It’s appropriate that the name of the league’s biggest uncertainty doubles as an interrogative. While Tim Duncan (The Big Fundamental), K.G. (The Big Ticket) and Shaq (The Big Everything) earned declarative monikers, Yao remained The Big Question among the class of superstar post players. That is, until Tracy’s back decided to act up and shut him down for the year, making number eleven the new number one in H-Town.
Yao, the perennial outsider, seized the opportunity with both gargantuan mitts, banging, boarding and ‘bowing his way into the inner circle, the elusive twenty-ten club. As irrelevant as statistical milestones can be, this one is more meaningful than most since it corresponds to a real spike in the Great Wall’s game. While it may have come too late to save the Rockets’ injury-soured season, it was, at the least, a positive note in an otherwise terrible year for the squad which fooled so many writers (yours truly included) into thinking that Houston might become the west’s next powerhouse.
Now, folks are asking what synapses connected in Yao’s brain to bring about such a drastic alteration in his game. The truth is that the real change wasn’t so much between his ears as between his legs. Mr. Ming finally grew a pair, and a little chutzpah turned out to be the ingredient that brought out the best in the 7’5’’ centre with the soft hands and solid set shot. Nobody’s quite sure why Yao waited until now to unleash the beast, but there’s no question that he has improved irreversibly. What’s more is that, for the first time in his career, he’s posting better stats than Shaq.
Hold up (wait a minute). Better than Shaq? That was the question we’d been asking – usually rhetorically – since we first heard of a promising post player from the province of Shanghai. Each of their head-to-heads has been a tale of two giants, two fives widely considered the premier pair on the planet at their position. Even Dwyane and T-Mac become secondary stories when the biggest of the bigs meet in the paint.
But who’s better? Two years ago, there was no contest. Shaq, though clearly past his prime, was still a dominant force on the block, while Yao struggled to establish himself as a top-tier player. As things stand today, the tables have turned to the point that Jeff Van Gundy was able to proclaim Yao the best “regular-season” centre in the league without being accused of smoking crack or flat-out lying. As much as I’d love to be able to refute his claim, I’m not sure I can. Of course, Van Grumpy’s response hints at the irrefutable fact that Shaq keeps his foot off the gas until it really counts, but it also suggests that Yao has all but caught up to his diesel-powered counterpart, a preposterous notion at the start of the season.
How long until Yao becomes the best premier postseason pivot as well, then? That, as brother Hamlet once said, is the question. The “if” is now a “when”, and the time until Yao’s coronation might be better measured in games rather than seasons. Whatever the case, the Rockets can rest easy knowing that their former top draft pick is destined to become the biggest name in the game.