The Golden State Warriors landed a big man in James Wiseman with the second overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. While the selection didn’t really come much of a surprise given the Dubs’ glaring need for a center, the decision certainly reminded fans of another center that Golden State could have had if the lottery just bounced in their favor.
The last time the Warriors finished with the worst record in hoops, they had a chance to bring Yao Ming to the Bay Area. The 22-year-old towering 7-foot-6 center for the Shanghai Sharks was the surefire top pick. He almost came over in 1999, but greedy negotiating by his agency negated a deal–though he was projected to be a mid-to-late first round pick at the time.
Going back, Golden State won 21 games in 2001-02 and entered the lottery with a 22.5 percent of grabbing the highly-coveted top slot, compared to the 28-win Houston Rockets’ 8.9 percent chance. Alas, the ping-pong balls did not quite bounce their way, and the Warriors fell to the third spot, behind Houston and the Chicago Bulls, who drafted Jay Williams.
5/19/2002 – Despite having one of the best opportunities to win the top pick, Warriors get the 3rd pick in the 2002 NBA Draft Lottery. Rockets expected to pick Yao Ming. pic.twitter.com/loGS87x0zn
— This Day in Suck (@Thisdayinsuck) May 19, 2020
So how would Yao Ming have fared in Oakland? At the time, Golden State did not have the strong organization and culture it does today. In fact, the franchise had struggled since the Run-TMC era, and was in desperate need of a spark with Antawn Jamison and Larry Hughes just not cutting it.
From a basketball perspective, Yao got lucky with Houston. Surely, he would’ve improved Golden State significantly, but not more than Houston’s acquisition of Tracy McGrady in 2004—leading to four straight playoff appearances in Yao’s prime.
Over his eight-year career (2002-11)—which ended prematurely due to foot injures—Yao made eight All-Star games, five All-NBA teams, and averaged 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game. He carried on the legacy of great Rockets centers, but, more significantly, paved the way for basketball’s rapid growth in popularity in China—one of the many reasons for which was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016. Today, he’s the chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association.
With the exception of the “We Believe” moment in 2007—which likely wouldn’t have existed and make cool Warriors news had the team been built around Yao—Golden State didn’t truly turn around its fortunes until the drafting of Steph Curry in 2009 and new ownership in 2010. By then, Yao’s career was almost over.
Off-the-court, Yao had huge potential in Oakland, though his brand did just fine in Texas. Houston is America’s fourth-largest city with the ninth-biggest Chinese population—but the Bay Area (in its entirety) would be the nation’s second-biggest city and has the third-highest Chinese population with a rich history of Asian culture.
After missing out on Yao, the Warriors took Duke forward Mike Dunleavy Jr., who was solid but never a star. His best season with the Warriors came in 2004-05, when he averaged 13.4 points and hit 39 percent of his threes. On the plus side, he’s now an assistant general manager for the organization.