Friday, October 06, 2006

Yao gearing up for the new season

While Yi Jianlian and Guangdong are preparing to defend their title, and Wang ZhiZhi and Bayi are preparing to challenge them for it, halfway across the world, across the Pacific, Yao Ming is warming up, on a much, much bigger stage, for the biggest goal. That goal, according to a Chinese propagandist, would probably be "to bring glory to my homeland", but even for a patriot like Yao, that's not the goal. All the Rockets want something a lot simpler than glory and honor. Another season of domination individually, and a playoff berth for his team would suffice. And just about everyone thinks that, Yao and company will be able to accomplish that goal. However, their future after that is a bit blurry. 45% of the general public that view the Rockets official site think that Houston will win the championships and Tim Potvak agrees with them. However, barring homerism and blatant stupidity, the more conservative of the talking heads thinks that the Rockets will be playing their way to the second round.

But, speculations aside, the fact is that this team is much, much more talented than two 2004-2005 Rockets team. That team won 55 games, and was one more shot (or one less foul) away from making the second round. The squad is superior, in talent, in athleticism, in experience. In every basically. However, as everyone, including (and especially) the players realize that the team is built for now. Their top three players, besides Yao and Tracy, will consist of 2 30-year olds (Bonzi Wells and Rafer Alston), and a 28-year old (Shane Battier). Almost all of their important players are in their prime, which means in about three years this team won't be fit to beat a Euro team (some of whom appear to actually be pretty good, since one of them just beat the Sixers). Doubtless, Luther Head and Kirk Snyder will turn out to great young players, but they are hardly players you want as your best young prospects.

So, three years on, will the Rockets be in the rebuilding mode, as so many teams are, or will they be resting on their laurels after winning a championship (or two)? This is something only the players can decide. However, one big issue for this time, at least in the early part of the season will how the fit in. There are 10 new players for the Rockets, and there going to be several positional battles going on (Head and Snyder for time off the bench, Wells and Battier for starting position), and between good players, too, so doubtless, to determine who goes where in the rotation, Jeff Van Gundy will be experimenting with the starting lineups for the first weeks. Memories comes floating back of the mess the 04-05 Rockets got themselves into at the start of the season (6-11 start, and fully 35 games to get back over .500) . The Rockets are expected to be contenders with teams in the West like the Mavs, Sun, and Spurs, but they'll be digging themselves into a deep, deep hole by starting off badly, and then finishing the season with not home-court advantage.

However, it's not only players that have been added. To Yao's teammates, he appears to have added even more moves to his varied portfolio of post moves. This (very encouraging) quote from the Houston Chronicle:

The Rockets saw a reminder of the Yao who dominated the second half of last season as opposed to the Yao who limped through the first half.

Bonzi Wells spoke of how agile Yao appeared. Rafer Alston said Yao looked stronger. Shane Battier cited Yao's refined moves.

Tracy McGrady hit on all of the above.

"I see the difference in Yao each year," McGrady said. "He comes back stronger. He adds another few moves to his repertoire. He looks more comfortable. He looks more fluid. He definitely looks stronger on the post."
Yao has already post moves that everyone knows are coming, yet still can't stop. To be able to add more makes him...well, I think "best post player in the NBA" would be a good description.

Although some people have made a big deal about Yao playing too much during the off season for China, Yao himself has said that playing in the recent World Championships made him feel "fresh" and "in much better shape." Did that extra training and warm up make him stronger and more agile, as his teammates said. I think that probably is so. It appears that those who say being patriotic and playing for his country is bad for Yao have been proven wrong...again.

However, on the subject of the national team. YaoMania recently interviewed Yao, and the controversial subject of Chinese players going to Europe, he said:

I guess it will happen. But I hope it will happen before it’s too late. Some of the players are past the age where the player can improve, and have more experience than young players. Some players can still improve at 26 (years of age), 27, 30, but the earlier they come out the more help they can get. I believe maybe after the Olympics some will come out, but I hope it’s not too late. I hope the CBA and their owner can give them the best career they can have.
Key phrase: "after the Olympics." That is, the Olympics in 2008. Two years from now. If Yao is correct about this (and he usually is on matters about Chinese basketball), then by then Yi Jianlian will already be in Europe. For Chen Jianghua it might not be too late, but still, that's two years which could have been periods of growth and development for Chinese players. How often it is that China moves as a turtle, not the hare. Maybe the only consolation is that the race of basketball is unlimited, and someday, eventually, that turtle will catch the hare up and win the race.

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