Van Gundy's motive? Keeping Yao (happy)

Updated: May 6, 2005, 3:53 PM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy has gone to unusually extreme measures to challenge the legitimacy of Yao Ming's foul trouble. What no one has asked – or answered – is why?

The presumptive explanation is that the Rockets have lost three games in a row to the Mavericks after taking a surprising, and commanding, 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Coaches routinely challenge the officiating in such circumstances, right? Van Gundy simply took it too far, indicating he had inside knowledge from a referee not working in the playoffs that the league is targeting Yao.

But, again, why? Why didn't he leave this battle to GM Carroll Dawson, who has been sending clips of Yao's treatment by the officials to league headquarters all season long? Why did the subject, by Van Gundy's own admission, push him over an emotional edge when his team is the lower seed?

Yao Ming
Surprised? Nah, Yao was just wondering what took so long.

Here's why: This isn't just about keeping Houston in the playoffs. This is also about keeping Yao in Houston.

Yao is a free agent in two years, and sources insist the Lakers not only will go after him but also believe they have a great shot at getting him.

That said, knowing him as I do from writing his autobiography, I'd be shocked if Yao left the Rockets.

One, that's not how it works in China. You play for the team that first signed you until they no longer want you, and his basketball sensibilities are still guided by his homeland.

Two, he is 7 feet, 6 inches of loyalty and feels a great deal of gratitude that the Rockets went to such extreme lengths to pave his way out of the People's Republic of China so they could make him the No. 1 pick. He's not wild about Houston's traffic or sprawl, but LA's is worse. A slightly bigger Chinese population or the allure of going to a more storied franchise isn't going to win the day. Before the NBA ever heard of him, he could've joined the Bayi Rockets, China's version of the Lakers, but chose to stay home with the underdog Shanghai Sharks.

Three, while a healthy number of critics can't make up their minds about him – first declaring he'd be a bust, then questioning why he isn't a night-in, night-out superstar three years into his career – the Rockets have been steadfast in praising him, defending him and quietly adding pieces better suited to his strengths and weaknesses.

What they haven't done, though, is protect him on the floor, which leaves room for another suitor – or coach – to say he will.

In the Rockets' scheme for defending pick-and-roll plays, Yao routinely forces the ballhandler out beyond the 3-point line, then sprints back to challenge any subsequent drive to the rim. Most big men are not asked to do such double duty. If they step out on screens, they're asked to dive back to the weak side while the power forward steps over to challenge the drive.

On offense, the Rockets have minimized the number of post-ups he gets as well as pick-and-pops. His touches are coming on either direct dives off pick-and-rolls or back-door cuts. All of which means a lot of running and cutting for Yao, who is by no means quick or agile or blessed with above-average stamina. Shaq, for example, has twice Yao's speed and agility, yet he rarely steps beyond the free-throw line on defense or sprints back to challenge a shot at the rim (that's why any reference to his dominating at both ends of the floor is a joke – opponents don't run their offense away from Shaq these days, they run it at the Daddy).

Setting high picks and rolling to the basket, meanwhile, has proved to be as much of a recipe for offensive fouls for the Diesel as it is for Yao, which is why it's not a staple of the Heat's offense.

Now, none of this is my way of saying Van Gundy doesn't know what he's doing. He has no other shot-blocking presence on his team aside from Dikembe Mutombo, who you will not see on the floor with Yao or stringing out guards above the key on pick-and-roll plays. (An agile, shot-blocking power forward is at the top of the Rockets' offseason wish list.) Van Gundy also doesn't have athletic guards, outside of Mike James, who can defend dribble penetrators of the Mavs' caliber without such extravagant help.

So Van Gundy is putting a huge defensive burden on Yao because he willingly does whatever is asked of him. The strategy did result in 51 wins this season. Just because most big men aren't willing to do what Yao does isn't reason not to have him do it. But it's also no reason to blame Yao for the consequences, either.

As for Yao's trying to draw charges rather than blocking shots, there's a simple explanation for that, too: Yao isn't built to be a shot blocker. Height from head to foot isn't nearly as important as wing span, vertical lift and leaping quickness. Yao's wing span is 7-3, short for someone 7-6, and his vertical is meager. Timing is also a factor, and with Yao still adjusting to the speed of the NBA, he's at a disadvantage there, too.

The Rockets have him looking to block more shots now by necessity, because opposing guards have taken advantage of the officials' heightened reluctance to call offensive charges on drives. Guards are throwing their bodies into Yao, forcing contact and putting him in foul trouble.

I feel for Yao on this one. It took him two seasons to hone getting to the right spot first, standing straight up and not drawing ticky-tack fouls inside the restricted circle, and now they've switched up on him again.

(Know this: Referees are calling the block/charge differently now than ever before. Don't look for this pendulum to swing back anytime soon, either; drives to the basket make for more scoring and a more exciting game, overall, and the league likes its new look.)

The Rockets understand all this. Criticism of Yao has been a knee-jerk reaction by those outside the organization looking for a scapegoat so that Tracy McGrady isn't blamed should he be part of yet another blown two-game lead in the first round. McGrady certainly isn't at fault. But neither is Yao. Couldn't it be that the Mavs have more advantageous matchups and first-year coach Avery Johnson is discovering how to exploit them as the series evolves?

As for Van Gundy's $100,000 fine plus a potential suspension at the start of next season and anything else he suffers for waging war with the officials on Yao's behalf, well, I'd say it's the least he can do. Yao, after all, is only carrying out orders.

Besides, not standing up for Yao now could lead the big man to explore his options two years down the line – and that would be the heaviest price of all.

POSTSCRIPT: Being familiar with the NBA referees' Web site, I have a sense of what led Van Gundy to make his remarks about Yao's being targeted. Video clips of infractions that the league believes are becoming prevalent are routinely put on the site, and officials are required to review them. The league goes to great pains to make the examples generic, using a neutral voiceover that describes the players as "Offensive Player No. 1" or "The Second Defender," but there's no disguising the visual identities of the players in the clip. My guess is that clips of Yao Ming's slipping screens were used as examples of what the league wants its officials calling, and that's what the undisclosed referee shared with Van Gundy. Truth is, there's a great chance that seeing those clips could influence a referee to watch Yao, in particular, more closely. How could it not? But Van Gundy still went too far in suggesting the league's motive was to extend the series.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer

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