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Blame Yao

This Bill Walton column references the sorry state of the Houston Rockets several times and invariably implies that said sorry state is largely attributable to poor play by Yao Ming. Before the season started, John Hollinger wrote:

One of the strangest subplots of the season came when Houston struggled at the start of the year. Out of nowhere, a lot of "What is wrong with Yao Ming?" articles started popping up, as though it was clearly Yao's fault that Charlie Ward needed a walker to get across halfcourt. In truth, Yao already was well on his way to his best season as a pro and has shown slow but steady improvement in his three pro campaigns.

This is still true today. Yao is scoring 19.3 points per game along with 9.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.6 blocks. Almost every team would be glad to have a performer like that at center. The problem isn't that Yao is playing badly, it's that everyone else is playing terribly. Look here at how absolutely awful the Rockets are when Yao is off the floor.

December 4, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Interesting plus/minus stat on Yao, but check out the similar stats for the Pistons. Tayshaun Prince has a pretty extraordinary +34.5 plus/minus rating, and with exactly the same team minus rating as Yao for when he's off the floor, -18.8. I don't really know what that implies, but there it is. I wouldn't say that Prince is that much more valuable to Detroit than Billups, if at all, and yet Billups' plus/minus rating is only +2.7.

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 4, 2005 5:21:40 PM

Well, yes, there is that. But the Pistons are intuitively speaking a pretty uniquely balanced five person attack and Detroit has freakishly little lineup diversity as you'll see here. Nothing in their top ten most frequently used combos involved Billups and not Prince, and their 8-10 most frequent combos have each only been used for 15 total minutes, so it's not clear to me what the Billups/Prince comparison is even measuring.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Dec 4, 2005 6:26:00 PM

Pretty astute post. Bill Walton is an idiot who also happens to be (to my taste, at least) a very entertaining broadcaster.

The Houston problem is mystifying to some degree. On the other hand, two years ago, Orlando with a healthy McGrady started the season something like 1-19, so perhaps Tracy's shoulders are narrower than it might seem at first.

A few years back, I pegged McGrady as someone who would never win a title because he was good enough to always be the main man on a team, but not good enough to shoulder that kind of burden. When he ended up with Yao, I thought I'd guessed wrong, but now...

Posted by: Petey | Dec 4, 2005 6:58:23 PM

"I wouldn't say that Prince is that much more valuable to Detroit than Billups, if at all"

Huh? I thought it was pretty well accepted among Pistons cognoscenti last year that Tayshaun was the straw that stirred the drink.

I think he's a huge part of what makes them a special team. He's mismatch hell on the opposition on both sides of the court. And perimeter defense is a hugely underrated commodity in winning in the playoffs.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 4, 2005 7:11:41 PM

Trade Yao for Dampier and the Mavs are unstoppable.

Posted by: blah | Dec 4, 2005 7:25:31 PM

it has been proven time and time again that a center cannot be the lone star on a team... and without a good center it is virtually impossible to contend with the teams in the league right now. centers are basically anchors that run from one side of the key to the other. yao has more range than most centers, he can spot up and he's been effective on the pick and roll, but without some good guys on the perimeter to kick it too, there isnt that much he can do. luther head is a nice young player, but he's not rip hamilton, dwayne wade, or manu/tony parker. houston doesnt have the perimeter attack to really capitalize on yao's abilities. t-mac and yao can easily turn the rockets into a championship caliber team... is there anyone clutcher or more able than t-mac??? when the game's on the line that guy can do virtually anything he wants, and the rockets recent woes certainly speaks volumes about their reliance on t-mac to get things done.

Posted by: kurt thomas | Dec 4, 2005 7:58:46 PM

Re: Prince and Ming. Fifteen games is not an adequate sample size to draw any sort of conclusion. Most years, 18 or so is the best in the league so I would ignore a number like +34 as just a fluke. Last season, Prince did lead the Pistons in this Roland number and he's clearly a terrific player but Ming was in the middle of the Rocket pack.

The problem with the statistic is the high correlation of some players' minutes with others. Nobody really believes ( or should) that Ginobili is the third best player in the league but since his playing time tracks Duncan's so closely, he had a terrific net +/- in 2005.

Posted by: QuietStorm | Dec 4, 2005 8:18:16 PM

Huh? I thought it was pretty well accepted among Pistons cognoscenti last year that Tayshaun was the straw that stirred the drink.

He's very valuable for a number of reasons, but all their starters are critical to their success, as you yourself agreed with MY on in a previous thread (I agree with that as well). My only point with my first post above in this thread is that I don't think any one of their starting five are clearly more or less valuable than any of the others.

it has been proven time and time again that a center cannot be the lone star on a team...

Usually, I guess that's true, although it can work out OK if he's Hakeem Olajuwon.

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 4, 2005 8:26:42 PM

Fifteen games is not an adequate sample size to draw any sort of conclusion.

Fifteen games does strike me as a pretty decent sample size from which to draw conclusions about why the Rockets have been so bad this season, which was the question at hand. The point is that Yao has been putting up very good numbers, notwithstanding the fact that his team sucks. As we can see, they're much worse with Yao off the floor.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Dec 4, 2005 9:09:25 PM

As we can see, they're much worse with Yao off the floor.


Well, jeez, if Yao and McGrady aren't on the floor, who on that team can score? Nobody. So that +/- stat really ought not be surprising.

Posted by: Al | Dec 4, 2005 11:06:57 PM

Well jeez AI, thats the whole point, it is the rest of the team that sucks, not Yao

Posted by: A2 | Dec 4, 2005 11:33:43 PM

Well jeez AI, thats the whole point, it is the rest of the team that sucks, not Yao

Just because Yao is better than the rest of his team doesn't mean that he doesn't suck. It just means that he sucks less than everyone else.

Posted by: random person | Dec 5, 2005 12:03:18 AM

Al's point is not entirely without merit. While +/- is a useful measure of something, as with every other basketball stat, it doesn't necessarily tell the full story.

Yao is the second coming of Rik Smits. And while that may seem like a put-down, it really ain't too shabby.

He's probably never going to be enough on his own to lead a team to the promised land, but he's an exceedingly valuable part of a potential championship squad.

If you're expecting him to be the second coming of Hakeem or Kareem, you'll be disappointed. But a competent GM should be able to put together a team around him that can challenge.

(And, of course, this raises the crucial question of whether Yao could seriously raise him game if he changed his first name from Ming to Meem. It seems the "eem" ending is crucial for skinny dominant centers.)

Posted by: Petey | Dec 5, 2005 5:47:47 AM

Yao is only 25 or something ridiculous like that... give him a chance to hit 27 before you write him off. as for rik smits, hakeem and kareem... had rik smits not been hobbled by bad feet, he'd have been one of the great centers of his time period. he wasnt david robinson, hakeem, or patrick, but he wasnt too far behind those guys either... he matched up very well ewing in all of those knicks-pacers eastern conference finals.
As for kareem and hakeem... both of those guys had awesome teammates. the dream had clyde drexler, kenny smith, robert horry, sam cassell, vernon maxwell, otis thorpe, mario elie, and dont forget carl herrera. kareem's floormates included magic johnson, james worthy, and oscar robertson... and that's probably the best comparison for yao and t-mac. while i never saw the bucks march to the NBA Championship, i'm assuming that the Big O and Lew Al were the focal point of that team. In the end no one player is enough to win a championship... even jordan by himself couldnt have won a ring.

Posted by: kurt thomas | Dec 5, 2005 8:46:32 AM

Kurt:

Your argument would have been more compelling if you hadn't classed Ewing with Kareem and Hakim (and possibly Robinson). I think you're right that Smits isn't a bad guy for Yao to be, but I'd be more sure of it if you hadn't included Ewing.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Dec 5, 2005 9:04:21 AM

The problem with +/- ratings is that the high correlation of players's minutes with each other make them very "noisy" statistically speaking. Dan Rosenbaum, who publishes an adjusted +/- ratings on 82games.com, normally uses data from two full seasons to reduce the error margin. Still, I agree with Matt's point. Yao-Mcgrady are not the problem; the rest of Houston roster is the problem. And while Yao may never be an MVP kind of center, he certainly is a very good center (better than Rik Smits, too, although the comparison is understandable).

Posted by: Carlos | Dec 5, 2005 9:08:38 AM

As for kareem and hakeem... both of those guys had awesome teammates. the dream had clyde drexler, kenny smith, robert horry, sam cassell, vernon maxwell, otis thorpe, mario elie, and dont forget carl herrera.

Mario Elie and Carl Herrera were "awesome"? Um, yeah, whatever. Vernon and The Jet were both pretty good players at the time, but neither of them were stars. Same for Horry and Cassell, both of whom were just starting their careers (and Cassell was still coming off the bench). OT was the second-best player on their '94 title team, but again, not a star. The Glide was still quite good when they got him in '95, but certainly past his prime. So while Hakeem didn't win those titles all on his own, he definitely was the only bona fide star player on those teams.

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 5, 2005 9:34:41 AM

haggai, the phrase awesome teammates doesnt mean all-stars. in the same way that the pistons have balance and not individual superstars, so too did the rockets. mad max, elie, smith, and cassell were good guards that played solid defense, scored when they needed to and competently ran the offense. clyde drexler is in the hall of fame so that should settle that, otis thorpe was a solid double double, and carl herrera was just a funny throw in (if he doesnt make you laugh... fine). the end point was that the rockets were a complete team, and that allowed hakeem to score 25+ a game and dominate on the inside. yao doesnt have those kinds of teammates.

i didnt include ewing in the same class as kareem... all i said was that the best centers of that era were Robinson, Hakeem, and Ewing... that's beyond dispute. Patrick Ewing is a legitimate hall of famer who deserves the praise he received over his career... i personally don't like Ewing, but no one can take away his great accomplishments.

Posted by: kurt thomas | Dec 5, 2005 11:24:22 AM

Oh, you meant "awesome" as in "awesome as teammates"...OK, that makes a lot more sense, and I do agree with that. And yes, in that context, Carl Herrera is pretty amusing. But don't forget about Charles Jones!

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 5, 2005 11:52:51 AM

Can we also admit that '94 was just an anomalous year for the NBA? That was by far the worst year for the league, in terms of talent, that there has been since Magic/Larry entered. The '94 Rockets were pretty good, but would never have won the title in any other year.

Also on Yao - there is also a bit of a comparison against expectations so far. I think a lot of people were expecting him to come into the league and be on a Shaq/Hakeen level almost immediately. That was the hype. Instead, he's somewhere between Rik Smits and Patrick Ewing so far. That's just not living up to the expectations. Now, it seems as though the expectations were unfair - and certainly Yao himself didn't have anything to do with raising them to the levels they were at. Nonetheless, people are going to a bit disappointed and will take it out on him a bit... (And, frankly, Walton should be one who would guard most zealously against comparing a player to unrealistic expectations, given Walton's NBA career. But I guess not...)

Posted by: Al | Dec 5, 2005 2:09:56 PM

i'd agree that the years that jordan played baseball opened up the nba to other teams, but isnt it possible that that second champion rockets team, the one drexler, would have pushed the bulls harder than any other team? it's all speculation... but i'd like to think that the second championship team would have beaten pippen, paxson, jordan, armstrong, grant, cartwright, longley, and the rest... the bulls never matched up against an hakeem, though they did dismantle ewing on a number of ocassions. as i see it, the sonics, jazz, suns, and blazers all lacked a guy as good as hakeem in the middle.

Posted by: kurt thomas | Dec 5, 2005 3:00:04 PM

I dunno, the evidence from the two separate three-peats strikes me as a pretty strong indication that the Jordan-Pippen Bulls were simply unbeatable. Keep in mind that the 1995 Bulls were a second round playoff team. I think that if you take pretty much any second-round team from any year and then add Michael Jordan that you're looking at a serious championship contender. Keep in mind that the '96 Bulls -- essentially the '95 Bulls plus Jordan and Dennis Rodman -- won 72 games. If the '95 Bulls plus Jordan and Rodman were an utterly unstoppable force, then I think the '95 Bulls plus Jordan are a championship team.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Dec 5, 2005 3:59:05 PM

Well, Jordan was on the '95 Bulls playoff team, after re-joining them late in the season, and they lost in the second round to Orlando. Obviously they would have been in a better position to make a title run if he had come back at the beginning of that year, but it's not so clear that they would have won the title in that scenario, which was also after Horace Grant left town and before they got Rodman. Hakeem in '94 and '95 was playing on a considerably higher level than any other big man that the Bulls ever faced in the playoffs when they had Jordan, so a finals match-up between those two teams certainly would have been interesting.

And while the title-winning Bulls teams almost never had any of their series go to a full seven games, they did have several series with lots of close games (against the Knicks and the Suns in '93, just to name two), plus the seven game conference finals against Indy in '98, which they came within a hair's breadth of losing. As deserving of their championships as those Bulls teams were, I defintely wouldn't say they were all unbeatable (I would say that about very few teams in NBA history).

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 5, 2005 4:16:28 PM

"the end point was that the rockets were a complete team, and that allowed hakeem to score 25+ a game and dominate on the inside. yao doesnt have those kinds of teammates."

Kinda missing the point. Of course Hakeem needed a serious team around him to win titles, but that's the easy part. Put Hakeem in his prime on today's Heat minus Shaq, or today's Spurs minus Duncan, or today's Suns minus Amare and he'd be in the catbird seat to pick up another ring. You can't say the same for Yao.

Hakeem was a dominant player who could allow lesser players to find a niche and shine. Yao is not dominant, he's "merely" a blue-chip complementary player who will need more than a squad of good role players to thrive. He's not going to make the lesser players around him shine.

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"Patrick Ewing is a legitimate hall of famer who deserves the praise he received over his career... i personally don't like Ewing, but no one can take away his great accomplishments."

Ewing must have the most repellent personality in all of history. Basically every story ever told an interaction with him is negative, whether they come from teammates, opposing players, fans, reporters, or whoever. Helluva player, helluva warrior, but there must've been something seriously weird about Patrick.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 5, 2005 4:40:02 PM

"Keep in mind that the 1995 Bulls were a second round playoff team."

And let's not forget that the '94 Bulls were only defeated by a Hue Hollins call on a phantom "foul" on Scottie Pippen.

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While we're on the topic, with all the Lamar Odom and Larry Hughes / Pippen comparisons we've been hearing, the guy in the league who most reminds me of Pippen is Tayshaun Prince. Odom and Hughes may have Pippen's role, but Prince has Pippen's body and a good part of his game.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 5, 2005 4:52:50 PM

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