The Forgotten Dynasty
Can Yao Ming bring a championship to Houston in 2011?
by Pardeep Toor
Forgive me for questioning the validity of the Los Angeles Lakers 2009 Championship run. Yes, Kobe got his post-Shaq ring, redemption, vindication, magazine covers, late-night television appearances in jumpsuits, photo-ops at Disneyland with his kids, an embrace with his wife on the court and a chance to nationally justify his fabricated scowl. Fact. Yet, I’m convinced more than themselves, the Lakers have a to thank and pay sacrifices to the ill-timed combustion of Yao Ming’s foot for all the glory and legacy-chat (looking at you, Kobe) that was bestowed upon them.
The Lakers had no answer for Ming in the post early in the series and even without him, they were taken to seven games by a team who was missing their best and most efficient scorer, the centerpiece of the offense. Fast-forward almost a year now and much improved Rockets team on paper is out of the playoff picture while the Lakers continue their dominance and again the dichotomy between the two teams is not talent or effort on the court, but the health of Ming’s left foot.
When healthy, Ming is one of the most calculated and proficient scorers in the League but his inability to finish a season has been tantalizing. Even after taking on salary at the trade deadline and diminishing their cap space this off-season, the Rockets are still expected to be aggressive in free agency but maybe they are banking on Yao to be their big and only acquisition?
Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle reported earlier this week that Yao is very much a crucial part of the plan:
Yao Ming remains the key to everything for the Rockets. That’s the bottom line, right, Daryl Morey?
“Yes,” he said.
After all of Morey’s precise calculations and smart moves, the most important step to making the Rockets serious contenders next season requires a leap of faith.
“We have to bet on Yao,” the general manager said. “There’s no other way to go at this point.”
But the question surrounding Yao has little to do with this game but whether he can be relied on for a full regular-season and a championship playoff run after that.
The current Rockets team that was re-assembled on the whim at the trade deadline is already the third era built around Yao. He began his career with the high-flying Steve Francis and Cutino Mobley combo, which was then exchanged for Tracy McGrady and his accompanying first round playoff disappointments. The current core is the most talented, balanced and deepest team Yao will play on in his career. Defensively they are long and aggressive with Shane Battier, Trevor Ariza and Jared Jeffries; have sound complementary bigs in Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes; two points guards who crash the paint in Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry and most recently added Kevin Martin — a prolific scorer who will be lethal once Yao attracts the second defender in the post next season.
This Rockets team has been personally assembled for Yao to step in, dominate and make a serious championship run but the question persists: to what extent can Yao be relied upon?
Each of Yao’s last four seasons have ended due to injury making his departure from the association an annual event that results in a myriad of “here we go again” columns from the media and a collective sigh, which was once a gasp, from fans.
Yao’s ability to bounce back and return to his 20/10/2 with handsome percentages becomes a more philosophical question than one related to basketball. It depends on whether some people are truly unlucky and more prone to injury than others or if hurt is just a chance occurrence that has little connection with previous ailments.
For every early tragedy like Greg Oden, there is light at the end like Grant Hill. For each Ming, there’s a Kenyon Martin and Amar’e Stoudamire – players who have gathered themselves after serious bodily trauma to play ball at an elite level again. Fates can change – that’s why I watch basketball — to experience a lifetime’s worth of highs and lows condensed in a few seasons.
With Ming, a 2010 Daryl Morey lottery-pick and a few dollars available to spend in free agency, the Rockets are primed to make a run next year. After the trade deadline, it appears the Rockets have built the outline of championship-caliber team with the presumption of planting the big man in the center to put them over the top. The three-point shooting, diverse array of big men, perimeter defense and quick guards all appear to be aligned with the assumption that Ming returns and is productive as he’s ever been. With Yao and the current cast next year, power shifts in the Western Conference a tad toward the Rockets. Without him, they don’t make the leap from a borderline playoff team to a potential championship one. In 2010-11, unlike the current and last year, though, I imagine there is a backup plan in Houston should history once again repeat itself.