Yao Ming is one of the biggest and most overlooked “what-ifs?” in league history. A rash of foot injuries limited the Chinese giant – physically and metaphorically – to just seven full NBA seasons before he called it quits in 2010-2011. But Yao’s fleeting career doesn’t make his peak any less dominant. The Houston Rockets superstar was among the very best players in basketball for a three-year stretch from 2004-2005 to 2007-2008, averaging a combined 21.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting 53 percent from the field, numbers good for an elite PER of 24.9. But Yao wasn’t even the league’s clear-cut best center then; an aging Shaquille O’Neal was still around.
The torch was never passed from Shaq to Yao the way it seemed destined to be. The former’s precipitous decline almost directly coincided with the lingering effects of the latter’s injury woes, robbing us of the Goliath vs. Goliath battles that were bound to decide Western Conference supremacy for half a decade. Remember their first meeting?
Those early-game fireworks wouldn’t last – O’Neal outpaced Yao with relative easy by notching 31 points and 13 rebounds compared to the rookie’s 10 points, 10 rebounds, and six blocks. But Yao’s early effectiveness seemed a harbinger of things to come, a new, theretofore unseen challenger to Shaq’s paint supremacy. There was just never a player that came close matching O’Neal’s combination of size, athleticism, and skill until Yao came along.
In 13 regular season meetings between the two, Yao’s team won seven games and O’Neal’s six, though Shaq’s numbers were superior. When they met in the 2004 playoffs, the overmatched Rockets fell to O’Neal’s star-studded, ultimately doomed Los Angeles Lakers in a ho-hum five games. Yao, though, severely limited O’Neal: The Big Aristotle averaged just 16.2 points on 51.5 percent shooting against Houston, numbers almost matched by his 23 year-old opponent.
But that was the first and last we saw of O’Neal and Ming in the playoffs. Shaq headed East to the Miami Heat following the 2003-2004 season, and Yao’s Rockets missed the playoffs when Miami won the title two years later as his injury issues began.
How different history might be if O’Neal could have co-existed with Kobe Bryant, and the health maladies that plagued Yao hadn’t also derailed eventual running mate Tracy McGrady. At least this photo of the two future Hall-of-Fame behemoths allows us to dream:
*All statistical support for this post provided by basketball-reference.com
(Video via aman2k)
Could Shaq-Yao have been one of the league’s best individual rivalries?
Follow Jack on Twitter at @ArmstrongWinter.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.