The Yao Paradox — Is there such a thing as being too tall to play basketball?
It was once thought that Yao Ming would dominate the NBA. He was a mythical figure, the giant from the country of not-that-tall-people. Conventional basketball wisdom says that the taller you are the better. Therefore, if being tall is good, being huge is great. If being huge is great, being enormous is fantastic. Yao Ming is enormous. He is 7′ 6″, which puts him as one of the tallest players in the history of the NBA, and unlike Shawn Bradley and Manute Bol, he never battled anorexia. On top of that, he is incredibly skilled, a fact highlighted by his unusual (for a center) ability to make free throws. But, as Yao’s career comes to a close, it’s hard to acknowledge it was a success. His numbers were great, but his teams were mediocre, teams that squeeked into the playoffs and quickly exited… in fact, they often played better when he was injured.
How much of Yao’s success can be attributed to his 7′ 6″ height? It’s a fair question to debate. Certainly, it helped him get his shot off over almost anybody in the post. But here’s a more interesting question: how much of Yao’s failure can be attributed to his 7′ 6″ frame?
Lets look at the things that held Yao back:
1. Injuries. Yao started missing games his fourth season, when he missed 25. The next year he missed 34 and then year after that, 27. He was healthy during the 08-09 season but was injured in the playoffs and then missed the entire season in 09-10. After only playing 5 games in 10-11, he hung it up. His feet have always been the problem: stress fractures. What’s a stress fracture? It’s when your bones hate how big you are. Yao Ming’s bones wish he was smaller.
2. Defense. Check out the box scores from the 2007 first round match up between the Rockets and Jazz. Utah won the series 4-3 posting Carlos Boozer, and keeping their “center” Okur on the perimeter. Houston had a problem: Yao couldn’t guard Okur at the three point line and he couldn’t guard Boozer in the post, which is who Ming was primarily assigned to do. Check out Boozer’s stats from the series, he looked like Kevin McHale on steroids down there. Boozer, who stands 9 inches shorter than Yao, was too quick; the Jazz put Yao in a blender. I’m not here to say Yao even had a bad series — he shot the ball well and got his, but it was a match-up nightmare for him and his team. Was Yao too tall to guard Boozer? He was too slow to guard Boozer. But then again, how many 7′ 6″ guys have good foot speed? That’s correct: none.
3. Versatility. You know how we rave about some players like LeBron, Lamar Odom, and Josh Smith and their ability to play and defend multiple positions? Yao could only play one position, but that’s true of a lot of players. Unfortunately for Yao, he could also only play one style, which is not as common. Uptempo game? Yao’s in trouble. Defending on the perimeter? Uh-oh. Look, I know it goes both ways, and there have been plenty of teams that had big problems defending Yao, but once a guy like Yao is on your team, you can only play one style. Management then has to find players who work in that system, which requires good management, something the NBA does not have much of. For whatever reason, Rocket’s management never found the right mix of players, evidenced by the team’s chronic underachieving given their level of talent.
Is height ever a detriment? Would Yao have had a better career if he had been, say, 7′ 1″? Would he have had fewer injuries? Probably. Would he have been faster? Of course. Would he have been more versatile? Absolutely. And how much would he have lost from his offensive game? This was not a bad player — his career averages were 19 and 9. But I would venture that a 7′ 1″ big man (still plenty tall) with his shooting touch, basketball IQ, and improved quickness would have been able to still average that, if not more. You know what would have been scary: a 7 footer with Yao’s skills who could really move around the court… and was able to actually stay on it.
James Littlejohn is shorter than Yao Ming. You can follow him on twitter @jljCOMEDY