Regardless of what Rockets GM Daryl Morey accomplishes this offseason, both he and center Yao Ming know that the 2010-2011 season will depend on the sturdiness of the Great Wall.
As usual, there are no questions regarding Yao's commitment to the team or his work ethic. After all, in picking up his player option for the 2010-2011 season, Yao is practically gambling on himself to come through for the Rockets. He has raised his own stakes. Now, if he fails, not only do the Rockets take a significant blow, but so does the Great Wall himself, both in his wallet and in the public eye.
Goodbye, max contract. Hello, presumed early retirement.
There's no way around it. If Yao gets hurt once again this year, people will be quick to assume that the Ming Dynasty has come to an end. And it's unfair in so many ways. Here's a guy who does nothing but commit himself to basketball and to his teammates. He has remained loyal to the Rockets and to his own game, constantly working to improve and to get better. Nobody is more pissed that Yao has gotten hurt every season since 2004 than Yao Ming.
Unfortunately, it's out of his control. You can call Yao's setbacks "freak injuries," as none of them have proven to be chronic. But that's a giant contradiction in itself. A freak is always prone to freak injuries, and to put it in the nicest, most respectful terms possible, Yao Ming is a freak. He's a 7-foot-6 guy trying to keep up with players nearly a foot shorter than him.
It's sad, really. I'm sure that if Yao could find a way to caution himself from getting injured so often, he would. But there's not much he can do to prevent bumping knees with Kobe Bryant or having his gigantic foot tangle with another's than to stop playing hard and at 100 percent. That's not something that Yao is willing to do.
You can disagree with that premise if you want, but I will never fault a player for giving his best effort at all times. Nobody should tell Yao to "take it easy" or "be careful" because that would defeat his entire purpose for being on the court in the first place. It would be like telling Joey Chestnut to slow down.
As unfair and annoying and stupid as Yao's injury troubles are, they aren't going to change any time soon. The Rockets know this, and they're going to roll with it anyway. They're putting all of their chips in Yao's court and going all in. Each party could reap the benefits if the move yields success. Each could also find themselves second-guessing and withering away upon the slightest sprain or fracture.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey likes to make calculations. He's a stat geek, as everyone knows by now, and he has taken risks before. But betting on Yao will be his largest gamble to date. No matter what free agent Morey manages to land and no matter how good the roster currently is regardless, it's all on Yao this year. For a guy who hasn't played a full season since his second in the league, that's a borderline crazy approach.
In Morey's defense, he doesn't have much of a choice but to stick with Yao. It's always tough when a team's biggest X-factor also happens to be its best (and most popular) player. Getting rid of Yao would only create more problems for the Rockets, as it would likely wipe out their Chinese fan base and take them further off the basketball map. But what if Yao could be exchanged for quality, guaranteed parts? What if we could look at our roster and feel confident that it won't be missing a few pieces at some point during the year? We can only imagine, because it won't happen. Yao Ming will remain a Rocket for as long as he's willing to stay. Nobody will be asking him to leave, though another injury could make it quite difficult to cough up too much cash.
For now, Morey and Yao are in this thing together. They've said all the right things and have done everything to reduce the chance for failure 2011. Until now, Yao hasn't sat out for an entire year of basketball in his life -- he knows this may be his last shot at winning a title as a premier player. Pulling a Karl Malone and joining a contender as a has-been isn't on his agenda. He wants to win now, with Morey at the helm and with the Rockets fan base somehow still on his side.
But make no mistake: As impressive as the Rockets were this past season with a shuffled and depleted roster, they won't get out of the first round without Yao playing 25-30 minutes a night. Replacement Chuck Hayes proved to be a capable one-on-one post defender, but his lack of size devastated the Rockets in the paint. Teams began to score at will around the rim and saw no reason to focus their attack elsewhere. If Yao is able to A) Move three feet in any direction, and B) Jump over a miniature stepstool, the Rockets' defense will automatically improve. He not only changes the way that the Rockets run their offense, but he also scares opponents into playing on the perimeter, where capable wing defenders Trevor Ariza and Shane Battier can take chances and force turnovers. Without Yao in the middle, those two are practically useless.
The Great Wall truly reaches all points of the Rockets' reach. Everyone is positively affected by his presence, and likewise negatively affected when he's wearing a suit. The Rockets are prepared to make a push for a title behind his lead. Will Yao be able to stay on the court, or will the Rockets suffer yet another disappointing, injury-plagued season?
That is one of the rare questions that Morey nor Yao can't truly answer. But, against all odds, they're going to take that route anyway and hope for the best.