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Fair Or Foul?

An inside look at the perception that Yao Ming is underutilized on offense


But Hamlet was onto something at that moment, for these “seems” are not simply relegated to the world of the Bard. They’re ubiquitous by nature and often demonstrate an annoying propensity to lead us astray; arriving in the form of preconceived notions before becoming a larger menace as a permanent part of popular opinion. And once unleashed, they can require a Herculean effort to overcome.

Take, for instance, the curious case of Yao Ming. There is a growing sentiment that the Rockets are underutilizing their All-Star center. Critics point to the number of shot attempts Yao averages per game (13.2 in 08-09) and cry foul, saying it’s borderline criminal that Houston’s most efficient offensive weapon could rank a pedestrian 59th in the NBA in that category. If Yao is truly a star and the team’s best player, so the logic goes, then surely the Rockets are sabotaging themselves by allowing such an injustice to take place.

Now know this: Houston definitely does want the ball in Yao’s hands more and all parties involved constantly work, strategize and scheme to make that happen. But that in no way should be taken as confirmation that the team has somehow failed up to this point to take full advantage of its big man.

The fact is that one can’t gain proper perspective on a particular player’s usage by merely glancing at shot attempts relative to the league average. For one thing, dominant wing players will almost always have more scoring opportunities than dominant post players because of the inherent responsibilities of their respective positions. Guards and small forwards begin practically every play with the ball in their hands, allowing them to create and often dictate the terms of their own offensive involvement. Big men, meanwhile, are much more reliant upon their teammates to get them the ball, meaning they don’t possess the same sort of freedom to throw up shots in bulk like their smaller brethren typically do.

Furthermore, scoring opportunities are about far more than just field goal attempts – getting to the free throw line and, to a lesser degree, turnovers, also need to be taken into account. And sure enough, once you add the totals from those two categories to field goal attempts, Yao suddenly vaults to 26th in the NBA in scoring opportunities. Take it one step further by comparing Yao only to his contemporaries at the center position, thus evening the playing field, and the Rockets big man is suddenly second only to Orlando’s Dwight Howard (please note: Yao actually moves ahead of Howard when minutes played are taken into account).

Of course, the misconception regarding Yao goes far beyond just total scoring opportunities. Critics contend the Rockets greatest failing is their inability to get the ball to Yao in position to score late in ball games. Just to repeat: Houston absolutely wants the ball in the Great Wall’s hands as much as possible, especially during crunch time since he is such a dead-eye free throw shooter. And there’s no point denying the Rockets have had issues with teams which have fronted Yao or thrown various double teams at him late in games. But, again, a closer look at the numbers reveals yet another disconnect between perception and reality.

This season many Rockets fans have become familiar with the term “high leverage moments.” In short, they are something the team tracks which places a microscope on key moments of the game when the chance of one team or the other winning can shift dramatically. Once again, wing players rule the day here as LeBron James (43.8%), Dwyane Wade (40.5%) and Kobe Bryant (36.3%) claim the top three positions due to the large percentage of crunch time touches they receive. No surprise there. But those who decry Yao’s perceived lack of late game involvement may be caught off guard by what the numbers reveal about his usage.

In terms of going to Yao late in clutch situations, the Rockets center ranks 22nd overall – with 24.3% of his team’s “clutch” possessions in the fourth quarter and OT - and first among centers. In fact, the only bigs ahead of him are Dirk Nowitzki (32.4%), Tim Duncan (29.1%), and Chris Bosh (25.4%). That’s it. That’s the list. Interesting to note that Orlando’s Howard ranks 7th among post players at 21.3%, though one assumes much of that is the result of his still shaky free throw stroke.

To be sure, there is no great tragedy in getting taken for a ride on the train of public perception. There are a great many myths out there, and some so closely resemble reality that it can be difficult to discern the difference between the two. The only true crime of consequence is to turn a blind eye once the “real” truth has been revealed. For it is those who ultimately will be left only with what Shakespeare described as, “That within which passeth show; These but the trappings and the suits of woe.”