Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Yao Ming of our Immediate Future

2007-08 Yao Ming Preview

Yao Ming | C | #11
Years Pro: 5
Height: 7-6 / 2,29

Weight: 310 lbs. / 140,6 kg

Age: 27 (Born: 11/12/1980)

Drafted: 2002, #1 overall by HOU
2008 salary: $13,762,775.00


LAST SEASON
'06-'07 was another season of ifs and maybes, if Yao hadn't gotten injured, then maybe he would have played well enough to win MVP. He definitely received enough hype early in the season. But while his game has certainly been on the rise (not only in the eyes of players and coaches but also in the consciousness of fans worldwide as his popularity as a player--and not just a global icon--has surged, I've even seen Yao jerseys in Washington Heights, NYC); his number of games played has not. Yao was able to make it back in time to finish up the regular season and enter the playoffs with some games under his belt, but he never quite looked comfortable in Van Gundy's offense of attrition.

Yao's been "due" for a breakout season for two years running now. So you can think about that in different ways, but I like to think of it as Yao's been ready for this for two years. His dying to let it out.

THE 2007-08 REGULAR SEASON
This isn't a fantasy basketball type of preview, but going through fantasy basketball projections gives you an idea of how the general public (or anyway, the media that represents the general public) predicts Yao's individual statistical productivity for the coming year. Most sources have Yao at least in the Top 3 of their center position picks. And based on statistics alone, we know John Hollinger has given Yao pre-season demagogue status for his new Cult of PER.

He has his own basis for why that is, but you'll have to read his breakdown and see if it makes sense to you. I for one am a newly converted Hollinger-man. You will be, too, when you check out the Rockets preview on ESPN, he's picked the Rockets to be #1 in the Southwest and #1 in the Western Conference. I didn't even do that. He even says don't be surprised if they win it all. So yea, I like how this guy thinks. But PER is one thing, I've got Yao will solidify his position as the top center of the league this season and much of it will do with the following observations:

The Adelman Way of Assisted Living
Low-post Yao brow-beat style will end up being thought of as a necessary experiment in a few years. Van Gundy's system instilled in him the type of grit and determination it takes to be a dominant player. You learn that best in the trenches. All that work required Yao to be a beast or get beat night in, night out. It also wore him down. So, it's a good time to change it up. Get the lesson without the beating. We already knew he had high post capabilities from the Rudy-T days and the ability to pass. Now, with this new system that switches it up so that defenses can't really get a bead, he'll continue to be one of the most versatile big men in the league.

With Yao operating in and out of the high post we'll see his assists go up (to about 3+ a game) and his turnovers go down. The more mobile he gets the better he will be. The motion-style offense makes everyone around him a threat to score and everyone a threat to find a teammate to score. The assists should add up to easier buckets. More cuts and more passes equals more open looks. But it wouldn't work without the additional weapons Adelman/Morey have added (and kept) on the roster. So, they got that going for them.

Efficiency vs. Dominance
It still impresses me that Yao finished '04-'05 shooting .552 percent from the field, and since his rookie year, he's never shot less than .500 from the field. Moving him from the low-post won't hurt that percentage. He'll only get more open looks; and we'll get to see how deadly that jump-shot is, particularly with back-cutting Rockets guards drawing heat to the paint.

Yao's trips to the line have increased every season and his FT% is ridiculous compared to other big men in the league (86% last season). But really, no one doubts his efficiency from the field or even his impact has a team player, meaning his effort, leadership and work ethic. What might be questionable, particularly to some in the national media, is his ability to take over games and carry a team to victory. But Rockets fans who are more than casual observers know he's gotten better at that every season and showed real signs of real dominance last season.

Again, Adelman's system will help. Whether in the low-post or high, Yao will facilitate the offense with T-Mac. They will initiate things, but not necessarily from the same spot. Even if neither of them take the actual shots, their adjustable presence on the floor forces opponents to have to constantly adapt on the fly, making it difficult to lockdown any one player. In this way, Yao can be dominate as a playmaker and finisher. No one will have to try and force it into the low-post with three defenders just waiting for the entry pass.

What will be interesting to see is if he's transfered that dominance to the defensive end of the court. That's a huge part of what Hakeem Olajuwon addressed in their workouts together this summer. Yao's already highly regarded as the best scoring center in the league, Hakeem and Jack Sikma's work with him over the summer should only make him better, but more can be done to improve Yao's D. He'll never be the kind of dominant defender Dream was, but there is certainly room for improvement in efficiently using his size and presence.

Setting the Tempo and the Magic of Mobility
The idea of Yao not being able to keep up with a more uptempo offensive style is overblown. Adelman has always had big men on his rosters that were effectively integrated and sometimes with a lesser skill set. The new offense will actually do much to cover for Yao's less-than-Amare-like footspeed by keeping him moving in the half-court--that sounds counter-intuitive, but perhaps ironically, the more Yao moves (in an offense that has him covering less ground that JVG's old pick and roll setup), his size and versatility--and the inability for defenders to play a sit and wait style of defense--will open things up. Yao will actually appear more mobile, much in the way Vlade Divac and Brad Miller did.

Drop the 'Injury Prone' Stuff
Again, you'll notice very quickly if you read those fantasy previews that no one disputes Yao's statistical productivity. But Amare is consistently given top pick status over Yao because they think he is less injury prone. Yao is "high risk" due to past injuries. It's funny, they never seem to say that about Amare, who's missed 47 more career regular season games than Yao and hadn't played an exhibition game until last night due to arthroscopic knee surgery. Amare has a recurring situation with his knees, Yao doesn't.

Yao was a horse for three seasons until he finally had surgery to fix an old toe injury; and then of course, last season's freak accident. Neither of these is necessarily recurring... but keep an eye on that toe. So think positive, there's no sense in expecting injury. Yao's leg is not Amare's knee and certainly not T-Mac's back.

THE PLAYOFFS
The Rockets will get out of the first round. With this much talent on the roster, to not reach the conference semis is simply unacceptable, even in the top-heavy Western Conference. I predict them to finish 2nd in the Division and 3rd in the West. There's more at Globetrotter's' Houston Rockets '07-'08 preview.

Bring on the Jazz again in the first round, which is likely. It would be nice to see Yao draw Boozer out to the perimeter the way he so effectively did to him last season; not to mention having a PF like Scola who can track down both AK-47 and Mehmet Okur. Having Bonzi, Mike James and Stevie around will make it awfully hard to double Yao or T-Mac. This far in, they should both be very familiar with the offense. It could be a beautiful thing watching Yao pick apart the defense from the high post.

The second round is another beast entirely. Likely facing San Antonio, Phoenix or Dallas, to advance against any of these three will be an upset to be sure, but I wouldn't it past this team if they hit a groove to reach the Finals. They've had the necessary parts to do it in place for three seasons, now they've just added some premium add-ons and more than just a little chrome.

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