In 2002, the Rockets drafted another towering foreign-born center, hoping for a similar success story. While Yao Ming, who retired in Shanghai earlier today, proved to be a tremendously talented NBA player, the story of his playing career will ultimately be one of unfulfilled potential. The quality of his play, when he was healthy, places him among the elite centers in modern NBA history, but frequent injuries have prevented him from accumulating Hall of Fame value.
The simplest way to compare a player to those who came before him is to find an all-in-one stat that considers both offensive and defensive contributions, total up his career value, and see where he ranks all time. One convenient metric for that exercise is win shares, which are calculated on basketball-reference.com. Win shares are an estimate of the number of wins that a player created for his team, compared to what a replacement-level player (e.g. a rookie free agent or an end-of-the-bench scrub) would have done in his place.
However, Yao ranks so low in large part because his body gave out on him and cut short his playing career. In his time on the court, he was very efficient, and during his peak years he played at an elite level. So perhaps the better question to ask is: What if Yao had managed to stay healthy? Where would he likely have ended up ranking among the all-time greats then?