As part of a reoccuring piece, Hornets247.com takes a look at the rookie seasons of franchise players to get an idea of what to expect from Anthony Davis
In our last piece, we took a look at the best prospect to enter the NBA in the last twenty years (according to ESPN.com), LeBron James. Today we take a look at the highest ranked International player in those rankings, Yao Ming.
2001-02 Houston Rockets
August 2nd, 2001 saw the end of an era for the Houston Rockets as the traded the greatest player in their franchise’s history, Hakeem Olajuwon, to the Toronto Raptors for a 1st and 2nd round pick. The move signaled a changing of the guard as the Rockets experiment of bringing together an aging Big Three of Hakeem, Charles Barkley, and Scottie Pippen did not exactly work out as well as it would for the Celtics nearly a decade later.
Houston decided that it was time to rebuild around Steve Francis- a talented guard heading into his third year, who had coincidentally forced his way out of Canada by threatening to sit out unless the team who drafted him (Vancouver) traded his rights. In addition to Francis, the team had a roster full of youth, as eight of the nine players who made up the rotation to begin the season all had three seasons or less of NBA experience.
As you could imagine, the Rockets got off to a slow start, sitting at 7-20 halfway through December. That record included a franchise record 15 game losing streak. Fortunately for the Rockets, they had traded for two seasoned veterans in the offseason after they moved Hakeem; former Hornet Glen Rice and longtime Hawk Kevin Willis. As it became more and more evident that the team was becoming dysfunctional on the court, head coach Rudy Tomjanovich increased his veterans playing time, and the result was a respectable run from early January through late March and a final record of 28-54.
What was not respectable, by any metric, was the Houston Rockets defense that season. They finished dead last in the league in defensive rating, primarily due to three reasons: They finished 25th in the league in both Effective Field Goal Percentage Allowed and Defensive Rebound Percentage, and they ranked last in turnover percentage. They only gave up 97.2 points per game, but that was largely because they played at the second slowest pace in the league, thereby limiting opponents possessions.
Offensively they were below average, with an offense that centered around Francis and Mobley playing isolation basketball while the other four guys stood around and watched. The good news was they rarely turned the ball over, but the bad news was they rarely turned the ball over because nobody on that team passed, and therefore very few baskets were assisted on by their core group of players. In fact, the only player on the team with an above average Ast% was back-up guard Moochie Norris, and the data shows that they were a far better team with him in the game than their “star” Steve Francis.
As you can imagine, their attendance suffered, finishing 28th out of 29 teams that year- somewhat surprising considering the fact that few fan bases support their team year in and year out the way that Rockets fans do. The style simply did not mesh with the city however, as it was me-first, hero ball at its worst; a style much different than the unselfish brand of basketball that had brought the city two titles less than a decade earlier.
After just his second game, Charles Barkley and others were ready to label Yao Ming a bust. He came off the bench and averaged 12 minutes, shot 16% from the floor and produced one point per game. He was too thin to develop position down low and appeared to lack the lateral quickness to rotate defensively fast enough to prevent himself from getting posterized.
Houston brought Yao along slowly, refusing to start him or give him heavy minutes until December. He responded by putting up an All-Star caliber month in his first full one as a starter, averaging 17 and 10, along with over two blocks a game. Eventually he began to wear down as his numbers decreased across the board every month after the All-Star break, but that is to be expected for most International players who are not used to the NBA’s grueling schedule.
Overall, Yao Ming put up a very respectable rookie season that saw him average 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and over a block and a half a game in 29 minutes.
Clearly the biggest impact Yao Ming had was from a business perspective in his rookie year. Somewhat surprisingly, attendance did not increase at home games, as the Rockets moved up just one spot to #27 that year. Media requests, however, quadrupled and merchandise sales skyrocketed, as Yao Ming became the #1 selling jersey that year, while teammate Steve Francis finished in the top 10 after not cracking the top 40 the season before.
On the court, the Rockets remained largely the same offensively, as they played at about the same Pace and saw just minor improvements in their offensive rating as a whole, but their defense took a giant step forward. They allowed six less points per 100 possessions, catapulting them from last the season before to middle of the pack (14th) in 2002-03. They still had problems forcing teams into turnovers, but they made a monumental leap in the other two categories that plagued them a year earlier- Defensive Rebound Percentage (11th) and Effective Field Goal Percentage Allowed (6th).
Other than Yao Ming, the only other significant addition to the roster was James Posey, but he played in only 47 games for the team that year and the Rockets were nearly as good defensively in the games he missed as the ones he played in for them. Clearly, it was Yao who stabilized the defense, giving them size in the middle and even thought he was not an elite rebounder or shot blocker, his mere presence in the paint gave Houston and element they were sorely missing.
Offensively, he gave Mobley and Francis somebody to play off of in pick and roll situations. While Yao lacked the fluidity early in his career to roll effectively, his massive size provided plenty of space for both of Houston’s guards whether teams went over or under his set picks. Francis, in particular, became a much more deadly three-point shooter as a result, with the high screen and roll between Yao and Francis becoming Houston’s money play. You also can’t underestimate the offensive impact of a 7 foot 6 center who hits 81% of his free throws.
The tremendous boost that the team received defensively, combined with the small surge they experienced offensively resulted in 43 wins and saw the Rockets finish just one game behind the Phoenix Suns for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Compare and Contrast
The most notable similarity between these Hornets and Rockets teams is the pace at which the two teams played. Like Monty Williams, most of Rudy T’s teams played at a slow pace regardless of personnel. Both teams were also a year removed from losing the best player in the franchises history when they acquired the number one pick, and unlike the Cavaliers with LeBron, both teams had a quasi-superstar at the guard position who could be the focal point of the offense, allowing them to bring the big man along slowly.
The differences between the two situations, however, are fairly substantial. First and foremost, the Rockets had to deal with a language barrier that stiffled them early on and Yao had to assimilate to the culture of the NBA- something he later said was the hardest part of the process. The Rockets also had a coach that was growing tired of his starting backcourt’s style of play, and in turn, his voice was being drowned out in the locker room. Rudy T. would be replaced the following sumer, while Monty is still beloved by the players and he seems destined to be here for the long haul.
Defensively, last year’s Hornets were far more sound than the 2001-02 Rockets while the Rockets had a more explosive team offensively, as Mobley or Francis were capable of going off for 40 on any given night. You can argue that the Hornets have that in Eric Gordon and maybe Austin Rivers could get there in two or three years, but for now the Hornets lack a second creator when teams take the ball out of Gordon’s hands.
What We Can Learn From Yao and the Rockets
Yao Ming was exposed from time to time on the defensive end. His lateral quickness left a lot to be desired, he was below average on the pick and roll, and his lack of strength resulted in him getting abused by the elite centers in the post. Still, the Rockets defense made a considerable leap because offenses had to account for him/deal with his size, and quite frankly, even though he was raw, he was still better than most.
This is where those who criticize Anthony Davis miss the boat. They hem and haw about how he is too thin and is not a great post defender. They make the assumption that the Dwight Howard’s and Andrew Bynum’s of the world will own him in the post and conclude that because of this fact, we will not see the same impact that we saw him have at Kentucky. But Davis will only match-up with Howard and Bynum five times (at most- with Howard’s injury and Bynum’s history, that number can be 3 or less). On most nights, he will be guarding Samuel Dalembert, Omar Asik, DeAndre Jordan, Kendrick Perkins, and Chris Kaman. He will match up with either an aging Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter. He will face limited centers like Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah, JaVale McGee, and Emeka Okafor who have little to no post-up game with which to speak of.
If this were the mid-90’s and the league was chalk full of exceptional low post centers, then perhaps Hornets fans should be worried, but the fact is that while Yao was flawed as a rookie and Davis is not yet the defensive monster that he will become in three or four years, they both enter the league far more skilled and capable than the majority of big men that teams are forced to overpay and put in their starting lineup.
The same could be said on the offensive end where, like Yao, Davis enters the league without a fully developed post-up game, but with a skill set that is rare for a big man. Yao was a good face-up center coming into the league and he could knock down his free throws when he got to the line. Davis’s mid-range game is not as good, but he has more range on his shot, is comparable at the free throw line, and has superior ball handling skills.
Yao was a more dominating presence, size wise, when he came into the league while Davis is the more skilled of the two. Yao, arguably, had slightly more talent surrounding him as the Rockets had more depth, but the Hornets seem to have a more cohesive roster when you factor in team chemistry and player/coach relationship. It is not unreasonable to expect similar results- a team that greatly improves on the defensive end, and marginally improves offensively as they challenge for one of the final playoff spots out West.
I think most Hornets fans would take that.
Coming Up Next: David Robinson in S.A. and Duncan’s rookie year with the Spurs