Yao Ming: Was He Any Good?

During this long dark tea time of the NBA soul, the debates worth having have gone silent in the current game, replaced by a social media wasteland of pointless and endlessly rehashed fanboy arguments that resonate like we’re all stuck in the Devil’s sports bar for all eternity or until a vaccine is developed for Covid-19, whichever comes first.

Indeed, this very site has largely gone dark because (a) traffic in evergreen content is holding up just fine, and (b) I refuse to get suckered into those very arguments on a public NBA soapbox I take too much pride in to drag through the mud like that.

But every once in awhile, a reader gives me an idea that’s too good to pass up, and credit for this one goes to my longtime colleague at The Wildcard/Western Journal, Dave Kovaleski:

So welcome to what may well become a recurring feature, where the “Is He Any Good” format you know and love gets applied to the players of yesteryear to determine who’s overrated, underrated, or properly rated, and we begin with 8-time All-Star, 5-time All-NBA, and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Yao Ming.

And like how in the active-player version of this department, we rank the player against his perceived level of greatness (someone like Montrezl Harrell or Austin Rivers isn’t going to be compared directly to the likes of LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo), we’ll be doing the same for classic players (I have reserved this rule because I’m already thinking about how I want to say my piece about Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson. Trust me, I will get to him someday.)

With that in mind, Yao Ming is in the Hall of Fame. Welcome aboard the Sky-High Expectations train pulling into High Bar to Clear Station. Without further ado…

The Counting Stats

One of the first things we run into when trying to compare players across eras is a double-edged sword of pace-adjustment and league averages.

Yao averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds per game over an injury-shortened career that spanned only 486 games, the equivalent of just six full NBA seasons (close enough, anyway; 486 divided by 6 is 81.)

Per 36 minutes (again, injuries), that rises to 21 points and 10.2 rebounds. Can’t go wrong with a consistent 20/10 guy, the longtime gold standard for big men in the top echelon of the Association.

But let’s also consider that Yao’s second year in the league, 2003-04, was the most utterly putrescent non-lockout season (let us never speak of 1999) in the entire history of the NBA. The league-wide offensive rating of 102.9 was the lowest 82-game season average since the introduction of the 3-point arc in 1979. League pace was 90.1, tied for the slowest 82-game season in history (1996-97, the second year of Michael Jordan‘s second three-peat with the Bulls, was also played at a 90.1 pace thanks largely to Mike Fratello’s Cleveland Cavaliers, a team whose pace was barely faster than simply committing a 24-second violation on every possession.)

Yao put up 17.5 points and nine rebounds per game.

Let’s do a quick and dirty adjustment—I know this isn’t even close to apples-to-apples but it should serve as illustration of my point at least a little.

We’ll give him a 7.3 percent boost to his offensive stats thanks to the better Offensive Rating (110.2 in 2019-20; 102.9 in ’03-04) and an across the board 11.2 percent boost to points and rebounds to account for pace (100.2 this year; 90.1 then.)

Oh, and for what it’s worth, the last time the NBA topped 100 in pace for two straight years, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were still playing; it was in 1985-86 and ’86-87.

Anyway, 17.5 points and 9.0 rebounds becomes 20.9 points and 10.0 rebounds a game.

When you make similar adjustments for his entire career, that 19 and 9 per game in the Dark Ages looks more like 21 and 10 today.

The complete list of guys to post 21 points and 10 rebounds per game in 2019-20: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, and John Collins.

And of those four guys, only the Greek Freak played more than 50 games this year.

Same list, but for 2018-19: Giannis, Embiid, Towns, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook.

So you see where we’re going so far with the counting stats. But brace yourself for…

The Advanced Stats

Advanced stats should, by rights, be far more directly comparable across eras since they’re adjusted to league averages every year. So let’s take the big ones—PER, WS/48, BPM, and VORP—and see where Yao stacks up.

And yes, I’m including PER because in this case, a stat like that is normalized to league average and also serves as a “wow factor” stat since it’s essentially a fantasy score with a more complicated formula. It’s also blatantly tilting the odds for Yao since its emphasis on efficient scoring favors big men who play close to the basket.

For his career, he stands at a PER of 23, a WS/48 of .200, a BPM split of 2.0/1.2/3.2 overall, and a VORP/82 of 3.5.

.200 WS/48 is the line above which superstars are found (and, occasionally, the kind of guys who put up wow efficiency numbers that skew the stat; Domantas Sabonis came in at .197 in 2018-29.)

The .200 WS/48 club in 2019-20 (minimum 1000 minutes played) includes (in descending order of overall WS) James Harden, Giannis, Davis, Rudy Gobert, Damian Lillard, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Jimmy Butler, Luka Doncic, Hassan Whiteside, Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, and Jarrett Allen.

10 of those 13 guys (all except Whiteside, Middleton, and Allen) are legit superstars. Middleton is an All-Star. And Whiteside and Allen are in that Sabonis category (and yes, Sabonis is an All-Star too) of high-efficiency big guys who put up build-a-good-team-around-them numbers.

THE VERDICT!

But let’s put that aside. Here are the 22 guys who played at least the 486 career games that Yao got in before injuries ended his career and averaged .200 WS/48, sorted by descending total Win Shares (all these stats, of course, are via Basketball-Reference.com.)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, John Stockton, Tim Duncan, Oscar Robertson, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Paul, David Robinson, Charles Barkley, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kevin Durant, Bob Pettit, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Neil Johnston, Anthony Davis, and Kawhi Leonard.

Every one of those guys who is eligible is in the Hall of Fame. Everyone who is still active has a very real chance of ending up in the Hall if they’re not already one of those “if he retired tomorrow” mortal locks.

Hell, there are guys who aren’t even on this list who would make you do a double-take like “wait, really?” (Kobe Bryant, just for example, who ended up at .170 in part because he played a bunch of games as a raw teenager, in part because he wrecked his career averages in the last 2 years of his tenure, and in part because efficiency stats hate guys who put up huge usage rates like Kobe did.)

That’s the company Yao Ming is in. Add to that the massive impact he had on growing the NBA’s brand overseas, the huge connection he made between Houston and the Chinese basketball community (even Daryl Morey couldn’t break that bond despite his best efforts), and his marketability as a likable star (the “fame” in “Hall of Fame”) and there is no doubt that even though he only had less than 500 games to make an impact, an impact he did make big enough to leave a permanent mark on the NBA.

Was Yao Ming any good? Of course. 100 percent Confirmed.