 0.525 112 99 36.7 29.3 65.9 0.200
Shaquile O’Neal 26.4 0.586 0.582 113 101 115.4 66.4 181.7 0.208
David Robinson 26.2 0.583 0.519 116 96 98.5 80.1 178.7 0.25
Hakeem Olaujuwon 23.6 0.553 0.513 108 98 68.3 94.5 162.8 0.177

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.


4 Responses to “The Book of Yao”

  1. nice article, agree. yao was dominant when he was on, he could have gone down as better than shaq imo if he had been without injury and just added a little swag to is game.

    Posted by drinkinghaterade | July 9, 2011, 7:25 pm
  2. the big difference is in the number of games played. Yao Minh only 486 compared to the next lowest of David Robinson of 987; thus the AVERAGES are similar, but Yao didn’t get to a downside of his career. It could be argued that the downside could have been mitigated by his skill level, but I don’t see any evidence that would have been true. Interesting the difference in FT% compared to the rest.

    Posted by Paulie Walnuts | July 10, 2011, 11:35 am
    • Paulie — thanks for the comment. I actually considered this argument while I was writing the article, and decided that I was comfortable with the comparison for a few reasons:

      * minutes played: often, player stats tend to go down as they get close to retirement because their minutes played per game drops. We saw this phenomenon occur with Kobe Bryant this year as Phil limited his minutes (though his per minute averages were consistent with the peak of his career). Yao was below all his peers in minutes played per game, so some accounting for downsides/etc. has been taken into account by this metric.

      * that being said, there is another part to this argument where the skill level deteriorates as a players career progresses. I would argue that the injuries Yao encountered in his 4th season prevented him from reaching a sustained peak that would have allowed his stat line to be even better. During his first 5 seasons, Yao averaged more points each year culminating with the 5th season where he averaged 27/10 in only 48 games. My sense is that if Yao was completely healthy, we would have seen at least 3-4 more of these types of seasons.

      Posted by Brown Mamba | July 10, 2011, 11:41 pm
      • I agree that looking at the rates can put a certain context on the relative value of Yao, it tends to cloud the relative value to the other players.

        Greatness has to be measured by volume as well as efficiency.

        Yao has only 15818 minutes played compared to Robinson 34271 MP, Shaq’s 41918, Hakeem’s 44222, and Ewing’s 40594.

        Hakeem, Robinson and Shaq were all MVP winners. Hakeem and Robinson won Defensive Player of the Year Awards (Hakeem 2x).

        Yao had peaks of 25.0 ppg and 9.0 rpg; Robinson had 29.8 and 13.0,(4.0 blks), Hakeem 27.8 and 14.0 (4.6 blks), Shaq 29.7 and 13.9, Ewing 28.0 and 12.1.

        Yao had no black ink; Shaq led the league in FG% and PPG 2x10x, Hakeem in RPG 2x blocks 3x, Robinson blocks, RPG, and PPG.

        While we can conclude that injuries dampened a very good career for Yao, he was clearly NOT in the class with the others.

        Yao was a very effective and valuable player that a team needs to win a championship, yet there is no evidence that he had greatness in him.

        Posted by paulie walnuts | July 11, 2011, 12:07 pm

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