Monday, January 3, 2011

Yao Ming Can Help The Rockets When They Need It Most

I'm all for hope and optimism in the face of tragic (in the context of sports) adversity, but sometimes it makes more sense to be coldly pragmatic. For the Houston Rockets’ front office, this is one of those times. In the aftermath of Yao Ming’s most recent season-ending injury, it's pretty clear that his time as a productive, full-time NBA player has all but come to an end. Thanks to a variety of severe foot and leg injuries, Yao’s played more than 57 games just once in the past six seasons- and has now lost the entirety of each of the last two (the five games he played this year don’t really count).

It’s a difficult realization, and a heartbreaking end for a hardworking and supremely talented, but unfortunately snake-bitten, player with the only NBA team he’s ever known.

However, as tends to be the case in big business, matters of human interest must be placed on the back burner. Despite being unable to take the floor again this season, Yao remains one of the NBA’s most valuable financial assets. According to recent reports, GM Daryl Morey is looking into trading Yao, whose expiring contract brings with it $17.7M in salary cap relief and $8M in insurance savings at season’s end, and could return some quality pieces.

After stumbling to a 3-10 start, the Rockets appear to have righted the ship are on the ascendancy in the Western Conference. They’ve won 13 of their last 20 games and sit just a game and a half out of a playoff spot and 3.5 out of 6th place in the West- despite having gotten a total of just 90 minutes out of 23.7% of their 2010-11 payroll.

It's important to realize that the Rockets have managed to get back into the playoff hunt by taking advantage of a soft patch in their schedule. Of the seven loss they’ve suffered in their last 20 games, five (at home to Miami, and on the road to Dallas, Chicago, OKC and Portland) have come against quality opposition, while the same can only be said of four of their 13 wins (home wins over OKC and the Lakers, and a pair of 16-point wins over the Grizzlies) over that period.

The Rockets are about to embark upon the most brutal stretch on their schedule- over the next two weeks (beginning tonight at 9:00 PM Eastern), they will play at Denver, host Portland, go to Orlando, host Utah, go to Boston, host OKC and the Hornets, and travel to Atlanta. Yikes! If the top-shelf competition doesn’t kill you, that brutal travel schedule might. And while the schedule does ease up a (tiny) bit in mid-January, the Rockets still have to host the Magic on the 22nd and kick off a four-game-in-seven-night trip to Dallas, San Antonio, L.A. (to play the Lakers) and Utah, beginning on January 27.

The Rockets have done an excellent job of banding together in the aftermath of Yao’s injury, playing solid ball and beating less-talented teams. Heading into what promises to be a hellish month, if the Rockets plan to continue their ascent in the West- not a crazy notion given the Blazers’ (1.5 games ahead) injury woes, the Hornets’ (3.5 ahead) lackluster play after a strong start and the likelihood that the Nuggets (3.5 ahead) will be in rebuilding mode by late February- they’re going to have to get something out of their near-$18 million investment. The team’s needs are clear- defense and another big body on the inside. The time has come to trade Yao Ming and build a team around the guys that are actually on the floor.

Other than the 7’6” elephant in the room (I realize that’s not a large elephant, but humor me), the Rockets have plenty of cause for optimism. This team boasts a number of very talented pieces- an exceptional rebounder and inside scorer (Luis Scola), a two-guard with range that moves without the ball and gets to the line (Kevin Martin), a pair of solid perimeter defenders (Shane Battier and Courtney Lee) and perhaps the NBA’s best PG duo in (Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry)- all of whom are signed to reasonable, or at least non-cap-killing, contracts. This is a great supporting cast with (understandably) no superstar to support.

It’s unlikely that at this point the Rockets will make a run at any of the league’s biggest names. However, all season, the Rockets have ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of defense- they currently rank 7th worst (tied with the Clippers) in points allowed per 100 possessions (106.3), 4th worst in forcing turnovers (12.7 per 100 possessions) and allow 21.8 field goal attempts per game “at the rim.” Also, they've been consistently lit up by opposing 2/3’s- particularly those that like to put the ball on the floor. Through nine weeks, Al Harrington (28), Manu Ginobili (28), Rudy Gay (29), Kevin Durant (32; this one’s not too bad), Monta Ellis (46 & 44; these ones are), Dwyane Wade (45) and DeMar DeRozan (37, a career high) have all torched the Rockets for scoring nights well in excess of their season averages.

Given the magnitude of the financial relief Yao’s contract will provide, the Rockets’ front office should have little trouble parlaying the big man into an experienced defender with some offensive skills who should fit right in with the quality cast that’s already in place.

I speak, of course, of Detroit Pistons' veteran Tayshaun Prince who is by all accounts a good guy (I’m discounting his early-season squabbles with Pistons’ coach John Keuster- that situation seems pretty toxic), a great teammate and an excellent defender- who’s got plenty of postseason experience (six trips to the conference finals, two to the Finals), where he's guarded elite wing players (Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Dwyane Wade), and won a ring in 2004 as an integral part of a “superstar-less” team.

Now, I don’t want to waste a bunch of time doing a whole “Picasso of the Trade Machine” bit, but this deal, sending Yao ($17.7M off the books this summer, $8M in insurance) to the Pistons- who are paying roughly $65M over the next two years to Rip Hamilton, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and would welcome any relief- in exchange for Prince (who’s got an $11.1M expiring contract of his own) and Jason Maxiell (owed $5M this year and next, with a $5M option for 2012-13) appears to make sense for both sides.

Acquiring Prince would not only provide the Rockets with a major upgrade at the defensive end against slashing wings, it would lighten the offensive load at the “3” spot, currently filled by Shane Battier (8.5 ppg) and Chase Budinger (8.2 ppg). Prince is currently averaging 14.1 ppg, while hitting 49.5% from the field and 46.4% from beyond the arc, while attempting nearly three shot per game "at the rim," which he's converted at a 77.8% clip.

If Prince fits in well and the Rockets decide they'd like to retain his services, they’ll likely be able to do so at a lower cost. Whatever the particulars of the new CBA, it’s almost universally agreed upon that the huge salaries bestowed upon the league’s second- and third-tier players (like $11M/yr for Tayshaun Prince) are a thing of the past. If it turns out that Prince is not a good fit, the Rockets could simply let him walk and realize more than 60% of the cap relief they’d have received from Yao (ex-insurance payout) expiring deal. 

Throw in 6’7”, 260 lb Jason Maxiell, who’s shown the ability to be an effective rebounder (rebound rate of at least 13.6 each of the three years prior to this one), and the Rockets have upgraded and/or added depth at two areas of need, without taking on any sizable, long-term financial obligations.

Meanwhile, the Pistons, who will not be contending for anything of note in the foreseeable future, would get financial value (cap relief/insurance from Yao, shedding $5M/yr on Maxiell) in exchange for one of their big-money guys who’s a virtual lock to walk as a free agent this summer. 

Plus, even if such a deal were to go down, who's to say Yao doesn't wind up in the Rockets' red and white again in the not-too-distant future?

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