Friday, December 14, 2007

Creating a Tougher, Better Yao

I was forwarded by commenter, CYE, two different takes from the basketball blog HoopsVibe on Yao's recent assessment of the Rockets' lack of intestinal fortitude. They can basically be summed up as such: Oly Sandor proposes on his blog that Yao's stepping up vocally in a meaningful way is his coming-out party into legitimate superstardom, from second fiddle to franchise. The second is Jason Kelly's response to Sandor's blog, in which he believes that speaking out is not necessarily a mark of superstardom, but rather of maturing leadership. He believes that Yao should is the franchise and by default should be the leader, but Kelly feels like it's a role Yao's reluctant to take.

That's all very sensible, but I didn't think there was any debate on whether or not Yao was a superstar. Like it or not, Yao has been a superstar and so has T-Mac, that term has nothing to do with leadership, but of talent and great appreciation from fans. Yao and T-Mac are bonafide superstars but are they winners? I think that might be the more appropriate term. Because they are leaders already, whether unwittingly or consciously they lead this team, the Rockets can only go as far as they lead them. They might not fully realize the enormity of their impact yet, but Yao looks like he's starting to get the idea. So, they are superstars, they are leaders, no question, but are they winners yet? No.

But even Hakeem took a little while. He wasn't always unbeatable. Winners can often take time. Dream was once just an All-World athlete with anger management problems and no jumpshot. He worked on his game, and became a winner over the course of years of honing his craft, but he wouldn't have been able to do it alone. There were other winners on those Championship teams. Clyde, OT, Mario, Sam I Am, Kenny Smith, Robert Horry, even Mad Max. Does this current team have those kinds of winners?

It might not even matter, this isn't that team. Neither Yao or T-Mac have quite reached the "maturity" level mentioned in the HoopsVibe story to make a really significant Championship run. Talent is talent. Winning is a whole different monster. They need more time. Think about it like this, it's taken Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen this long to get on a legitimate contender, let's not start jumping the gun on Yao and T-Mac. Don't get it twisted, the Rockets need to right this ship right now, and a win in Detroit, is a righting those rudders, but this is still a long-term deal.

How many of us fans looked at this roster at the beginning of the season and started thinking Chip? Let's get the Rockets out of the first round first. Yao looks like he's up to the challenge. It looks as if he's finally embracing his role as a leader on this team. Let's face it, T-Mac, as talented as he is but with all his idiosyncrasies, he may never be the kind of leader (read: winner) we expect or are used to. I don't necessarily buy concrete formulas for winning when it comes to the very human arena of professional sports, but if it's a winner you're looking for, it's Yao we'll have to keep an eye on.

UPDATE (12/14, 10:42a): Jack McCallum over at SI.com has an interesting and tough take on Tracy McGrady.

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