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The Works: What's Next For Yao Ming?

Dec 17, 2010 – 6:30 AM
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Today in The Works: why Nets fans should curb their enthusiasm; comparing Steve Nash and Jeff Bridges; and a bit of streak numerology. But first, making sense of Yao Ming's latest bad news.

The Ballad of Yao Ming

Yao Ming's foot is hurt again, enough to keep him out for the rest of the year, and the entire basketballing world now weeps in sorrow. After playing only five games to start this season and none in 2009-10, he's now at a sub-Oden level of health. To call this moment a career crossroads would be wildly optimistic -- at this point we should start wondering if he'll ever be able to play again.

Virtually everyone but the most anti-China businessmen agrees that this is terrible news. Yao is a beloved gentle giant, a kind soul who almost single-handedly makes basketball fans forget that he's deployed as a soft-diplomatic tool by a totalitarian government hellbent on becoming the top global superpower. Yet Yao has always seemed above these kinds of barriers even as he acted as the face of China's great unveiling to the world at the 2008 Olympics. He's a great uniter, someone who's gotten along famously with such disparate personalities as Steve Francis and Shane Battier.

Yao's reaction to his latest setback defines his personality as well as anything: "I haven't died. Right now I'm drinking a beer and eating fried chicken. What were you expecting, a funeral?" No matter the situation, Yao always seems keenly aware of the fact that there's a life beyond basketball. Still, to see him incapable of playing basketball is a cruel blow.

Unlike other joyful athletes, Yao's skillful, fundamentally sound game has never seemed like an outlet for self-expression, but it has become clear that basketball is supremely important to what defines him as a person. It's painful to see someone you like unable to do what they want to do, and Yao is now relegated to the bench. Fans around the league were saddened by this news, but not because they were being deprived of an incandescent talent. He is, more than anything, a likable personality currently robbed of his greatest athletic gifts. The onlooker's pain is about compassion, not personal loss.

There is some room for hope, if you feel like viewing the glass as several drops full rather than mostly empty. While chronic foot problems typically presage the end of a big man's career, the similarly gigantic Zydrunas Ilgauskas returned from multiple surgeries to help lead the Cavs in the pre-LeBron era. Yet Z was in his mid-20s upon his return, whereas Yao will be 31 at the start of the 2011-12 season. There is some possibility that Yao will come back with renewed strength and play an important role for the Rockets, if not a starring one. His personality likely makes him remarkably well-suited for a secondary role; his startling lack of ego means there won't be the common problem of a past star being unable to balance diminished skills with a still-thriving need for the limelight.

But by all reasonable speculation, Daryl Morey and Rick Adelman should no longer count on him as a major part of the team's future plans. Houston entered a transitional stage of planning today, and it's unclear if Kevin Martin and a hobbled Yao have enough star power to lead them to future success.

So we've likely reached the end of the Yao era. In taking stock of the last decade, it seems prudent to point out that most expectations were far from ecstatic when he entered the league. Charles Barkley famously said that Yao wouldn't score 19 points in a game, which he accomplished in his eighth game. Yao was to be an accessory to dunkers on countless posters, yet he quickly showed that he had enough athleticism to challenge players inside. Instead of being a bust, Yao stood out as one of a handful of top-flight foreign prospects -- and maybe even top-flight prospects in general -- who easily justified their positions in the draft.

Still, he never quite established himself as a superstar, getting the Rockets out of the first round of the playoffs only once, and never with fellow star Tracy McGrady by his side. When Houston dealt Rudy Gay for Shane Battier at the 2008 draft, they did so with the hope that they would need a glue guy instead of another great scorer. That has since turned out to be a questionable gamble in the long run, and Yao's inability to reach a top level has to be considered a prime reason for the Rockets' difficulties in reaching the cream of the NBA crop.

However, that does not mean his career has been a disappointment. While a potentially career-ending injury towards the end of a player's prime usually suggests that he has somehow not accomplished what he was expected to, foot and knee problems are so common for players of Yao's considerable stature that they should be expected. Those who show longevity, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, are the exceptions, to the point where Yao quite comfortably fits in with injury-prone greats like Bill Walton. In fact, Yao's four seasons of 77-plus games make him somewhat durable for his size.

But for all his success on the court, Yao has perhaps been most effective off it. As the NBA's first Asian star, Yao carries immense cultural power and has been a driving force in the league's increasingly effective cultivation of the planet's largest continent. Being the face of Chinese hoops might not seem like much given the national team's relatively poor performance in international tournaments, but it's as important a role as any in the future of basketball's development as a global game. In the future, it's easy to imagine Yao becoming more famous as a cultural ambassador than as an athlete.

Yao might return and find success in the NBA, however difficult that seems right now. The good news, though, is that even if he's played his last game, he's likely to remain in the lives of basketball fans. More than anything, he's valuable as a presence in the sport, and all indications show that he'll stay in that role for years to come. In reality, his career in basketball is relatively young. (EF)

Are the Nets Any Closer to Carmelo?

Stop me if you've heard this one before: the New Jersey Nets, very soon to be the Brooklyn Nets, want to make a move. Jay-Z, still hip-hop's strongest brand, wants a face for his franchise. Mikhail Prokhorov, who may be either really eccentric or just really Russian, is determined to lead this team right down the throat of the (soon-to-be) crosstown rivals, the New York Knicks. The buzz is palpable, and this franchise is doing its best to make it come true.

Lionel Bienvenu jumped the gun; the Nets haven't traded for Carmelo Anthony. But they are stockpiling picks, clearing out cap space, and doing all the other things necessary to bring the Nuggets forward to Newark, Atlantic Yards, or whatever their spiritual home is these days. If Melo decides he wants to come to the Nets, and Denver likes the package (and Derrick Favors), then this team will get its superstar. Except all of this is mere prep work. Paradoxically, it represents progress without bringing the team any closer to landing Anthony.

Sound familiar? This philosophy is a holdover from the Summer of 2010, in New Jersey and elsewhere. Carve out a giant void in the roster, and in this case, get together a bevvy of good-not-great resources that are valuable trade chips -- all as the entry fee into the Melo-stakes. There's nothing rotten or corrupt here. Last summer, teams positioned themselves to go after any number of free agents. Today, Carmelo Anthony is being targeted by, most publicly, the Nets and Knicks. The Nets have put together a phantom offer. Hooray.

As fans and writers alike have plunged deeper and deeper into the business of the game, we have to mistake cap space and attractive prospects -- rational motivations for a team to deal with the Nets -- for an actual increase in real-world chances. They're not. All this gives the Nets is a seat at the table. Or, more precisely, eligibility for conversation. Whatever is being discussed by the Nuggets front office, and Anthony's people, now will likely at least touch on the Nets. But these parties aren't, strictly speaking, rational actors. They know the Nets are capable and willing. Now, we are in the realm of the Decision -- where people make calls that may or may not be popular, or altogether sane, or what you and I want them to be. There are no rules, just individuals.

Individuals have motivations, quirky as they may be, and ultimately, even the decisions in the Nuggets front office come down to interpretation and judgment. There's really no way for a team to achieve sway there simply by setting themselves up to acquire a player. That's the pitch, and in this case, it can only be made to the Nuggets, not Anthony. And even there -- I can't stress this enough -- it's not a matter of who deserves Melo, or has busted his hump so his roster could accommodate him. It's a first step, but more prep work than anything else. You would think that, after last summer, fans would have learned their lesson.

Prokhorov wants credibility and name recognition. So they went hard at free agents last summer. And now, they're making a run at Anthony. Getting together an offer isn't some sort of accomplishment -- it's the least they can do, given the way this franchise has announced they'll do business. Rather than hail cap space, or this prospective Melo package, as accomplishments, we should look upon them as possible diversions. Is this all-or-nothing approach really the best way to build a franchise? Have the Nets given us any indication that they really are one star away from winning? I couldn't tell you for sure. But treating their ability to make an offer as news ignores an obvious fact: it's not helping anyone, yet, and once again, the Nets might simply be setting up their fans for disappointment.

Only when we all acknowledge that Prokhorov simply might want to go for broke every few months, and learn to get over it, will the discourse surrounding the Nets start to come back down to Earth where it belongs. More power to them if the Anthony trade goes down. That doesn't mean, though, that the part where they laid all their picks on the table and smiled is anything a franchise, or its fans, can be proud of. (BS)

The Real Nash Bridges

Against all odds, Jeff Bridges has become the winter's most popular movie star. With "Tron: Legacy" opening today, an SNL hosting gig on tap for Saturday and the Coen Brothers' "True Grit" hitting theaters on Wednesday, Bridges is at his personal height of popularity at an age when most leading men start to look out of their element. Sadly, Steve Nash, the basketball player most like Bridges, finds himself heading in a different direction in a situation better suited for one of the actor's characters.

Bridges excels when playing a joyful and content man who finds himself pushed into a world where previous certainties are called into question and exposed as false. With former running mate Amar'e Stoudemire excelling in New York, Nash sits alone in Phoenix, wondering if his previous success in Phoenix wasn't just the product of fortuitous circumstances that can't possibly be reproduced. Last night, we considered the strengths and identities of both men, and whether Nash can ever hope to match Bridges's current combination of respected work and widespread popularity.

Bethlehem Shoals:
I skipped this new "Tron" screening tonight, but I don't think that should stop us from talking about Jeff Bridges and Steve Nash.

Eric Freeman: Why would it keep us from discussing them? If anything, "Tron" is an exceedingly poor example of the comparison, since Kevin Flynn seems decidedly non-freaked out about the fact that an artificial intelligence zapped him into a video game. Nash projects calm, but he also has a sense of wonder and admits confusion.

BS: Well, it's always been said that Nash is a both a product of the Suns system and the source of it. In that sense, either Tron movie might make for an easier parallel with Nash. But you're right about the confusion and wonder part. Flynn is actually a very un-Jeff Bridges role; Bridges is usually in the very Nash-like position of somehow being both all-important and completely baffled. "The Big Lebowski" is almost like a parody of Jeff Bridges.

EF: And it yet it's become his most famous role, much like how Nash got noticed for goofy viral videos outside of basketball even though he's more interested in sustainable energy and other forms of socially responsible entrepreneurship. (That might not be accurate outside of our blog world.)

BS:
Nash did get a lot of attention for speaking out against the war in Iraq before it was acceptable, and the Los Suns thing was kind of understood as emanating from him (fairly or not). I would also argue that prior to the emergence of the "real Nash", he was too often cast as a longhair Stockton, the Great White Hope, and so on. With Bridges, "Big Lebowski" actually made some of his younger roles (I'm thinking specifically of "Stay Hungry" and "Winter Kills") less preposterous. It confirms that his gee-whiz Jeremiah shtick always had a knowing wink to it. And, in the process, it somehow frees you up to take those roles more seriously. I mean, wouldn't "The Trial" be a laugh riot if you didn't know that it knew how strange it was?

EF: But even though we take Nash seriously in a lot of ways, the most popular opinion of him on the basketball court is like Bridges as the alien in "Starman": pure, innocent, wanting to distribute love (i.e. passes) to as many people as possible to heal the world. The fast-break acts as a peace offering in the midst of slow, methodical, emotionally closed systems. On a larger scale, maybe Bridges is doing a similar thing by bringing a light touch to typically serious adult Hollywood fare.

BS: It is kind of a niche he has created. You have to figure a lot of these characters end up being thought of as "Jeff Bridges characters." Otherwise, it seems like he would throw a monkey wrench into a movie. And there are times -- "Arlington Road," for instance -- where he does play tormented.

That to me is like Nash's bloody nose game. You know it's there, but his game isn't supposed to be about something so elemental. There's mischief, and intelligence, that allow him to rise above muck like that. Even if he can do it if necessary. Nash in big games is usually more like Bridges in "Crazy Heart," which I thought was an interesting hybrid. It's unmistakably Bridges, but you see what it means for that kind of character to really struggle -- and struggle to keep his spirit. I think Nash is at his best when he plays his game despite high stakes.

EF: Though I think part of what sets Bridges apart is that the muck is always part of the process. The bloody nose game is interesting because that same intensity is still part of a running game, just hidden beneath the exciting ball movement and made shots. The disc jockey in "The Fisher King" could feasibly be friends with The Dude even though the former is mired in tragedy. There are more affinities than differences. Most Bridges characters are similar people at different points in their life, like you say about "Crazy Heart".

BS: I was going to say that Bridges has taken on some gravitas in the last decade or so, while that seems very un-Nash. Is this because, at bottom, Nash hasn't had enough bloody noses or real triumphs for his career to be, well, taken seriously?

EF: Do you mean in the sense that his back-to-back MVP awards don't seem that convincing? Like how Bridges has an Academy Award nomination for "The Contender," a movie that no one remembers?

BS: I'm not sure people do take those MVPs (or the third he should have one) all that seriously. Because of how the Suns played, his one-way game, and their failure to win a title. He was the point guard for an amazing team. That's not the narrative people want for the MVP. By comparison, "Crazy Heart" was total Oscar bait.

EF: Except I'm not sure he wins the Oscar if not for the outpouring of love that followed "Big Lebowski's" change from cult favorite to comedy classic. So maybe Nash will get some recognition in the future, when "Seven Seconds or Less" rides a new wave of popularity.

BS: Interesting. Would it take Nash winning a title, or just SSOL getting the respect it deserves as a legitimate basketball?

EF: I'd tend towards the latter, or maybe just Nash making it into Springfield. That's like the sports version of an Oscar -- once you get that honor it's connected to your name forever. Even F. Murray Abraham still gets some measure of respect.

BS: You obviously have never been to the Basketball Hall of Fame. The end.

Today's Mathematics

The world of basketball is currently the home of several lengthy streaks, but success and failure can change course with little notice. How can these teams stay on the side of victory or reverse their fortunes? By consulting the ancient art of numerology, of course.

Boston (12 wins): The middling Pacers loom on Sunday, but twelve is associated with completion. Beware of looking past this game or coasting on recent success. Even the lowliest opponent can bring an end to the cycle.

Miami (10 wins): Ten is a number of totality, expressing the entire universe in two digits. Tonight against the Knicks, focus on getting contributions from the entire team, not just your brightest stars.

Chicago (7 wins): Seven is the most heavenly number, commonly associated with men of great wisdom. On Sunday against the Sixers, listen to your coach and trust the game plan, for it was the product of careful preparation.

San Antonio (7 wins): In times of struggle, seven can lead to solitary efforts rather than a team effort. While the Argentine has carried your fortunes of late, do not count on him for everything. Memphis may appear like a weak opponent on Saturday, but they must be felled by brothers in arms.

Washington (6 losses): Six is a number of love, which can often be manifested as an excess of emotion. Try not to weep over your youngster's absence and focus on the here and now. The Heat are a formidable adversary on Saturday, but a closed heart can defeat them.

Cleveland (9 losses): Nine is the most humanitarian of numbers, tied to great altruists and people devoted to the betterment of the human race. Instead of harboring hate for your former hero, learn to love the time you had together. Only then will you get past the surging Knicks on Saturday. (EF)

***

The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Eric Freeman (@freemaneric), who also contributes regularly to Ball Don't Lie. Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is now available.

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