In basketball, being a go-to guy isn’t always about who takes the last-second shot. It’s the guy who regularly gets the basketball when things are getting tense in the fourth quarter; the guy expected to calm things down when teammates are getting antsy; the guy called upon to snuff out an opponent’s rally or spark a rally of his own; the guy who’s not just supposed to make shots, but make the right decisions. Bottom line: Who do you want the offense to run through when everything is on the line?
Last year, in the weeks leading up to the NBA season, I ranked the League’s go-to guys. Using the rationale that even the most balanced team has one identifiable if-all-else-fails leader that they look to in crunch time, I picked one player per squad for a final list of 30. Again, ONE PLAYER PER TEAM. Here is the list going into this season:
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YAO MING, Houston Rockets
Let’s say Yao Ming doesn’t get injured. Let’s say he goes through the entire 82-game schedule, runs with the relative smoothness of leftover oatmeal (an upgrade for Yao), and regains his form as the best offensive center in basketball — perhaps the best center overall — whose only true peers can be counted on one of his original Xbox-sized hands.
Even if all of that happens, Yao can’t rank too high on this list because he’s simply not reliable as a late-game contributor.
As Yao makes his way back from another in a string of injuries, having missed all of last season, the Houston Rockets have made it clear they will be extremely strict with their superstar’s minutes. Doctors have suggested a 24-mpg diet for Yao, and Houston VP and trainer Keith Jones recently said that’s precisely what Yao will get. General manager Daryl Morey (a certified basketball Sabermetrics guy) and coach Rick Adelman are on-board with the plan, to the point where as soon as Yao hits the 24-minute mark in a particular game, Adelman plans to pull him out and sit him the rest of the night, no exceptions. (The policy may change in the playoffs.) Doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of the third quarter, or late into the fourth of a close game.
What that tells me is that unless Yao routinely sits out the first half of games, there’s no way to be certain he’ll even be available during the game’s biggest crunch-time moments, in the fourth quarter and overtime. You can’t trust Yao as your go-to guy down the stretch because odds are he won’t be allowed on the court.
Hopefully, Yao does hold up physically and the Rockets relax on their plan. In the meantime, his talents — which would normally place him fairly high among the League’s go-to players — will be only seen in snippets.
In his last NBA season, ’08-09, Yao was a solid clutch player. He averaged 28.5 points per 48 minutes of “clutch time” according to 82games.com, better than Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, and then-teammate Tracy McGrady. Yao shot 49 percent from the field and 80 percent at the line in the clutch.
Now T-Mac is gone, replaced on the wing by productive scorer Kevin Martin, and the Rockets also have emerging Aaron Brooks and underrated Luis Scola as go-to options. But Yao is going to be the headliner. Having a 7-footer (better yet, 7-foot-5) who can score and hit his free throws under pressure is like having a Golden Ticket at any level of basketball. The only problem is that Houston can’t depend on their ticket to get them in the door when they need him most.
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