February 26, 2008

I have quite a bit of respect for Yao Ming. The guy is a tremendous athlete for his size, has been well-spoken (despite the somewhat broken English still) and thoughtful the few times I’ve dealt with him, and carries the weight of an entire country’s basketball-crazy fan-base on his shoulders. Perhaps Yi Jianlian will share that in a few years, but for now, it’s all Yao’s. So I’m disappointed to hear that Yao is done for the season with a stress fracture in his foot. But I also feel vindicated after once again passing on my opportunities to draft Yao in fantasy leagues.

I’m always tempted to grab Yao early in 8-cat leagues because of his fabulous percentages – 52 percent career shooter, 82.6 percent from the line – and because I simply like having guys on my team who I can pull for. But the only time in Yao’s career I’ve had him on one of my fantasy teams was the 2003-04 season – his second and final 82-game campaign since entering the league.

Houston cut back Yao’s minutes a bit the next season and got 80 games out of him, but realized he was better than the 18 points, eight rebounds per game that he was putting up was far below his potential. And they were right.

But at 7-foot-6 inches, no matter how good of an athlete Yao is, he can’t play much more than 30 minutes per night and stay healthy. He’s proven it the last three seasons. In the 2005-06 season Yao needed toe surgery to deal with osteomyelitis and missed a total of 25 games. He averaged a then career-high 34:12 per contest that season.

Houston maintained Yao’s minutes the 2006-07 season and was rewarded with more of the same. The center suffered a fractured right tibia in December and ultimately missed 34 contests as a result.

Now Yao is 55 games into the season and the Rockets have a 12-game winning streak under their belts. Yao averaged more than 37 minutes per night in those 55 games, setting a new career high by three minutes per game. There’s no doubt that fantasy owners with Yao at center have been at least somewhat successful this season in part due to the 22 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and two blocks per game Yao has supplied. No one in the game can duplicate those numbers with the percentages he shoots. So once again, his fantasy owners will likely finish the season short of a championship.

My hope is that Houston figures out that no matter how great of an athlete Yao is, his body is simply too big to play much more than 32 or 33 minutes per night. Is it tough to leave him on the bench for 15 minutes per game, especially with your team still fighting for a playoff berth? Absolutely. But guess what? The Rockets aren’t getting to the playoffs with Dikembe Mutombo patrolling the paint.

Will Houston figure it out? It’s tough to say. I certainly wouldn’t bank on it. And I also wouldn’t select Yao in the first two rounds of a draft. If for some reason I did wind up with him you can bet I’ll be sending out trade offers before the calendar hits 2009 because I don’t want to be left holding the bag when Yao checks out early again. Perhaps he’ll do the same thing Marcus Camby did – shake off years of injury troubles to put up a couple ridiculous seasons – but fantasy owners reaping the benefits from Camby are doing so because they took him in the middle rounds. Yao’ numbers certainly are tempting enough that someone will take him in the first couple of rounds. But the best-case scenario there is that Yao reaches expectations, unlike Camby’s situation where he easily surpassed the expectations based on his draft position. Yao is too much risk compared to the reward as far as I’m concerned.

For once, though, I hope I’m proved wrong.


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