NBA great Yao Ming sat down for a lengthy interview with Slam Magazine's Karan Madhok and talked about the basketball schools he opened in his native country, impressions of his playing career and his overall impact on the game.
But when the talk turned to today's league, the 33-year-old expressed doubt that a lumbering big man like himself could thrive in the small-ball, floor-spreading lineups favored by the majority of NBA coaches.
I’ve thought more than once about how I would compete in today’s basketball if I was still healthy and in my best shape. I think, if you can make enough free throws, or create enough free throws, you can still be effective. Otherwise, you probably need to run with the small ball. Someone like Shaquille O’Neal could create enough free throws for himself. He was very dominant and could change the pace of the game with that. But, the shooting skill today is so incredible. The three-pointer is so easy today. I think they should extend the line even another meter farther [laughs]. The defense is much more stressed by the range. And obviously, players with size like me would find it much more difficult to guard a shooter. So…[today’s NBA] definitely would not be easy for me.
Yao is clearly a student of the game. He understands the fundamental changes in the modern NBA better than most, but he may be taking it a bit too far here.
When trying to modestly brush aside praise of one's abilities, a Chinese speaker will often say, "shuo-de guo-qu ba," meaning, "I'm passable." That is what Yao is likely doing here.
Though his career was cut short by myriad injuries, Yao still played 15,818 minutes in the NBA and averaged 19.0 points and 9.2 rebounds during his career. He ranks 21st in NBA history in win shares per 48 minutes and 22nd in player efficiency rating (PER). The only players above him are either still active, in the Hall of Fame or not eligible for enshrinement yet.
Yes, the game has evolved, especially with the advent of big men with three-point range. But that evolution already began during his career.
Yao's last full season was in 2008-09. Two years prior, the league MVP was Dirk Nowitzki, a prototypical stretch 4. Sweet-shooting bigs are not a recent trend; they've been around for a while.
Would Yao Ming struggle in today's NBA?
While he might not be an ideal fit for a small-ball club like the Miami Heat, there are still teams like the Memphis Grizzlies that have had recent success centered around a slow, plodding frontcourt.
Good teams build around their talent. And when he was healthy, Yao was an elite player. He could have played in any era.
We might not have to wait long to see how another Chinese big fares in today's NBA. According to The Washington Post's Michael Lee, Wang Zhelin, a 20-year-old 7-footer who plays in the Chinese Basketball Association, is projected as a possible second-round pick in the 2014 NBA draft.