Eight years ago, Yao Ming was quickly becoming the biggest name in the basketball world. He had been a superstar in Shanghai, he became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft, and it didn't take long before he was the franchise player of the Houston Rockets.
He's been the face of the Rockets ever since, but he's amounted to little more than seven All-Star selections (aided by millions of Chinese voters) and a sustained run of team underperformance. Yao and the Rockets have only once sniffed the second round of the playoffs, nothing more. The hopes of the 7-foot-6 Goliath bringing a title back to Texas have dwindled over the years.
Yao used to be a huge superstar. Now he's a huge burden on the Rockets' payroll.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, Houston general manager Daryl Morey is now exploring his options to unload Yao in a trade this winter. After eight-plus seasons with the former No. 1 pick, the Rockets are ready to call it quits.
Whatever team acquires Yao won't be after his talent. They'll be after salary cap relief — the center might be out for the season with a stress fracture in his left ankle, but he's still an expiring contract, so he's an asset. Yao is due $17.7 million this season, $8 million of which will be reimbursed by an insurance policy. Whoever trades for the Rockets' big man will save a bundle of cash this winter.
But it's sad to see Yao's career reduced to a salary cap figure. He was once the face of the changing landscape in the NBA, and it's difficult to picture the league without him.
Yao put basketball on the map in China. He made the biggest country in the world care about the NBA like never before. Over the last eight years, we've seen TV contracts, shoe deals and jersey sales reflect the growth of the game overseas. There's now a chance that we'll never see Yao again as the player he once was. And if his career declines, then so, too, might the popularity of the NBA game around the world.
A year ago, the Rockets unloaded Tracy McGrady, a similarly massive expiring contract, at the trading deadline. McGrady spent two uneventful months in New York, keot a low profile for most of the summer and then quietly signed a small one-year deal with the Pistons. Money, fame and superstar status went out the window in the blink of an eye. Now, the same might happen to Yao.
If you're a Rockets fan, you can accept it. The team has to move on — they have plenty of assets to build around, and an eight-figure expiring deal is certainly one of them. There's still hope for the future in Houston.
But for the NBA as a whole, the plight of Yao Ming is a sad story. If you love basketball, you should be rooting for Yao to remain relevant in 2011 and beyond.
Is basketball better with Yao Ming? Share your thoughts below.
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