TrueHoop: Yao Ming
He finished with career averages of 19.0 points and 9.2 rebounds, including two seasons when he averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds. He retires sixth in Rockets history in points (9,247) and rebounds (4,494), and trails only Olajuwon in blocks.
From 2002-09 -- the first seven seasons of his career -- no center scored more points than Yao, who also ranked in the top four at the position in rebounds, blocks and field goals.
In his last full season (2008-09), Yao ranked second among centers in scoring (19.7 PPG) and did much of his damage in the post. That season, no player shot a better percentage from the floor on post-up plays (52.9), and his 964 post-up points were the most anyone scored in a single season since the 2005-06 season.
At 7 feet, 6 inches, Yao goes down as the tallest player in Rockets history, and among the tallest to ever play in the NBA along with Gheorghe Muresan (7-7), Manute Bol (7-7) and Shawn Bradley (7-6). In fact, among players listed at 7 feet, 2 inches or taller only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finished with a higher career scoring average (24.6).
Yao also was a terrific free throw shooter -- especially for his size. Among players with at least 1,000 free throws made, Yao ranked second among 7-footers in highest free throw percentage (83.3), behind only Dirk Nowitzki's 87.7.
However, injuries cut short his career. He missed 250 of a possible 492 regular-season games in his last six seasons, including the entire 2009-10 campaign. In fact, his eight seasons played (which includes five games he played last season) is tied for the second-fewest of any player taken No. 1 overall in the common era of the draft (1966). Only LaRue Martin, taken by the Trail Blazers in 1972, spent less time in the NBA (four seasons).
I never did take Yao up on his offer of occasional language lessons. Truth be told, I was probably too lazy to assume such a massive undertaking, and I was without question far more interested in picking his brain about basketball and other assorted trivialities like his Transformers obsession (I’ll never forget the smile on his face when he regaled me with the tale of the time he bartered his way to a bargain basement price for a 3-foot tall Optimus Prime figurine).
There was something else that held me back, however; something I’m not particularly proud to admit: I took Yao for granted. I just always assumed he’d be there. Never once back then did I pause to contemplate the possibility that his days – as they are for every athlete, however great they may be – in a Rockets uniform would be numbered. Surely I’m not unique in that regard; stopping to consider our own and others’ mortality just isn’t something that’s frequently done. Humans are rather funny and flawed that way; we understand change is constant and acknowledge the fact we should always expect the unexpected, yet carry on with our lives in a manner that tends to suggest tomorrow will be no different than today. Perhaps that’s not a flaw at all. Maybe it’s just called survival.
Either way, there I stood several years ago, in a corner of Philadelphia’s visiting locker room, next to this giant of a man. Yao was seated, hands behind his head, relaxed and at ease as he patiently fielded pre-game questions in two different languages for what must have seemed like the 18,234th time. I casually mentioned how I’d been contemplating Mandarin lessons during the offseason as a means of improving my ability to communicate with both him and the Chinese media. At that moment Yao leaned forward, excitement flashed across his face and he said he’d be happy to help me however he could.
I remember during the 2002 draft, I was convinced that any team passing on Jay Williams would be sorry for decades to come. I was a big fan of his coming out of Duke because I thought his athleticism and mystique (as cliché as that sounds) were just too special to pass up. When he was being passed over for a 7'6" Chinese center, I immediately thought it was simply nothing more than a publicity stunt by the Rockets. A risk that would blow up in their faces as he was too slow and weak to go against the physicality and rigors of the NBA game.
It didn't take long for me to change my mind. A few games into his rookie season, I was dumbfounded by the amount of skill he had. I was amazed at the way he moved. Guys his size weren't supposed to move like that. When Gheorge Muresan stumbled down the lane and threw a behind-the-back pass, it was a highlight of all highlights for centers his size. When Yao Ming got the ball moving toward the basket as a young player, he didn't stumble into plays; he rocked the rim.
The biggest thing that impressed me about Yao was the way he performed with immense pressure weighing down his enormous frame. If an international player like Andris Biedrins failed in starting a successful career in the NBA, he essentially let down 2.2 million Latvian residents. That's not a small number of people to let down by any means, but when you compare it to the pressure Yao faced every night to perform and succeed in the honor of 1.3 billion people, it seems to mean just a bit more for him to be a success.
Even though Yao had to retire after just nine seasons, he was absolutely a success in the NBA. At his peak, he was the best center in the league and an MVP candidate (the way he played in 2006-07 season despite just playing 48 games). But more importantly, he handled the role of global ambassador perfectly while he proved judging a book by its cover was never the way to go.
In a league in which we're wowed routinely by guys the size of Muggsy Bogues, Earl Boykins, and JJ Barea, we shouldn't forget how Yao proved the majority of people wrong. Sure, he stumbled from time to time and had brief moments of being embarrassed, but so has every player who has ever played this game. Yao Ming proved his doubters wrong in a relative way to how the smallest players in NBA history surpassed expectations.
We've all probably read a lot of Yao retrospectives over the past week or so, but Friedman's piece glimpses a bit more into the human side of him than most. It reminded us that Yao was always willing to take more responsibilities onto his plate because he was capable of handling just about anything. It's a shame his feet weren't able to do the same.
In reality, they were already doing it. In case you hadn't noticed, Houston has completely transformed itself into an up-tempo outfit, playing the league's fifth-fastest pace even with waterbug point guard Aaron Brooks sidelined for most of the year. And they've done it well enough to rank 10th in the NBA in offensive efficiency heading into Friday's blowout of Memphis.
Moreover, while an 11-15 record doesn't sound promising, Houston has scored more points than it has allowed and played a tougher-than-average schedule thus far. No, the Rockets won't be ripping off a 22-game winning streak, but the playoff odds tool gives Houston a roughly 50-50 chance of making the playoffs, and the tool doesn't know how little Brooks has played thus far.
So the Rockets will survive in the short-term. They were two games over .500 without Yao a year ago and may repeat the performance this year.
A second question is what becomes of their status as contenders in the West, but that's something that's old news in Houston, as well. The Rockets have been trying to put together a deal for another star player for eons and rival GMs say they've been among the most active teams again this year; presumably, all that commotion wasn't just so they could land Terrence Williams.
Williams, in fact, is a piece in a larger Houston strategy of trying to convert some of its many red chips into a blue chip. The Rockets have depth to spare at several positions, with the addition of Williams creating a crowd at the wings and first-round pick Patrick Patterson stuck so far down the depth chart he was assigned to the D-League. What they don't have, despite banner years from Kevin Martin and Luis Scola, is an A-list star; while the Rockets have more or less waved the white flag on any Carmelo Anthony pursuits, they're certain to jump in with both feet the next time a player of that caliber comes available.
So on those levels little changes with Yao's injury. However, the more interesting dilemma presented is nearly the exact one facing Portland with Greg Oden -- both players are free agents, and it's difficult to assign a market value to a player who has hardly played in two years. Yao's enormous cap hold creates another confounding element, because it will tie up all of Houston's cap room until either his status is resolved or the Rockets renounce his rights. The Rockets can have enough cap space to sign a max free agent if they let Yao and Brooks walk after the season, so Yao is a huge part of their offseason strategy. It goes without saying that some emotion is tied up in this, as well -- Yao is basically synonymous with Rockets basketball at this point, and I've yet to find a soul with anything bad to say about him.
I don't profess to know what his market value is in the wake of such enormous uncertainty, but I'd be shocked if it was less than the midlevel exception, and it's possible it's considerably more. In other words, it will be virtually impossible for the Rockets to both keep Yao and sign a major free agent.
As a result, the real impact of Yao's injury isn't to affect their strategy with their current roster, because they'd shifted gears on that front a long time ago. It's whether his injury makes it more palatable for the Rockets to make a break with the past and risk losing Yao to take a dip in the deep end of the free-agent pool.
The result is an 0-3 record.
“We have a lot of problems still,” Yao said after the Rockets lost to the Nuggets, 107-94, on Saturday night. “Defense, offense, everything. Hopefully we can do over training camp again.”
That wry sense of humor even in dark moments is the one thing that hasn’t changed about Yao. After coming back from foot surgery that kept him out the entire 2009-10 season he is slower than his previous incarnation. Smaller opponents routinely get to rebounds before he can. The Rockets’ medical staff has placed him under 24-minutes-per-game restrictions. And his teammates no longer view him as a primary option.
That explains how reserve Chase Budinger could wind up with nearly as many field goal attempts (nine) in 18 ½ minutes as Yao (10) in 22 ½. It’s one of the reasons the Nuggets outscored the Rockets 35-25 in the fourth quarter. And it’s a critical issue the Rockets must resolve.
Right now they’re better as a perimeter-oriented team, taking advantage of quick point guard Aaron Brooks and prolific shooting guard Kevin Martin. But name a perimeter-oriented team that’s won a championship. This perimeter-oriented Rockets team hasn’t even won a game so far.
The Rockets did win 42 without a single minute from Yao last season, and Brooks flourished, averaging 19.6 points per game en route to winning the Most Improved Player award. Yao sounded a little guilty when he said, “They played without me one year, they played great. They played a totally different style.”
It still didn’t get them to the playoffs. And keep in mind, for all of the Rockets’ surprising ability to push the Lakers to seven games after Yao went down in the 2009 playoffs, the only road game they won in that series came with Yao on the court. If we are to take the Rockets seriously, they need to get serious about Yao.
“We sort of forgot about him in the second half,” Shane Battier said. “We need to understand how we need to work him when he is in the game.”
Eight of Yao’s 14 points came in the first half. The Rockets can go three or four possessions without hitting him in the low post. Sometimes when they do pass to him the intention is right but the method’s wrong. Rockets coach Rick Adelman doesn’t want them slowly dumping the ball in to him when he’s stationary. It allows the defense to set up around him. He wants the ball moving from one side of the court to the other, then finding Yao in motion.
It’s not that easy for the team to switch mindsets and go from launching quick, almost indefensible shots, to setting up for Yao. And it’s hard for his teammates to adjust to his presence with his playing time limited.
Yao said his foot has been “no problem” and that his routine of stretching and riding a stationary bicycle when he isn’t in the game allows him to stay loose and adjust quickly when he returns.
“It’s more difficult for coach, not for me,” Yao said.
How to divide those precious 24 minutes?
Adelman started him Saturday and played him the first 6:09. Yao played for a seven-minute stretch in the second quarter, than sat out at the beginning of the third, entering after 4 ½ minutes. Adelman chose to keep him out for the first 7 ½ minutes of the fourth quarter, gambling that the Rockets wouldn’t fall too far behind without him or his return wouldn’t be too disruptive. He lost.
You can tell Adelman’s already frustrated by constant questions about the minute-managing.
“I don’t have an answer for Yao’s minutes,” he said, cutting in before a reporter finished asking. “They tell me how many minutes he has to play. ... it’s only been two games. I’m trying to figure it out.
“I was trying to stay close and put him in at the end of the game. One thing, our guys, they’ve got to get used to the fact that he’s in the game and try to go to him and see what kind of presence he’d make at the other end.”
The Lakers’ Pau Gasol couldn’t help but notice the presence of the 7-foot-6 Yao on opening night.
“It’s not a guy like that in the entire world,” Gasol said.
He’s someone opponents have to account for, but the Rockets make it easier if he’s not playing and/or they’re not using him.
“I think playing only 24 minutes a game, he’s probably not going to be the first priority,” Denver coach George Karl said. “Maybe the third priority, something like that. They play with great speed. Their quickness and speed, they try to get it into every possession if they can. The Yao factor slows that down a little. I think Luis Scola’s a great secondary guy. He’s good with Yao, he’s good with Martin and Brooks.”
As if on cue, Scola had 28 points and 10 rebounds Saturday. So the Rockets do have him to serve as a bridge between their styles. But Brooks and Martin have the ball in their hands the most, and it’s still uncertain how they’ll adjust to having the big man back.
“I don’t know,” Brooks said. “I really don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t call it. I don’t know if there’s a problem or what’s going on right now. I don’t know.”
Doesn’t sound like the coach has any solutions either at the moment.
“One thing I’ve been struggling with, who’s going to be on the court when he’s on the court?” Adelman said. “We’re almost to the point where we’ve got to have certain people on the court with him to take advantage him. We’re a work in progress right now.”
The simple math has turned into complex calculus. The schedule won’t wait for them to figure it out.
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images
Kevin Martin is reunited with Rick Adelman and Brad Miller -- and couldn't be happier about it
There might not be a player in the league with a more confounding game than Kevin Martin. Take a look at the odd, left-leaning release on his jumper and you can imagine a nation of high school basketball coaches cringing. Martin's field-goal percentage and defensive game have never been all that impressive on the surface. But once you get past traditional measures -- both aesthetic and statistical -- you'll find a uniquely efficient perimeter player who thrives in systems that take advantage of those gifts.
Rick Adelman's read-and-react offense in Houston is one such system. Although Martin is a capable one-on-one player, he's always been most effective running off screens, cutting, curling or fading to the arc when the defense sags. Martin harbors an appreciation for his days in Sacramento, where he went from an obscure late first-rounder out of Western Carolina to the first option in the offense. But he's thrilled to be back with his first NBA coach, whom Martin credits with helping him become that marquee player.
We caught up by phone with Martin in Houston last week, and talked about the change in culture he's experienced since the trade that sent him from Sacramento to Houston, the limitations of his game and the influence of Brad Miller:
So what's your summer day like?
I decided to get a place in Tampa so I could do some extensive training.
What are you working on in specific?
The basics. Getting my form back because I had surgery on my left wrist last year, so we wanted to get my 3-point shot back. There were a couple of minor mechanical things. Also, defenses load up on me, so I'm working on a lot of counter-moves for when the defense stops that first move.
When you're not in the gym, what do you do in your down time? You a beach guy?
I'm more of a city guy. I like to roam around, maybe check out a restaurant. I also like playing with my electronics -- like the new iPad.
So you're a proud member of the Apple cult?
Sacramento to Houston -- the perception is that's a huge cultural move for you. "Culture" is a term that sportswriters -- and front office people when they're talking to sportswriters -- throw around a lot, but does "team culture" really exist from a player's standpoint?
There definitely is such a thing as team culture. It starts with the organization, what kind of veteran players they have. Here in Houston, Shane [Battier] and Yao [Ming] are the veterans. They set the tone for us on how to be professionals. They've been around the community a lot. They set a big example for young fellas and are just two great leaders with what they do.
So if someone were to drop you in a random locker room of some team you didn't know, you could totally tell whether it was a winning or a losing locker room?
Unfortunately, yes. I've been on both sides of it. We're all paid to play this sport we love. If you're on a team like that as a team leader, you wish it didn't happen and you try to minimize it, but you can only control so much. It's up to the players to be professional about it. But you can definitely tell the difference.
How do they do things differently in Houston?
First, it's a veteran ball club with guys who just want to win. We all made names for ourselves in the league and the only legacy we're trying to leave now is winning. We can all put up nice numbers and things like that. You have to give credit to [general manager] Daryl [Morey] for bringing in those kind of people -- players with a lot of class and who are motivated. Of all the guys on our roster, there's really only one player who came into the league with big expectations, and that's Yao. The rest of us -- we've been the hard workers. I was like the 15th player on the roster my rookie year and had to work my way up. Then I was the No. 1 player for three years. This isn't to disrespect guys, but it's not about hype in Houston. These are guys who have worked their way up the ladder. I'm definitely happy to be in an organization like this. You know what you need to do and you just go out there and get it done. You don't need anyone on your throat all the time.
With Trevor Ariza on the move, what does the situation look like at the small forward on the court for the Rockets?
It shows how much faith Daryl has put in our other 3s -- in Shane and Chase [Budinger]. With the starting lineup we have now, Shane is the defensive stopper, and that helps us a lot there. Those guys will have to pick up Trevor's production on both ends of the court. I think we have a great system that allows other guys to do that.
How do you rate yourself as a defensive player?
Great question. I've never had anyone ask me that. I get judged a lot on it. I try to work hard, but the last three years I was a guy who had to put up 25 points a game just to not lose by 10. But my first two years under Rick Adelman, that's how I stayed on the court. It was because of defense. And I could because I had four offensive players around me. I know I have to get back to that, but I also think Houston is a better place to allow me to get back to that because I won't have to be the No. 1 option every night. Now I can do other things on the court.
So it's true that guys conserve energy on the defensive end because so much is asked of them offensively? That means their defense is less intense.
For some players that's true. Everyone has their roles.
Stat-heads love you because your true shooting percentage -- which takes into account 3-pointers and free throws -- is always impressive. You have this knack for drawing contact and getting to the line, or just draining the 3. But one thing I've never completely understood is how a player like you makes decisions. When you have the ball in your hands out on the perimeter, are you looking to either shoot or draw contact? I'm either going to get a clean shot or I'm drawing a foul? Are you looking to do both? How do you decide in the moment?
There are always different scouting reports on how to guard me. Guys know my first step is so quick so they might back up off me. Right there, I'm just going to take the open shot because I'd rather do that then try to go in there against all those big guys and get hammered on the floor. Then other nights, guys are like, "He's such a great shooter," and they try to get up on me. That's when I use my quickness. Once I get by you, I just know the rules -- you can't bump a guy off his path. If I'm going to the hole, and I've gotten past you, you can't get back in my path. That's how I get a lot of those calls. It's tricky and you have to have a lot of moves in your arsenal and trust your game. As the No. 1 guy the last three years, I've gotten knowledgeable about knowing how the defense plays me.
You didn't pass the ball a lot in Sacramento. Was that a function of the system or is that just not your game?
If you watched those games, when I'm making a move, I'm going to make that move and try to score. Also, there's time where my assists weren't there because maybe I'm not the greatest playmaker, but I will pass the ball and give other guys chances. That's how that went. Over my three years in Sactown, they got rid of (Ron) Artest and I was playing with a lot of guys who were trying to make names for themselves in the league. They were young guys and just learning the game. Once Artest was gone, I was playing with four starters who had never started before. But I also think that's what made me the player I am today because I had all the attention of opposing teams.
So we should expect your assist totals to go up this year, just by virtue of Rick Adelman's system?
When we say that a perimeter player knows how "to play off a big man," what does that mean?
I've always wanted to play with a guy like Yao. I think the trick is to keep them happy. You give them the ball when they're in great scoring position and you make the right plays when they give you the ball -- like me and Brad [Miller]. My offensive game is where it is today because of Brad Miller. The way he and Rick taught me how to cut and things like that made me so much better. The last three years in Sacramento, it was all, like, one-on-one. Now I'm back in a system where I can cut. Playing with big guys like Yao who get rebounds for you, you feed them back. Keep them happy.
Let's talk more about Brad Miller and Rick's system.
Rick's system is all about read-and-react. When you're young and watching film, you like to watch a couple of guys who you're modeling your game after, and mine was always Rip Hamilton. I always looked at how he came off screens. That's where my shooting and curling evolved. That was my bread and butter my first three years. Then I moved on to other things. Playing with Brad, he's the one who taught me how to cut at the right time -- not cut too early. When I started doing more iso stuff, I watched film of [Dwyane] Wade iso situations. You put all this together and that's how you become a more complete player.
So Brad was like Yoda Big Man? How did he impart this knowledge to you?
With Brad and me, it was always on the court. And I also got a chance to watch him and Peja [Stojakovic] play a lot my first year because I didn't really play too much. He and Peja had a great connection. I knew I was a lot quicker and had a lot more agility than Peja. So at the beginning, I would always do everything so fast. I'd be too fast before the cut, during the cut, after the cut. Brad would say, "Slow down! You're faster than everybody out here, but you have to read it!" He showed me the ins and outs of making those cuts and reads -- when to come around. Like when a guy plays under you, come around and take the jumper. And when a guy is playing you tight, you just go back door. Brad taught me how to play.
By virtue of Portland's 90-89 win over Houston Saturday night, Jason lost the bet.
Unfortunately, the Trail Blazers lost something more significant in Saturday night's game -- Greg Oden to a season-ending injury.
As a writer who covers the Houston Rockets, Jason Friedman is has a great deal of empathy for Trail Blazers fans, and is well-versed in the coping mechanisms required of those who lose their favorite players to injury:
What do you say to a grieving acquaintance?
The inherent lack of intimacy often makes consolation a pipedream. Their pain is not your own. Any words of support or encouragement are destined to come across as hollow and trite, received as if they were nothing more than mere platitudes borne of obligation. Sometimes it’s better to simply let silence rule the day; to nod your head as a token of respect and understanding while allowing the aggrieved whatever time and space they require.
I know all of this. I get it.
To stand off to the side and say nothing in this instance simply isn’t an option. I was at the Rose Garden Saturday night. I bore witness to the black hole which momentarily devoured every hint of color, joy and hope within the arena at the 7:45 mark of the first quarter until all that remained was the sickening sound of 21,000 distressed souls hoping their eyes had somehow deceived them. You know the rest.
In Houston, of course, we are all too familiar with that sound and the empty feeling which ultimately takes its place. We’ve heard the ludicrous chatter of curses and been filled with the fear which accompanies the label “injury prone.” It’s the price we pay for being human, I suppose. Our uncertain futures lead some to fill in the blanks with nightmares and phantoms of the worst kind. Given enough room to operate, those bogeys will happily shatter your confidence and destroy every last vestige of positive thought.
But there is another option. It is the one I come to pass along to my Portland “acquaintances” today. It is, quite simply, hope.
I know, I know. You don’t want to hear it. It’ still too early, the wound too fresh. That’s fine. I’ve been there. So, too, has Yao Ming. I’ve seen him down, despondent and depressed after his body betrayed him once more. But I’ve also witnessed how he responds to that betrayal with a quiet, steely resolve to return better than ever before. He understands that we are all faced with only two options in life: to give up or to press forward with the hope that each day will be better than the last. And he chooses the latter because he knows the first choice isn’t actually an option at all.
I recall seeing Yao right before the season began, as he was going through his workout routine at Toyota Center with personal trainer Anthony Falsone. Yao used crutches to go from station to station, while dragging along a boot that seemingly came from the Darth Vader collection on his surgically repaired left foot. He’d been going through this routine for more than a month by this point, knowing full well that many more months of monotonous rehab remained. And yet, his countenance reflected no sign of exasperation with that fact; he was upbeat, positive and quick to crack jokes. This part of the process was simply what had to be done in order to get back to the game and the team he loves. Therefore, he would do it.
Yao spoke that day of the grief which accompanied his initial realization that he would miss the entire 2009-10 season. He mentioned the mourning process that included a week spent mostly in disturbed silence. But then he told of his resolution and commitment to the rehab process. The moment for looking back was over. It was now time for work, for diligence and for hope. His goal stood far off in the distance but he knew that each day brought him one step closer and, therefore, each day would be better than the last.
I don’t know Greg Oden. But upon recalling that conversation with Yao, I suspect I have at least an inkling of what’s going through his mind right now. I’ve no doubt that he’s currently mourning in his own way. But just as certainly, I absolutely believe he will soon, if he hasn’t already, steel himself for the journey to come while dispatching the past in the process. Like Yao, Oden has, unfortunately, been through this before. And, like Yao, Greg will find solace by steadying his gaze on a future still rife with possibilities and potential. He’s only 21 years old, after all. He’ll be back.
In fact, Oden and Yao now figure to make their return at the exact same time: training camp 2010. It stands as yet another tie which inexorably binds our two great cities, Portland and Houston, together. The link began 26 years ago when the Blazers selected a ridiculously talented human pogo stick of a guard from the University of Houston named Clyde Drexler. One year later Portland and Houston were the principal figures in an even bigger draft coup: a coin flip for the rights to the No. 1 pick and an opportunity to select yet another U. of H. stud, Akeem Olajuwon. Since then, Drexler returned to Houston, the Blazers drafted Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez – both of whom were hotly desired by Houston – the Rockets made former Portland coach Rick Adelman their bench boss and the two teams recently met in the first round of last year’s playoffs. So maybe we’re more than mere acquaintances after all.
Point being, we are now bound together by a common hope: that our two talented and beloved big men can come back to fill the void their absence has left behind; that we can watch them go head-to-head once more, unburdened by the pain of the past and instead enjoying the sight of two of the game’s premiere big men battling each other at the height of their powers.
Their cities deserve such a sight. So, too, do their teams. But more than anyone, this Promethean pair deserves it. Thus, it is for them, and for all of us, that I hold out hope. I know they won’t give up. Neither, then, will I.
Last October, the NBA announced it was laying off 80 people in the U.S., about 9% of its workforce, because of the slowing American economy.
About the same time, the league announced a massive program, with AEG, to "design, market, program and operate multi-purpose, NBA-style sports and entertainment arenas in major cities throughout Greater China." The press release also mentioned that "the NBA opened its Hong Kong office in 1992 and currently employs 100 people in four offices in greater China. NBA.com/China has become the most popular sports Web site in China."
Yao Ming -- seen here in a poster at the NBA Store in Beijing -- tends to attract the NBA's biggest TV audiences. So what happens to the NBA if he doesn't play for a season?
(China Photos/Getty Images)
Meanwhile, in recent years, shoe companies have increasingly spent their most precious resource -- the off-season free time of their highly paid pitchmen like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul -- wooing Asian audiences.
It doesn't take an MBA to assess that the powers that be are betting big on international audiences, especially in China.
So, what happens if the single biggest driver of Chinese interest in the NBA is missing from the league, at a time when basketball is desperately in search of revenue?
I mentioned that my friend Max was bitten by a spider, nearly died, and in his recovery had all kinds of interesting thoughts, one of which inspired a post yesterday about NBA players who have played in the most games. (In the comments, IceKeenan wondered: "Dude had a near death experience, and it made him talk about Yao Ming?" In fact, IceKeenan, yes.)
Max asked me yesterday: If Yao Ming misses the entire NBA season, as expected, does that really mess with the NBA's bottom line?
Is there any way to guess what the upcoming season's Yaolessness, due to his recent foot injury, might do to the NBA's popularity in his enormous and important home market?
Renjun Bao covers the NBA for China's Titan Media, and agreed to help shed some light on the issue. In response to my questions, he e-mailed:
Before Yao was drafted in 2002, indeed there were some NBA fans in China. Although I don't have statistics, I guess that the percentage of whole population who paid attention to the NBA was less than five percent. There were no national basketball newspaper at that time. There were three national basketball newspapers and tons of basketball magazines by around 2005.
It is safe to say the major reason is Yao.
Besides the printed media, TV and internet has more and more coverage on Yao, the Rockets and the NBA. Yao became the top celebrity in China and his team, the Rockets, have arguably become the most popular professional team among all sports in China. (That's why many players on that team get endorsement contracts from the Chinese companies.)
In 2008-2009, China Central Television (CCTV, the only state owned national TV in China) broadcast 39 NBA regular season games. 13 featured the Rockets, almost double the second most commonly shown teams, the Lakers and the Cavaliers, who were tied at seven apiece.
Again I don't have official data here, but I think at least 20% of whole population pays attention to the NBA, and I'd guess at least half of them do this because of Yao.
If basketball has not passed soccer to become the No. 1 sport in China, it's getting close. Before 2002, that idea would have sounded ridiculous.
It is not hard to predict that Yao's injury will impact the TV ratings here.
Renjun Bao estimates that the NBA's popularity in China has spread, during Yao's NBA career, from less than 5% to more than 20% of the population. These are guesses. But for the record, approximately 15% of the more than 1.3 billion people living in China would be about 200 million people. Or, roughly double a good TV audience for the Super Bowl. He further estimates that about half of them follow because of Yao Ming.
It's hard to imagine any sports league could cope with losing a Super Bowl's worth of supporters.
The notion that China's love of the NBA was driven mainly by Yao Ming's presence seems unimpeachable. The idea that, now that the NBA is already popular in China, fans might turn away in similar numbers, however, is more complicated.
Renjun Bao says several factors could mitigate a cooling of interest from Chinese sports fans while Yao is sidelined:
There are more and more Chinese elements involved in the NBA besides Yao Ming. Yi Jianlian's popularity will catch up a little bit next season. As you might know, a China born investor became a minor owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. CCTV is considering airing more Cavs games next season. Shaquille O'Neal, Baron Davis, Jason Kidd ... a lot of NBA players with China endorsement contracts are featured in the commercials on TV in China.
Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are two of the most popular international sports stars in China. All of these will remain despite Yao's injury. As a result, I don't think Yao's injury will bring inevitable damage to this market.
And of course, Yao's injury is not career ending, which will keep a lot of people's spirits up.
Last but not least, the NBA China branch is growing rapidly these days. I am sure they will do what they can to keep the game as popular as ever.
The NBA has shown some signs of feeling an economic pinch. A dip in basketball-related income. New ways for teams to borrow money, facilitated by the League. More teams talking about carrying shorter rosters, to save money.
Many people are looking for signs that such hard times could be coming to an end. A stock market rebound, for instance, could free up resources for owners, sponsors and ticket purchasers alike. Optimism in the real estate market could have a similar effect, as might a return to normalcy in credit markets.
But as far as the NBA is concerned, another key economic indicator to watch for is the return of Yao Ming.
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
- Jeff Teague is now officially an Atlanta Hawk, as Sekou Smith writes in the AJC. The article touches on why a team like the Hawks might be at a disadvantage having not fielded a Summer League team.
- Michael Schwartz of Valley of the Suns on Steve Nash's contract extension: "The Suns now have a solid mix of youth and veterans, as outside of Hill, Nash, and Richardson (28), everyone on the roster is 26 or younger. Nash finally has the chance to play Seven Seconds or Less with no Shaq or Terry Porter ruining his mojo. The Suns finally get a full season under Alvin Gentry, a full season with J-Rich, and hopefully a full season with a healthy Amare Stoudemire." ESPN's Eric Neel tweets: "Is Nash's the first deal where player looks ahead to future cap/tax limits and decides testing the waters isn't worth it?"
- Brian Kamenetzky draws you in with the lowest-hanging of fruit -- a picture of a kitten -- then reports on the Lamar Odom buzz from Vegas: "Nobody I spoke with, from coaches to agents to other members of the media, expects Odom to leave the Lakers, though one Western Conference GM said with a laugh that a lot of his brethren wish he would."
- The unthinkable may come to Detroit: Smallball.
- Prior to last season, John Hollinger asked of Amir Johnson, "Remind me again why this guy didn't play more?" The efficient big man still couldn't find minutes last season in Detroit's dysfunctional rotation, but looked solid in Las Vegas last week for the Bucks. Johnson might not be such a lousy consolation prize for Milwaukee after the departure of Charlie Villanueva.
- Jason Friedman questions the myth of Allen Iverson and ticket sales: "I know AI is a fan favorite, but does he really still sell tickets? I'm legitimately curious. If published reports are to be believed, Iverson's box office appeal is the primary reason behind the Clippers' and Grizzlies' interest in him. But I have to admit, I have a hard time believing AI can provoke much more than a short-term spike in ticket sales at this point." Anyone have rock-solid data that support the notion the Clips or Grizz would see a sizable bump at the box office?
- Is David Andersen -- Yao's nominal replacement -- the new Luis Scola?
- Ira Winderman wonders if Pat Riley is overestimating the Summer of 2010. One guy who'd like to be in Miami tomorrow? Carlos Boozer.
- Jared Wade of Hardwood Paroxysm asks if the Lakers and Orlando have gotten better ... or just different.
- Reggie Theus, champion of the rural sports blogger, irritated by most others. [Hat Tip: Marcel]
- Want to look svelte in your swimwear this summer? Gather eight friends and spend the afternoon performing X's & O's of Basketball's "No Babies Allowed" rebounding drill. The exercise is almost certain to induce dry heaving, but X's & O's adds yet another wrinkle: "... Have another coach with a ball around midcourt fire chest passes to players running laps, to keep them sharp ..."
The construction of an NBA Summer League roster follows a certain blueprint: Start with draft picks and most of the second-year guys under contract. Throw in an undrafted rookie or two, some D-Leaguers, then the journeymen who've been bouncing around or playing overseas.
But how do organizations actually choose among the hundreds -- maybe even thousands -- of players who exist in this talent pool?
We sat down with Sam Hinkie, the Rockets' vice president of basketball operations, to better understand how Houston's Summer League roster was put together.
"Gersson Rosas [the Rockets' director of player personnel] handles the heavy lifting in putting the team together," Hinkie said. "The rest of us weigh in heavily, but Gersson does most of the legwork."
The primary goal for a team?
"Figuring out who you want to learn about. Who can be an NBA player? That's the key," Hinkie said. "All of these players have some skill or something that's shown up somewhere that's caused us to say, 'There's a reason that guy can be in the NBA.'"
Winning is way down on the list of goals for the Rockets in Summer League play in Las Vegas.
"We want players who want to win," Hinkie said. "We want players who will lead to winning and they ought to impact winning on this level too, but winning here is the least of our concerns."
With that, we went through the Rockets' Summer League roster name by name, with Hinkie explaining the organization's rationale for each invitation:
|Garrett Temple: Will there be an NBA roster spot in his future? (Fernando Medina/NBA via Getty Images)|
Hinkie: "He's a perfect example. He's a two-position, maybe three-position, defender. He's a massive winner. He's caught between positions."
For a big, combo guard like Temple who didn't work in the most generous system for his talents at LSU, Summer League offers the perfect laboratory to see what he can do at the point.
Hinkie: "It might take him a month. It might take him a few years in Europe. But if he can make that transition, he's an NBA player."
Wherever Temple ends us next year, the Rockets will continue to watch him.
Hinkie: "He's killed in the D-League. That gets you a look. Guys who kill in the D-League end up on the Rockets' radar."
The Rockets drafted Taylor with the 32nd pick in this year's NBA draft out of Central Florida. The Rockets are curious to see what he can do against superior competition.
The Rockets' drafted the Aussie swingman with the 54th overall pick in the 2007 draft. Newley has played in Greece each of the past two seasons.
Hinkie: "He's played well and is making big strides. He's one of our properties, so learning about him is important."
Hinkie: "He's important to us. We invested in him last year, and he's got a chance to make our roster this year."
Aside from Tracy McGrady, the Rockets have only three wings at the moment -- Trevor Ariza, Shane Battier, and Brent Barry. Given the team's familiarity with White's game and, as Hinkie said, its previous investment in him, White will get a strong look.
|"Who can be an NBA player? That's the key," Sam Hinkie said. (Garrett Ellwood/NBA via Getty Images)|
Hinkie: "A backup one who we've always been interested in. I think he'll be good for us here. Tough guy, winner, can rebound, can draw fouls, can create his own shots, but is also a pure point guard. He's a decent defender and can pressure the ball. Those are qualities we like and he's earned the right to be evaluated in an environment like this."
The Rockets drafted the Arizona forward with the 44th pick in this year's draft.
Hinkie: "He killed in the D-League, and he was a legitimate one in college and is becoming more legitimate by the day. He's backup one ready and a guy who's a logical 10-day call-up."
To that end, Hinkie emphasized that it's important to be familiar with a player before you pick him up mid-season.
"When we put a guy on our roster, I don't want that to be our first look at him," Hinkie said. "Why not be in position where not only our staff weighs in, but our coaching staff can weigh in and say, 'He was good at this, or he struggled at this?' It gives us a chance to perform more due diligence."
The Rockets selected Dorsey 33rd overall in the 2008 draft.
Houston took Leunen with the 54th overall pick in the 2008 draft. He played last season in Turkey.
Hinkie had said that, as a general rule, the younger the player, the better in Summer League. Given that Gaines will be 28 before the year is up, I asked him why the team made an allowance in Gaines' case.
Hinkie: "He earned his way. He played really well in Europe. He came in a make-good Summer League situation. Even though we have a roster of guys with his sorts of skills, he's the kind of player we love -- rebounds his tail off, plays hard, is undersized and doesn't care."
Hinkie's answer sounded uncharacteristically sentimental for a Rockets' organization that bases every decision on empirical fact. I asked him if, in Gaines' case, the Rockets bowed to their love of his grit.
"The only sentimentality to Gaines is that he does the things we know are empirically valuable," Hinkie responded. "He just rolls hard. He just sets good screens. He just bodies guys at the elbow when they come down. He just tries to get every single rebound."
Hinkie draws a comparison between Chuck Hayes and Gaines. Like Hayes, Gaines knows his offensive limitations, so he resists shooting, making him a more efficient player.
"Gaines is a Houston Rocket," Hinkie concluded. " We might not have room for him, but he's earned his way."
With Yao almost certain to miss the entire 2009-10 season, the Rockets are in need of size.
Hinkie: "He fits that need. He's young and getting better -- and we want to see how much better, and how quickly."
With the Cavaliers' new Chinese minority ownership group, I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone suggested that Yao Ming would be coming to Cleveland.
The Associated Press reports Yao's reaction to the idea, which could be categorized as "super vague." The report:
"This is all an unknown," Yao said in the interview, a transcript of which was posted online Friday.
"I've already been with Houston for such a long time, I still have much affection for this team," Yao said. "Moreover, this past season we were very successful, and that let me see some hope.
"Regardless of whether its a Chinese boss, or a foreign boss, they're both bosses and a boss is just a boss," he added.
Cleveland has not publicly expressed interest in Yao, who has one guaranteed year left on his contract with Houston, including a player option for the 2010-11 season.
Yao Ming can be a free agent in 2010, if he so chooses. That same summer, the Cavaliers (and several other teams) plan to be well under the salary cap. It is conceivable that Yao and LeBron James could be teammates in Cleveland, or another city.
Thoughts, euphoria, grudging respect, and sober analysis of the Lakers' 15th NBA Championship from around the TrueHoop Network:
Rob Mahoney of Hardwood Paroxysm: "Focusing on individual storylines and details can be a fantastic enterprise, but in this case I truly think it disservices the bigger picture: the Lakers kicked ass in these playoffs. They forgot who they were for a minute against the Rockets, but on the whole we've seen some terrific basketball from L.A. Good enough, in fact, that today I don't care to think about Phil [Jackson] vs. Red [Auerbach], or what this means for Kobe [Bryant] in the grand scheme of things. We've got a long summer ahead of us, and there will be plenty of time for that. What I want today is a proper acknowledgment that the Lakers weren't just a really, really good team, but one that happened to trump the Magic with superior will ... Look, nobody is crazy about the idea of the Lakers winning it all. But that doesn't mean we can't appreciate, in typical playoff fashion, the last thing that we saw. We saw a better team execute at an incredible level against an elite defense, we saw the elevation of games on a personal and team-wide level, and we saw the Lakers perform in a manner all series long that should remove any doubts to their worthiness. The Lakers accomplished a singularly great thing last night: a pretty damn good team playing to its potential. As such, we should appreciate their accomplishment with blinders on. Phil's tenth, Kobe's first P.S., that all can wait. This is a day for the Lakers as a team/organization and Los Angeles as a city, as it'd be a pity for this singular success to be overlooked."
Zephid of Forum Blue & Gold: "Ah, so this is the sweet taste of victory. Winning the NBA championship, cheering our team to the pinnacle of this sport. But, it is not the victory that brings us sweetness. It is the long 82 game regular season, all 23 games played in this postseason, all the rigors of this season. It is the tough December losses, the mental break-downs in January, the beautiful road streak in February, the frustrating losses in March. It is the Christmas game, the back to back @Boston, @Cleveland games. It is the leads given up against Utah, the blowout against the Yao-less Rockets, the home loss against Denver. It is the Game 7 victory against Houston, the Game 6 closeout in Denver, and this closeout here in Orlando. It is [Derek] Fisher's struggles and redemption, Lamar [Odom]'s excellent form, break-down, injury, and now return to form. It is Andrew [Bynum]'s coming out, injury, and coming back as a role player. It is [Pau] Gasol and Kobe's consistency and fire. It is Sasha [Vujacic]'s shooting woes, Jordan [Farmar]'s struggles, Luke [Walton]'s benching, [Trevor] Ariza's development, and [Josh] Powell's bad hands. It is the pain of last year's Finals loss, Boston's Game 4 comeback, the 39 point blowout in Game 6. It is the entire journey, with all its pain, suffering, joy, jubilation, frustration, relief, and exuberance, that makes this victory sweet."
Zach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily: "I don't feel any sense of disappointment, frustration or regret. How can you? The Lakers easily mulled through the Magic to capture their 15th championship, and they did so in dominating fashion it.There's not a person in the world who can say the Magic are better than the Lakers. And when you can say that, losing hurts a lot less. The sting especially softens when your team didn't fail because of dumb turnovers, poor coaching or lack of effort. None of that was the problem. The Lakers were simply better than the Magic ... The Magic simply couldn't trade punches with the Lakers, who are too good, too deep and too versatile. They're built with the ability to counter anything the Magic could throw at them. And they're killers - when they see blood, they attack. The Magic's only hope was to shoot 62 percent like they did in their only win of this series. That wasn't happening tonight. Toward the end of the second quarter, as the Lakers completed a 16-0 run that wiped out a hot Magic start, it was clear. The players, coaches, and fans of both teams knew it was only a matter of time till this thing was over ... It was beginning to sink in. The Lakers were going to win the NBA championship on Orlando's home floor."
M. Haubs of The Painted Area: "Let's take a second to remember a key moment in the Lakers' championship season, back in preseason in October when Phil Jackson commented that he wanted Lamar Odom to come off the bench - clearly the best move for the ball club. Andrew Bynum could play a larger role as a starter, and the versatile Odom was the perfect guy to run the show for the second team, and of course he'd have plenty of opportunity to play with the first unit as well ... Odom balked at the bench role ever so briefly in October, before accepting it with essentially not a peep of dissatisfaction the rest of the season (though the Bynum injury did get him back into the starting lineup for a good chunk of the season). By accepting a lesser role, Odom placed the good of the team ahead of his own self-interest in terms of trying to maximize the dollars he could command as a free agent, and that acceptance was a key element of L.A.'s season ... It is sacrifices like these, up and down the roster, that championships are made of. A key to San Antonio's run has been Manu Ginobili's sacrificing multiple All-Star appearances by accepting a role with lesser minutes, which keep his stats artificially low. And now Odom's acceptance of lesser minutes in a free-agent year has helped put L.A. over the top, and he deserves praise for it."
(Photos by Andrew D. Bernstein, Emmanuel Dunand, Ronald Martinez, Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
7-footers do seem to be very prone to certain kinds of problems, especially in the feet.
All that weight, on a fairly regular pair of feet, I guess it kind of makes sense.
But does it?
If everything is bigger -- the muscles and bones too -- couldn't you be in proportion and essentially not prone to injury?
Not so fast, froghopper.
The other day, in reaction to the sad news of Yao Ming's season-ending stress fracture, Phil Jackson said that some physics experts had told him a 60-foot man would not even be able to walk -- his weight would overwhelm his bones. True? The physics blog Gravity and Levity has tried to use actual science to address that question.
Actually, by my estimate, he was quite conservative. As far as I can tell, a 16′3″ man would fracture his tibia the first time he took a step.
There is a rather nice explanation:
Before I get to Yao Ming, allow me to discuss a simple example using what is arguably the best athlete in the animal kingdom: the froghopper. The froghopper is a little insect, barely half a centimeter long, but it has about a 27″ vertical jump. That's about 140 times its own body length, so in a certain sense it would be like me jumping 840 vertical feet. Pretty impressive. But if we put the froghopper in an enlarging ray, and blew it up 365 times so that it was the same size as me, would it really be able to jump 840 feet?
The answer is no. That's because an object's weight is proportional to its body volume, which is proportional to the cube of its size. So making the froghopper 365 times larger would make it 365^3 = 48.6 million times heavier. The froghopper's ability to jump depends on the volume of its muscles, which also increase by 365^3 times after it gets put through the enlarging ray. So the ability of the froghopper to jump remains the same: it gets a lot stronger, but also proportionally heavier. Therefore, a 6-foot froghopper could jump the same height as a half-centimer froghopper: 27 inches. It just looks much less impressive.
Now let's think about Yao Ming, who is sort of like a normal person put through an enlarging ray. The propensity for one of Yao's bones to fracture depends on the stress he puts on them. Stress can be defined as weight divided by cross-sectional area. So if weight depends on volume (size^3) and the cross-sectional area of his poor foot bones depends on size^2, then the stress grows as (volume / area), or in other words, the stress increases directly with size. You can think of it this way: by virtue of his great height, Yao's bones are about 1.7 times thicker than the average person, but he weighs about 2.2 times more. Thus, his bones have a harder time than yours do.
Then there is a graph, based on the findings of researchers who break bones for a living (presumably bones of dead people) showing that the taller you are, the shorter the time you can expect to be active without a stress fracture.
A little enlightening, although no doubt not heartening to Yao Ming.
UPDATE: TrueHoop reader Nick e-mails about a classic paper on the topic, from 1928, that is undoubtedly the genesis of Jackson's talk of a 60-foot man. J.B.S. Haldane's "On Being The Right Size" includes these passages:
Let us take the most obvious of possible cases, and consider a giant man sixty feet high -- about the height of Giant Pope and Giant Pagan in the illustrated Pilgrim's Progress of my childhood. These monsters were not only ten times as high as Christian, but ten times as wide and ten times as thick, so that their total weight was a thousand times his, or about eighty to ninety tons. Unfortunately the cross sections of their bones were only a hundred times those of Christian, so that every square inch of giant bone had to support ten times the weight borne by a square inch of human bone. As the human thigh-bone breaks under about ten times the human weight, Pope and Pagan would have broken their thighs every time they took a step. This was doubtless why they were sitting down in the picture I remember. But it lessens one's respect for Christian and Jack the Giant Killer. ...
Gravity, a mere nuisance to Christian, was a terror to Pope, Pagan, and Despair. To the mouse and any smaller animal it presents practically no dangers. You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.
UPDATE: And the physics portion of this post is disputed! TrueHoop reader Scott writes:
It appears that the author is assuming that height and radius grow the same proportionally, which is most assuredly not true. Look at these examples and decide for yourself:
Let's take the author's "average" sized man (5' 8"). Let's assume he has a 34" waist (a complete guess, but probably close). By this logic, if he grows to 7'6" (a 22-inch growth, i.e. an increase of 32%), than his waistline will now be a robust 56". I do not believe for a minute that your average 7' 6" man (if there is such a thing) purchases 56" levi's at walmart.
Don't believe me? Think about this: According to the author's methodolgy, Yao Ming (assuming he is of average size for a 7' 6" dude) would be 2.2 times heavier than the average man, and, according to ESPN, Yao is listed at 310 lbs. This would mean the average man is 5'8" (taken from his article) and 140lbs. I have a tough time believing that second number.
Let's say the actual average man is 5'8", 170lbs (I have no idea if this is true, but let's assume it's close). Then your average 7' 6" behemoth would weigh in at (170 * 2.2) 374 lbs. I would venture to say that the percentage of 7-foot-6ers weigh 370lbs is much smaller than the percentage of 5' 8" dudes weighing in at 170.
Yao Ming has been an offensive machine in these playoffs. In eight games against all manner of nasty defense -- he's always the focal point and hardly fast breaks, and so gets few easy buckets -- he's shooting 57% from the field and 93% from the line.
When he catches it near the hoop, the likelihood of Rocket points of one kind or another -- some Rocket will get a good look and/or a foul -- is astronomically high.
So, how is it possible that in Game 2 he only took four shots -- two of which were putbacks? Isn't the mission to get Yao the ball? How hard can that be?
Video blogger Gian Casimiro, of Seven Seconds or Mess, has done a little work to find answers. And he found some clear examples moments Yao had position to die for, but his teammates like Aaron Brooks, Ron Artest or Shane Battier simply didn't make the pass.
In his Game 3 scouting report, David Thorpe has more ideas about how the Rockets can use Yao Ming more effectively.
The Lakers defended Yao much better in Game 2, fronting him more in the low post and sending Lamar Odom into the ball-side box near Yao whenever the ball handler crossed below the free throw line (which is normally where they'll feed Yao). It effectively bottled up Yao. Houston can try passing down to Yao from above the line, before Odom comes over, if Yao can keep Gasol behind him. If not, Houston could put Luis Scola in more threatening spots on the weak side, hoping to keep Odom closer to home. Or they can pop Yao out to run side pick-and-pops, possibly opening up driving lanes for Brooks.
(Photo by Harry How, Getty Images Sport)
ESPN's Shelley Smith reports from Laker shootaround.
Lamar Odom is likely to start in place of Andrew Bynum. Phil Jackson says "we're thinking about it."
Two sources close to Odom say he will start.
Also Jackson said Luke Walton will be on the active list tonight.
The Lakers had a two-hour shootaround today, the longest of the season. Jackson says "well we got to laughing and joking in film session and just got carried away."
David Thorpe says that if Odom starts, that would mean a few things:
- Pau Gasol would be guarding Yao Ming. Sounds bad for the Lakers, but Thorpe believes in Gasol, and wrote today about Gasol's ability to bait opponents into making entry passes he can deflect or steal.
- The normal benefit of Bynum and Gasol together is that one of them would be guarded by a power forward, and presumably have a size advantage. Abandoning the twin towers would be an acknowledgement that Houston forward Luis Scola is enough of tough defender to remove a lot of that benefit.
- "L.A.," points out Thorpe, "can not go down 0-2. So whatever Phil does is a big sign of what he believes to be his best lineup right now."
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
LOS ANGELES -- During the hour or two prior to tipoff, it's typical for NBA teams to have game tape on the locker room monitor. Most of the time, it's footage of the basic network broadcast with no extras -- but not for the Houston Rockets Monday night. Each clip of video was coded by the name of the play set, and players actually tuned in, something else you don't usually see.
Shane Battier: Building a wall
(Jeff Gross/NBAE via Getty Images)
Over in the corner, Rockets assistant coach and defensive maven, Elston Turner, worked at the enormous dry erase board, drawing up x's and o's of the Lakers primary sets.
"Spontaneous creativity -- that's what makes them so tough," Turner said of the Lakers, as he marked up the board. "They're so flexible offensively. That kind of flexibility is unique, and you need defensive flexibility to stay with them."
Monday night at Staples Center, Houston employed that defensive flexibility. The Rockets clogged the passing lanes. They successfully pushed the Lakers' big men off their spots. Most of all, Houston's defensive strategy induced an ugly 32-point effort from Kobe Bryant, if such a thing is possible.
"We did a great job with team defense tonight," Rockets forward Shane Battier said. "Every time [Bryant] came off the pick and roll, we had a guy there."
Thanks to the preparation of both the coaching staff and the roster, Houston's defense was able to anticipate the Lakers' offensive action, and prevent Bryant from penetrating into the paint.
Bryant took 26 jumpers Monday night, draining nine. He drove to the basket only seven times, resulting in four field goals, and five free throw attempts. How do you explain that 26:7 ratio for a player as explosive as Bryant?
"Overall we did a very good job of making a wall," Battier said. "That third guy in the pick-and-roll was there a lot better than in games past."
An illustration of what Battier was talking about:
- [4th Quarter, 6:04] Derek Fisher leaves the ball at the top of the arc for Bryant, who's being guarded by Battier. Fisher clears out, as Pau Gasol steps up from the pinch post to give Bryant a screen. It's a fairly quick sequence: Battier runs beneath the screen. Meanwhile, as Bryant takes two dribbles to the right of the screen, Yao is four feet in front of him. Should Bryant try taking Yao off the dribble? Only if he's prepared to deal with the "third guy," as Battier referenced above. That would be Luis Scola, who has sagged off Trevor Ariza. Theoretically, Bryant could dish the ball off to Ariza to his left along the arc. Problem is: Battier has taken that angle away, too. As a result of their tight defense, the Rockets have effectively taken both the drive and the kick away from Bryant, leaving him with a contested jump shot -- which is exactly what Houston wants.
"We were trying to keep him from getting to the rim," Rockets head coach Rick Adelman said. "We have a lot of stats that we look at, and it's pretty obvious that when he gets to the rim, it's really difficult for the other team."
If Houston's scheme on Bryant looked familiar, there's a good reason. "It was kind of similar to what we did with Portland with Brandon Roy," Adelman said.
Bryant's five meager free throw attempts -- four of them in the final two minutes when the Lakers were cooked -- pleased the coaching staff. "The thing that was most impressive was that we kept [Bryant] off the free throw line," Turner said after the game.
Though Battier was satisfied with the overall defensive performance, he was also unassuming. "[Bryant] still scored 32 points," Battier said with a chuckle. "There's still room for improvement."
Battier was so earnest, it was hard not to take him at his word, but you also got the sense that Bryant's output -- those 32 points came on 33 possessions -- didn't bother Battier in the least.
"One thing about Shane I really appreciate is that ... he has a really good understanding that he's not going to shut Kobe down," Adelman said. "He's going to send him to the right spot where he knows he's going to have help, and that's crucial."
Here's what Adelman meant:
- [2nd Quarter, 0:34] Gasol feeds Bryant just off the mid-left post, isolated against Battier. As Gasol clears out, Battier shades to Bryant's right, leaving Kobe the baseline. After a little pump-fake, Bryant accepts the invitation, puts the ball on the deck and drives baseline. Yao is waiting there for him, and blocks Bryant's layup attempt. Battier can't contain Bryant on every iso, but he can do his best to ensure that, if he gets beat, there's help behind him.
With Battier guarding him, Bryant went 8 for 22 from the field, but Houston also got efficient help from its back line defenders. Yao's presence defending the basket helped, but Luis Scola was another important piece. He spent most of the night on the Lakers' small forward -- a demonstration of the defensive flexibility that Turner alluded to before the game.
"We were able to play our 4 on their 3 and vice versa," Turner said after the game. "We had Artest guarding Odom. We were able to mix and match, and show some flexibility. That helped our defense."
After the game, there was only trace evidence of the x's and o's on the dry erase board. The banner headings "Rockets Offensive Goals" and "Rockets Defensive Goals," filled with sage advice just hours before, were blank. The Rockets' coaching staff huddled in the visiting coach's office, no doubt charting the course for Wednesday night, when Turner's black marker will once again outline plans for another 48 minutes of trench warfare -- just how the Rockets like it.