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Houston Rockets: Happy Birthday Yao Ming

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Houston Rockets legend Yao Ming turns 35 today.

After a miserable 2001-02 season the Houston Rockets finished with a dreadful 28-54 record; one of the worst in franchise history. Looking for a fresh start the Rockets drafted a 7’6 center from China with their first pick in 2002. Despite the fact many analysts predicted his failure Yao Ming quickly established himself in his first two seasons as one of the brightest stars in the league.

Oct 18, 2013; Shanghai, China; Houston Rockets former center Yao Ming and Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson meet before the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Mercedes-Benz Arena. Mandatory Credit: Danny La-USA TODAY Sports

Making an immediate impact Yao finished second behind Suns forward Amare Stoudemire for Rookie of the Year honors. More impressively he helped the Rockets break a six-year postseason drought by reaching the 2004 playoffs. Later that summer the Rockets acquired two-time scoring champ Tracy McGrady from the Orlando Magic.

For five seasons Yao and McGrady would create one of the best inside-outside duos in the league. However, the absence of playoff success and injuries hindered Yao from reaching his full potential. Although he only played eight seasons in Houston, Yao is considered one of the greatest players ever in Rockets history.

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Arguably Yao Ming might have been the best big man in the league during the 2000s. No he was not an overly powerful big man like Shaquille O’Neal.  Nor was he a super athletic center like Dwight Howard.

It was his soft shooting touch that made him a tough match up for his opponents. O’Neal once said: If it was not for his injuries, Yao probably would have gone down as one of the top 5 centers to ever play the game.

From 2002-09 no center in the league scored more points that Yao. In fact, Yao’s 9,247 points scored throughout his career, is currently ranked sixth on the Rockets all-time scoring list.

If it was not for his injuries, Yao probably would have gone down as one of the top 5 centers to ever play the game. – O’Neal

In six of his eight seasons, Yao never shot less than 50 percent from the field. He also showed his ability to shoot where most big men struggle-from – the free throw line. Trailing only Dirk Nowitzki, Yao finished his career with the second highest free throw percentage among 7-footers at 83 percent.

Not only was Yao a great offensive player, he also ranked top five at his position in rebounds and blocks. Yao’s 920 rejections is currently ranked second on the Rockets all-time block list and third for Defensive Win Shares with 29.3 per game. Yao’s career high 25.0 points per game came during the 2007 season, yet it was 2009 when he became an MVP caliber player.

After McGrady went down with a season-ending knee injury, Yao led the Rockets to a 53-29 record. He averaged 19.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks in 77 games. Yao not only led the Rockets to the playoffs, but helped Houston win their first postseason victory since 1997 against the young Portland Trail Blazers.

In game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, Yao Ming’s 28 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks was enough to upset the top seeded Los Angeles Lakers with a 100-92 victory. Although the Rockets had all the momentum heading into game 2, a foot injury kept Yao from returning to the series. Without Yao, the Rockets lost in seven games to the Lakers.

Sadly, Yao Ming never was the same player again. His foot injury required surgery in the off season and forced Yao to miss all the 2009-2010 season. He returned for the start of the 2010 season, but was limited to five games. Injuries continued to play havoc with his career as a stress fracture to his left ankle caused him to miss the rest of the 2010 season, and later forced his retirement in 2011.

Although Yao’s career is a reminder of what-could-have-been, he left an enormous mark on the NBA. Specifically, his NBA arrival coincided with the expedited growth of basketball popularity in China. Furthermore, his overall World popularity was evidenced via fans consistently voting him as a starting All-Star even in years he was injured. 

Yao ended his career with 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks. He was an eight time NBA-All Star, and made five consecutive All-NBA selections. Hopefully Yao would get his chance at the hall-of-fame one day, but until then he will forever be one of the greatest players in Rockets history.

Rockets’ fans all over will forever appreciate the great memories you left behind in Clutch City. Happy Birthday Yao!

Next: Mutombo Hall Of Fame Career

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