The Houston Rockets had one of the most talented big men of all time playing for them, and it’s not Hakeem Olajuwon. It’s Yao Ming, the Rockets center who stood 7-foot-6 and was a monster in the NBA until his career got cut short due to ongoing injuries.
Yao played in China with the Shanghai Sharks from 1997-2002 before arriving in the NBA, and he played every year with the Rockets until 2011, when he fell off and was nowhere to be found in the basketball world.
He was the top overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft and it looked as if Yao was going to be one of the best players to play the game. Unfortunately, he wound up missing 250 games combined in his final six years in the league, and ultimately decided to call it quits.
However, we must ask ourselves this question: What would a healthy career for Yao Ming have looked like?
The Greatness of Yao
Yao was a handful in the NBA, and there was nobody in the league anywhere near the same height as him. When he came into the league in 2002, many analysts including then-reigning Finals MVP Shaquille O’Neal, recently retired Charles Barkley, and blogger Bill Simmons all believed he would be a bust in the NBA, and he sure proved them wrong.
It took a while for Yao to get the feel for the NBA game, but when he did he was an absolute monster down low.
He averaged double-digits in scoring in every season in the NBA as well as averaging at least 1.5 blocks. He averaged a double-double in two of those eight seasons and leading the Rockets to the playoffs time and time again.
Yao made the All-Star Game in all eight seasons and ended up being the leading vote-getter in 2003 over Shaq, who had just won three straight NBA Finals MVP awards, and his fans in China jumped on board and supported Yao every step of the way.
— NBA History (@NBAHistory) September 12, 2020
He was as dominant as it gets, and if he stayed healthy, he could’ve made a case for one of the best centers—and players—of all time.
Every NBA team dreaded the day they had to face the Rockets, and head coaches around the league tried and tried to come up with ways to stop the talented big man and the face of the Chinese sports world.
The greatness of Yao was set for takeoff with the Rockets, but injuries ruined his career before he had a chance to climb the record books and he never got an opportunity to make the NBA Finals.
Yao Ming had toe surgery, which caused him to miss some time, and then in 2006 he broke a bone in his left foot and was once again out for a while. It just kept getting worse for Yao as he broke his right knee in December of the same year.
The China native was healthy for a while and then in 2008, his career took a turn for the worse. He suffered a stress fracture midway through the year and ended missing the rest of the season, including the playoffs and the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. Then came the worst of it all as he suffered a hairline fracture in the playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers and the doctors said it was career-threatening.
Yao proved the doubters wrong and is in the Hall of Fame, nonetheless. However, a healthy Yao Ming would’ve shot through the records not just for the Rockets but also for the NBA. The Rockets could never seem to get McGrady and Yao healthy at the same time, and the combination of those two will go down in history as the biggest what-if.
When discussing all-time great players, especially centers, Yao absolutely deserves to be in that conversation regardless of how many years he played in the league. He finished his career with over 9,000 points, nearly 5,000 rebounds, and 920 blocks in his stint in the NBA, and his number was then retired by the Rockets in 2017.
Yao was impossible for teams to plan against mainly due to his size, and his ability to score the basketball and rebound as well as alter shots was off the charts. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016 along with Shaq, ironically.
There are always players whose careers get derailed due to injuries such as Yao, Brandon Roy, and Tracy McGrady—to name a few—and that’s part of the game. Yao was as good as it gets, and the question will always remain how good he and the Rockets would have been if he stayed healthy.