In the light of the Rocket’s recent win streak, and the devastating (or perhaps not?) injury to their center, I’ve been thinking about Yao Ming a little bit lately. One thing I’ve always found interesting about those absurdly tall (7-2 and taller) NBA centers, is that they are always compared to one another. It seems you can’t hear the name Shawn Bradley, without also hearing Gheorghe Muresan or Manute Bol. Naturally, when Yao Ming’s name arises so too do the names of these aforementioned players.
Though listed at just two inches shorter than the likes of Bradley and Ming, 7-4 Rik Smits seems to get overlooked in this conversation. Perhaps not absurly tall enough to be classified with the giants noted above, and certainly not dominant enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Hakeem, Walton, Ewing, or Moses, Smits’ place in history is forsaken.
Rik Smits was drafted out of Marist College by the Pacers as the second overall pick in the 1988 NBA Draft after Kansas’ Danny Manning. The blonde, floppy-haired Smits was crucial to the Pacers playoff runs in the mid-to-late 90s. He played second banana to sharp-shooting Reggie Miller, and most significantly for the purpose of this post, had a silky mid-range jumper, was a solid passer, and perfected the high-post to the point that other big men were uncomfortable defending him, but he was just tall and good enough in the low-post so that you couldn’t stick your power forward on him. Ignore the blonde hair, and the “playoff runs” and re-read that skillset, and Smits could easily be confused for Yao.
|All stats per 36 min. for comparison sake||Points||Reb||Ast||Blocks||Turnovers||FG%|
|Yao Ming’s 6th Season, Age 27 (2007-2008 )||21.3||10.5||2.3||2||3.2||0.507|
|Rik Smits’ 6th Season, Age 27 (1993-1994)||20.9||8.2||2.7||1.4||2.6||0.534|
Yao, the first pick of the 2002 NBA Draft, has mastered the high post. The 2007-2008 Rockets run ran their offense through Yao; solid perimeter shooting and backdoor cutting in Adelman’s spread motion offense helped afford Yao some space to conduct the team’s offense and his own offense. When that didn’t work the Rockets just gave T-Mac the ball, just as the Pacers did with Reggie a decade earlier.
Both players shot at high percentages thanks to the combination of a good mid range shot, and their abilities around the basket; both players average in the low 20s in points per 36 minutes, and though Yao has shown a better propensity to grab a rebound and block a shot through this point in his career, I’d say that both players are disappointingly soft, considering their size and skill. Add some toughness to the size, skill, and smarts that made scouts drool over these players in the first place, and you would get two legitimate hall-of-famers.
What Smits loses in rebounding and shot blocking he makes up for in his playoff play throughout his years with the Pacers. The Pacers of Smits’ prime were built similarly to this season’s Rockets, in the sense that both teams are focused on a shooting guard and a center, and are surrounded by quality players at point (in Mark Jackson, and the emerging Rafer Alston), do-it-all defensive minded forwards (Battier, and Derrick McKey), and a plethora of tough but skilled power forwards. The difference, of course, is that the Pacers were consistent contenders in the East, while Yao has yet to make it out of the first-round of the playoffs in the West. This, despite the fact that Smits consistently faced Ewing, Shaq, Mourning, and other defensive giants throughout those playoff runs, while Yao had only the tail end of Shaq’s prime and a slew of great power forwards playing center to match up against thus far in his career.
Though overshadowed by Reggie’s yearly playoff heroics, Smits played very well in the playoffs and would give the rival New York Knicks fits in the playoffs. And while Yao’s Rockets can play better without their center on the floor because they (read: T-Mac) take advantage of the extra open space, Smits presence and passing ability were crucial in freeing up Reggie and McKey for shots and easy layups. Perhaps that’s the greatest indictment of Yao – stick him on a team whose best player belongs on the open floor, and he’s taking up space. Had you stuck him on the 1995 Pacers though, he might be the guy that would have put them over the top as he could have matched Smits ability to enable Reggie while dominating the interior with his similarly wide array of post moves, and his additional bulk to perhaps deter the Center-driven league of the 90s. Stick the slightly less assertive Smits on the Rockets and perhaps they don’t feel inhibited by his presence, and can combine the best of Tracy McGrady’s skill on the open court with Smits’ 88 inches of skill.
What conclusion am I drawing here? I’m saying that part of Yao’s problem is that he’s just good enough (a slightly better rebounder, scorer, and shot blocker than Smits) to consider him a possible franchise player. Pair him with an other-worldly talent, Tracy McGrady (thanks to freedarko.com for the link to the story), and you have a guy whose taking up a little too much space, and prohibits the team from playing its inherent, and successful, style. (Here’s another linkshowing through plus-minus that the Rockets actually might be better without Yao). However, leave him on a team without T-Mac and its difficult to imagine giving Yao the ball when you need a bucket in the dying seconds of close games. Smits, on the other hand, is entrenched firmly as a complimentary piece, and is therefore easier to build around. Combine that with his tendency to hit the big shot, and you have a player – though slightly worse – that perhaps fits in an organization’s plans better than the more talented Yao Ming.