Commentary

How does Yao stack up all-time?

Measuring Yao Ming's place among the best centers in NBA history

Originally Published: July 20, 2011
By David Hess | TeamRankings.com
MingLisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesYao Ming's career was derailed by injuries, but his production was impressive when he played.

Two weeks shy of a decade ago, the Houston Rockets traded away an aging Hakeem Olajuwon. The one-time No. 1 overall draft pick retired a year later and went on to become a Hall of Famer.

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.

Using win shares, Yao looks like a solid player, but by no means one of the all-time greats. He ranks 35th all time among centers, sandwiched between Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Brad Daugherty.

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?