In what qualifies as the "no duh" statement of the year, the NBA and its broadcast partners think more of the Houston Rockets with Yao Ming than without him.
A year after league schedulers banned the crippled Rockets from national TV, save for a token ESPN appearance after they had been eliminated from postseason contention, they decided to feature Houston's pro hoops squad moments after the ultimate bling ceremony.
The two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers will snatch up the rings they secured by beating the Boston Celtics on June 17 in a mucky, Game Seven clangfest. Then, they will begin the quest for Phil Jackson's fourth three-peat against the retooled Rockets.
The expected return of a 7'6" giant makes that adjective— which seems inappropriate for a team that finished the summer in quiet fashion by drafting Patrick Patterson, signing Brad Miller, and retaining free agents Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry— applicable.
The fireworks launch Tuesday Oct. 26 at 9:30 p.m. Central on TNT. The league will also showcase the Rockets four nights later on NBATV. Houston rumbles with Denver Oct. 30 in its home opener at Toyota Center.
No one, including Yao, knows how the former All-Star center's body will respond to his first court action since May 2009. The Rockets hope Yao will be ready for training camp.
Betting the house on that, considering the team's foundation has suffered major injuries in five straight seasons, is an exercise in futility. Can Rick Adelman trot him out there for more than 15-20 minutes when the champion Lakers beckon in late October? How effective can Yao be given those limited minutes and his extended layoff from competitive basketball?
Yao understands better than anyone he will need to answer those questions. The problem: he might know more about the Jersey Shore cast than how his glass-like feet will respond.
He does boast two of them like most other humans, as if he needed a reminder the other could also break.
The Rockets owe some of their renewed recognition to Yao's marketability. More than 200 million viewers in China tuned in to watch Yao and fellow countryman Yi Jianlian square off in a regular season game less excitable than a celibate and sober Tommy Lee. No one can overstate what his stardom means to China or Les Alexander.
His re-appearance in the lineup, however, also changes the basketball equation. The last time the Rockets faced the Lakers, Yao watched helplessly in a sport coat, and Jermaine Taylor started opposite Kobe Bryant in place of the injured Kevin Martin.
The resulting rout was no surprise.
Yao's shortcomings are numerous and well-documented. His dribbling skills rank right up there with Shane Battier's singing. Rockets fans wince anytime he takes more than two or three dribbles from either box. Turnover. It's coming. We know it.
His rotten injury luck, if known in the 1800s, might have convinced Bartholdi he could build the Statue of Liberty with silly putty. Among the many positive vocabulary words the average fan would use to describe Yao, durability isn't one. We get it. He knows it.
Yao brings much more to the Rockets dinner table. They will be happy if he can serve any of his usual dishes to them.
His mere presence requires that coaches gameplan for his rare skillset. He will not soon start at point guard, but he can make the right pass given the necessary daylight. He sees the floor like a machine programmed with infrared technology. Few big men boast comparable court vision.
Yao will joust with one of them on opening night. That Spanish power forward's name rhymes with Mau Rasol.
Yao also gives the Rockets sheer size in the paint, a hot commodity Chuck Hayes and Luis Scola— lord love them— could not provide in a 42-40 campaign that ended with a Secaucus sojourn. Even as a spare minutes player, he would force coaches to make lineup alterations. A 7'6" guy can do that.
His return will make Scola and Hayes more advantageous. Teams will necessarily give Scola more space to operate on the opposite block, and they will cede those 10-15 feet jumpers, which the Argentine could knock down during an earthquake.
Adelman can call on Hayes as a defensive specialist instead of a 30-plus minutes per game starter. He seemed less commodious in a frequent, featured role because his 6'6" frame left him susceptible to most taller players, even the ones with marginal athleticism.
Opposing forwards and centers cannot punish Hayes, when he delves into his astute bag of defensive tricks as a reserve. Brad Miller allows Adelman to ease Yao back into the rotation. He knew his former coach's system well enough as a Bull to bark at Rockets players he deemed out of position during both Houston-Chicago showdowns last season.
Yao's plotted Rockets reunion also made defensive cream puff David Anderson expendable. I wish the newest Raptor the best but expect little from him in Toronto. He will make a few posters, and you can guess which side will do the dunking.
There is so much uncertainty surrounding Yao's attempted comeback. A week ago, Yao told Chinese state media he would consider retirement if the stress fracture in his foot does not heal. It makes sense that a guy with a still broken foot would struggle to play basketball. Yao also talks this way each summer in hopes it will convince China's hardwood chiefs to prepare for life without him.
The Rockets hope this miserable saga will end for their star big man as it did for Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Morey, Alexander, and Adelman would eagerly accept a less mobile Yao— and no one ever confused him for Clyde "the Glide" or Dream— if it meant a more durable one.
No doctor could have guaranteed Yao or his crestfallen franchise that. Instead, the Rockets must play the waiting game and hope the basketball gods finally decide to answer Houston's biggest hoops prayer.
The fans yearn for a healthy Yao
The NBA— which projected the Rockets as unwatchable last year— announced Tuesday night it would like to see the same.
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