As part of their 50th-anniversary celebration, the Houston Rockets will honor Yao Ming by retiring his jersey at tonight’s game.
After a career that was tragically cut shorts by injuries, it’s been one memorable year for Yao Ming. First came his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. And now, he will receive the highest honor from the Houston Rockets organization.
During halftime of tonight’s against the Chicago Bulls, Yao’s will become the seventh jersey to be hoisted up in the Toyota Center rafters. Although his time in Houston was more short-lived than fans would liked, the Great Wall had an amazing career.
After a miserable 2002 season, the Rockets finished with a dreadful 28-54 record–one of the worst in franchise history. Looking for a fresh start, Houston drafted a 7’6 center from China with their first pick that summer.
Despite the fact that many analysts predicted his failure, Yao quickly established himself in his first two seasons as one of the brightest stars in the league.
Making an immediate impact, Yao finished second behind Suns forward Amare Stoudemire for Rookie of the Year honors. But more impressively, he helped the Rockets break a six-year postseason drought by reaching the 2004 playoffs. Later that summer, the Rockets acquired two-time scoring champ Tracy McGrady from the Orlando Magic.
For five seasons, Yao and McGrady would create one of the best inside-outside duos in the league. However, the absence of playoff success and injuries hindered Yao from reaching his full potential. Although he only played eight seasons in Houston, Yao is considered one of the greatest players in Rockets history.
Arguably, Yao Ming might have been the best big man in the league during the 2000s. No, he was not an overly powerful big man like Shaquille O’Neal, nor was he a super-athletic center like Dwight Howard.
It was his soft shooting touch that made him a tough matchup for his opponents. O’Neal once said, “If it was not for his injuries, Yao probably would have gone down as one of the top 5 centers to ever play the game.”
From 2002-09, no center in the league scored more points that Yao. In fact, Yao’s 9,247 points scored throughout his career has him currently ranked sixth on the Rockets all-time scoring list.
In six of his eight seasons, Yao never shot less than 50 percent from the field. He also showed his ability to shoot where most big men struggle, from the free throw line. Trailing only Dirk Nowitzki, Yao finished his career with the second highest free throw percentage among 7-footers at 83 percent.
Not only was Yao a great offensive player, he also ranked top five at his position in rebounds and blocks. Yao’s 920 rejections are currently ranked second on the Rockets all-time block list and third for Defensive Win Shares with 29.3. Yao’s career high of 25.0 points per game came during the 2007 season, yet it was 2009 when he became an MVP caliber player.
After McGrady went down with a season-ending knee injury, Yao led the Rockets to a 53-29 record. He averaged 19.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks in 77 games.
He not only led the Rockets to the playoffs, but helped Houston win their first postseason victory since 1997 against the young Portland Trail Blazers.
In Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, Yao Ming’s 28 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks were enough to upset the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers with a 100-92 victory. Although the Rockets had all the momentum heading into game 2, a foot injury kept Yao from returning to the series.
Without Yao, the Rockets lost in seven games to the Lakers. Sadly, he never was the same player again.
His foot injury required surgery in the offseason and forced Yao to miss all the 2009-2010 season. He returned for the start of the 2010 season but was limited to five games. Injuries continued to play havoc with his career as a stress fracture to his left ankle caused him to miss the rest of the 2010 season, and later forced his retirement in 2011.
Although Yao’s career is the ultimate what-could-have-been, he left an enormous mark on the NBA. Specifically, his NBA arrival coincided with the expedited growth of basketball popularity in China.
Furthermore, his overall world popularity was evidenced via fans consistently voting him as a starting All-Star, even in years he was injured.
Yao ended his career with 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks. He was an eight-time NBA-All Star and made five consecutive All-NBA selections, making him one of the greatest players in Rockets history.