Why Yao Ming is historically underrated
With no sanctioned NBA games to watch, basketball fans have resorted to watching classic games and having debates about former greats. Whether it's "Would Allen Iverson thrive in the modern NBA?" or "How good was Scottie Pippen at his peak?", fans have found comfort in having their favorite offseason arguments in this unknown period.
One such debate that blew up on social media this week was "Who was better in their prime: James Harden or Tracy McGrady?". The question presumably suggests that McGrady's peak as a player isn't properly appreciated in NBA history. While it's reasonable suggestion to entertain, I think it's ultimately incorrect. (The original question itself is so ridiculous, it's not worth addressing.)
McGrady is talked about all the time as an NBA "What if?" and his frequent appearances on ESPN's "The Jump" are a constant reminder of that.
His seven-foot-six former teammate, however, may be one of the most underrated NBA players of all time. Yao Ming, even after being inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016, does not receive the proper historical appreciation he deserves. If you're not sold, here's a question: When was the last time you remember someone outside of Houston or China discuss Yao Ming in a serious basketball conversation? Being that I follow a heavy amount of basketball media and fans on Twitter, I went ahead and searched his name with those filters and this is the latest tweet I found:
The latest tweet was March 4, twenty seven days ago (shout out to @AndrewDBailey). As a point of comparison, "Grant Hill" was tweeted ten times in the same time frame. At the peak of his powers, Yao was simply better than Hill. There are people reading this that probably rolled their eyes or disagree, but here are both of their best seasons, balanced out per 100 possessions:
Grant Hill (1996-97):
55.6% True Shooting
25.5 Player Efficiency Rating
Yao Ming (2006-07):
60.1% True Shooting
26.5 Player Efficiency Rating
Yao was better than '97 Grant Hill in the season prior as well, but we hardly talk about him in the same breath. In fact, when he was getting inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2016, he received far more credit for his global expansion of the game than his on-court play. His actual basketball career was treated as secondary to the fact that he opened the Chinese markets to the NBA.
Perhaps it's simply because of Yao's lack of longevity, but while Hill had a longer career, he has the same amount of seasons with a PER above 19.8 to Yao (Hill had 7, Yao had 8). I don't mean to pick on Grant Hill, because you could do this exercise with other players as well.
Let's take a look at Brandon Roy, who was tweeted 7 times between March 9th and today by non-Trail Blazers fans that I follow. Roy, similarly to Hill, is on Mount Rushmore for "What if?" NBA stories. He is a cult hero to NBA fans and if I told you right now that Yao Ming was better, many would think I'm crazy. Here is Roy's peak season compared to Yao's second best season for per 100 possessions.
Brandon Roy (2008-09):
24.0 Player Efficiency Rating
57.3% True Shooting
Yao Ming (2005-06):
25.6 Player Efficiency Rating
59.2% True Shooting
Again, this is compared to Yao's second best season. Yao also played 160 more regular season games than Roy, so it's not as if Roy had better longevity. So if Roy's ceiling as a player was lower than Yao's and he played significantly less games, why is he consistently brought up in conversation more today than Yao?
It's hard to answer that. The answer could be a deeper and uncomfortable one, but we'll never really know. Assuming the best intentions, it's possible the general public (basketball fans included) viewed Yao as more of a novelty than a high-level, impact player. Given his short-lived career, that sounds totally feasible.
The bottom line is, we don't talk enough about just how good Yao Ming the basketball player was. Since we just listed some of his incredible statistics, let's start with his offensive game.
From the right block, Yao was impossible to guard one-on-one. At 7'6" with a feathery touch, it was a non-starter.
In addition to the touch, Yao had really good footwork and strength. You had to throw a double because brute strength and height wasn't enough.
If all else failed and Yao got hacked at the rim, he was an excellent shooter. Yao retired as a career 83.3% from free throw range and actually never shot below 85.3% after his third season. His free throw shooting translated over to his jump shooting, which was another strength of his. Yao was an excellent mid-range jump shooter. Not only on deep-post fadeaways, but on catch-and-shoot jumpers.
Yao Ming from midrange:
45.3% on 3.5 attempts per game
38.8% on 5.1 attempts per game
47.3% on 5.4 attempts per game
40.0% on 5.0 attempts per game
46.6% on 3.8 attempts per game
50.0% on 2.4 attempts per game
In today's NBA, Yao would classify as one of the few players good enough to justify shooting mid-range jumpers. There's even a possibility he gets stretched out to three-point range.
Yao was also a decent passer out of the right block.
Now we get to what really made Yao Ming special: his defensive ability. He was a good shot blocker, elite rim protector, and could move laterally well for someone his height. He basically closed off the paint for the Rockets from the time he was drafted to when he retired.
From 2002 to 2009, the Rockets never fell below a top ten defense and only fell below top six once. That insane level of consistency obviously had a lot to do with head coach Jeff Van Gundy, but Yao deserves a ton of credit for basically closing off an entire area of the court.
On/Off statistics are scarce for the time Yao played in the NBA, but Basketball Reference has the defensive ratings for every year of his career.
Now, the Rockets had some excellent defenders through the early 2000s including Shane Battier, Ron Artest, Dikembe Mutombo, etc.. However, Yao was the glue that held that team together defensively for the better part of a decade. He was the one constant.
Yao's game was as well-rounded as it gets and yet it feels like we talk about him historically as much as we talk about Tyler Hansbrough. That has to change. When we bring up "What if?" Mount Rushmore, "What if Yao Ming stayed healthy for 12 years?" has to be in the conversation more than it is right now.
Yao deserves better.