Monday, July 25, 2011

Does Yao Belong in the Hall?

Yao Ming decided to call it quits a few weeks back, officially making Shaquille O'Neal the second tallest player to retire since the action-packed 2010-2011 NBA season ended.  Ming was only 30 years old, but chronic foot injuries that plague many big men forced him into early retirement after missing the entire '09-'10 season and appearing in just five games last season.  By all accounts, the seven-and-a-half foot tall import from China exhibited class, humor, and respect for the game during his relatively brief eight year career.  Apparently he was one hell of a teammate as well, a great clubhouse presence.

And while he seems to have been a great guy off the court, the former first overall draft pick could also play some ball, too.  The question is, did he play well enough to earn a spot in the NBA Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA?

At first glance, the answer is a resounding 'no.'  He simply didn't play long enough to build an impressive statistical resume.  After playing in 244 out of a possible 246 games to start his career in the states, he was unable to maintain that level of durability for the remainder of his NBA life.  Only once, in 2008-2009, did he manage to stay on the court for more than 57 games after his third season, and as a result his career totals are pedestrian.  He recorded fewer than 10,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 1,000 blocks, and never advanced out of the conference semifinals despite playing for some incredibly talented Houston Rockets squads that paired him with fellow superstar Tracy McGrady.  A very good player, he never dominated any single season and, as a result, finished with just .002 MVP shares (ranks 218th all time) thanks to a fourteenth place vote in 2004 and twelth place vote in 2009. 

Clearly the voters did not perceive him as one of the game's elite talents, and we want to include this guy with Wilt, Magic and MJ?

There was nothing Yao could do to prevent the injuries; his massive frame betrayed him, so I don't think it's fair to blame him for his brief career.  Some players sabotage their careers by not working hard or staying in shape, thus squandering their talent and making their bodies more injury prone, but Yao was not one of those players.  He put his time in at the gym (even if his greatest asset, his height, wasn't going anywhere), but sadly he was just too big for his own good.  And like I said earlier, when he did play, he was everything you could ask for from a center. 

He averaged a Chris Bosh-esque 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting over 52 percent from the field and knocking down 83 percent (a truly astonishing level for a gargantuan center) of his shots from the charity stripe.  His teams may not have enjoyed much postseason success, but you can't blame Ming for that, either.  He practically replicated his regular season stat line in the playoffs by averaging 19.8 points and 9.3 rebounds with nearly identical field goal and free throw percentages.  A complete player, Yao played great defense, was agile around the basket and passed well for a big man.  He averaged more than 20 ppg in three seasons, double digits rebound numbers twice and made the All-Star team every year he played, including his final one when he missed 77 games.  The fan favorite was still very popular even in the twilight of his career.

Plus, I give him extra-credit for being an ambassador of the game.  He handled his transition to the U.S. with integrity and grace, and he made basketball much more popular in China.  His fame opened the NBA's door to another part of the world with over one billion inhabitants, and that kind of impact on the sport counts for something.  It's not the same, obviously, but I thought of how Jackie Robinson got into the Hall of Fame (despite only playing ten big league seasons) largely because he broke baseball's color barrier.  Granted, he won an MVP and a World Series title while suffering through racism everyday, but Yao's career arc followed a similar pattern; good, then great for a few years before suddenly falling apart.  They were both extremely skilled and unique trailblazers, so I the comparison is viable even if it's not completely equivalent.

Maybe Yao doesn't belong in the Hall; he looks like a borderline case at best and if I had to guess, I would say he probably won't make it in because he didn't play long enough or dominate the way his peers Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard have.  All I know is that he changed the game for the better and his contributions to the sport reached far beyond any basketball arena, so I would induct him for that alone. 

And did I mention he also played basketball pretty well?

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