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December 18, 2010
A Healthy Yao
Projecting What Might Have Been

by Kevin Pelton

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With this week's news that Yao Ming will miss the remainder of the 2010-11 season because of a stress fracture in his left ankle, concern continues to grow that Yao's basketball career--at the very least the effective portion of it--is over. For a player who only recently turned 30, that is a sobering thought. However, with Yao's history of foot and ankle injuries--ones that have limited him to five games over the past two NBA campaigns--it appears more real than ever.

At this point, it's worth asking just what exactly we might be missing out on. While the best years of Yao's career were probably behind him even if he had been able to stay healthy, he was likely to remain productive well into his 30s. To quantify an expected level of performance, we turned to Basketball Prospectus' SCHOENE Projection System. In the summer of 2009, we used SCHOENE to fill in the gaps in Michael Jordan's career and project into the future for Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Using a similar method, we played out the remainder of a hypothetical career for Yao.

Creating this projection requires a number of assumptions. We projected that Yao would retire just before turning 37, at the conclusion of the 2016-17 season. Some similar players have been able to hang on longer, but it's unlikely Yao would be able to provide much value past that point. Projecting Yao's games played is tricky. For 2009-10 and 2010-11, we used the same method SCHOENE typically uses to estimate games played based on the number missed due to injuries the previous two seasons. Thereafter, we settled on 69 games per season--more than Yao played in any season from 2005-06 through 2007-08, but also fewer than he played (77) during his last healthy campaign, 2008-09.

Further, we projected that Yao would gradually ramp down from his past average of 33 minutes per game to 28 a night by the end of his career. We also assumed that the Rockets would continue to play at their 2009-10 pace (slightly faster than league average) and that the NBA as a whole would keep posting identical statistics rather than evolving at all. Lastly, and this might be mistaken, we assumed that next season would be played in total without any lockout.

Using those factors, Yao's statistical history through the 2008-09 season and the development of similar players at the same age produces the following statistical lines for Yao on a seasonal basis:

Year       GP     MPG     PPG    RPG    BPG    Win%    WARP
-----------------------------------------------------------
2009-10    74    33.0    20.0    9.3    2.1    .624    10.6
2010-11    62    33.0    19.6    9.6    2.0    .591     7.5
2011-12    69    32.0    17.9    9.3    1.9    .565     6.9
2012-13    69    32.0    17.2    9.0    1.8    .531     5.3
2013-14    69    31.0    15.5    8.4    1.8    .497     3.6
2014-15    69    30.0    14.8    7.9    1.5    .478     2.7
2015-16    69    29.0    13.2    7.7    1.6    .480     2.7
2016-17    69    28.0    12.0    7.0    1.5    .449     1.3

Naturally, Yao's performance starts at a similar level to where he left off (averaging 19.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 2008-09, when he was rated as producing 11 wins above what a replacement-level player would in the same minutes) before gradually tapering off.

SCHOENE tends to be a bit conservative when it comes to looking far into the future, and this is apparently no exception. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the most similar player to Yao in modern NBA history, remained an above-average player through 2008-09, when he was nearly 34. These projections show Yao slipping below average in terms of winning percentage, the per-minute component of the WARP rating, during his age-33 season (2013-14). The change is primarily in terms of efficiency, as Yao's per-game averages were expected to stay strong until late in his NBA career.

Because Yao did not enter the NBA at an especially young age and because he tended to miss time regularly, he was unlikely to build historic career totals even had he been able to avoid the serious injuries that have befallen him the past two seasons. SCHOENE's career projection has Yao falling short of 20,000 career points and 10,000 career rebounds, the notable milestones for big men.

         GP    Min     Pts     Reb    Ast    Stl    Blk    WARP
---------------------------------------------------------------
Career  1031  32773   18145   9147   1619    393   1887   107.4

Had Yao remained with the Rockets his entire projected career, he would have been able to move up the team leaderboards. His projected point total would put him second in franchise history behind Hakeem Olajuwon (26,511). Yao is already second to Olajuwon in career blocked shots and would surely have attained the same position in terms of rebounds. Beyond that, Olajuwon (1,177) and Calvin Murphy (1,002) are the only two players to suit up for at least 1,000 games for Houston.

The projections for Yao's advanced statistics are more pessimistic than the ones for his per-game statistics, but his expected career WARP total would put him past the 100-WARP threshold identified by my coauthor Bradford Doolittle in this year's Pro Basketball Prospectus as good enough to put a player in the discussion for the Hall of Fame. As it is, Yao's contributions to date, his injury plight and his role in advancing the NBA's popularity in China may have him on the path to Springfield.

Ultimately, numbers cannot entirely capture the potential loss if Yao is unable to return to the basketball court. As a unique player in NBA history, someone whose skills belied his 7-foot-6 frame, Yao is irreplaceable not only to the Rockets but to the league as a whole.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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