The NBA

November 05, 2007

Big Trouble?

After spending four years in the paint, Yao Ming is struggling to adjust to a perimeter role in Houston's new offense

OVER THE past four seasons defensive schemes for stopping Yao Ming have had to vary by only a few feet. He's on the left block. Now the right block. Back to the left. Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy had little interest in showcasing the diverse skills of his 7'6" center—he wanted a dominant scorer in the post. But under Van Gundy's successor, Rick Adelman, Yao must now blend a perimeter game with his interior strength. "The guy is an unbelievable shooter," says Adelman. "Why not get a little variety in what he's doing?"

The hiring of Adelman, who coached the Kings from 1998--99 through 2005--06, marks a huge philosophical shift in Houston. The defensive-minded Van Gundy, who was fired after failing to take the Rockets past the first round of the playoffs in any of his four seasons, ran a half-court, set offense that centered around Yao and swingman Tracy McGrady. Adelman has installed a more fluid, read-and-react system that relies on ball movement and places a premium on high-post passing from its big men. It's the same system that Sacramento used to become one of the league's top three offenses for seven straight seasons. "It's classic Rick," says Grizzlies coach Marc Iavaroni. "Spacing and cutting, posting up guards and bigs, keeping the baseline open for backdoors."

Adelman's concepts have not come quickly to the Rockets. "It's like art," says forward Shane Battier. "You can learn it, but it takes a lifetime to master." But the transition has been toughest for Yao, who, instead of carving out a position in the paint and waiting for an entry pass, must now be a playmaker, anticipating the movement of his teammates. "It's one thing to see the cuts," says Nets center Jason Collins, who played in a similar offense his first two seasons. "It's another to be able to deliver the ball at the right time."

Over the summer Houston dispatched senior consultant Carroll Dawson to China to give Yao a four-week crash course in Adelman's scheme, using drills designed to increase Yao's comfort away from the basket. The early results have been mixed. While he has proved to be an effective perimeter shooter ("best on our team inside 18 feet," says Battier) and an able passer, he has grown frustrated at times for spending so many minutes on the perimeter. Posting up about half the time, Yao shot 45.5% during the preseason. (He was a 51.6% shooter in 2006--07.) "Yao is feeling some stress," says Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. "But he is a perfectionist, and we are confident he will make it work."

Adelman's plan is to add a significantly improved offense to an already stingy D. Last season Houston scored just 97.0 points per game (17th in the league), prompting the team to sign free-agent guard Steve Francis and to trade for guard Mike James and sharpshooting power forward Luis Scola. The Rockets also brought back high-scoring guard Bonzi Wells, who clashed with Van Gundy last season. "This offense is tailored for perimeter play," says an Eastern Conference executive. "And they have a lot of talented perimeter guys."

Should Yao grow into the multifaceted role once played by Vlade Divac in Sacramento, the Rockets will be in a position to challenge the Spurs, Mavericks and Suns in the Western Conference. "They've been like a caged animal over the past two seasons," says Spurs guard Brent Barry. "This system is going to allow a lot of guys to flourish.... That's kind of scary."

ONLY AT SI.COM Get the latest on Chris Mannix's FanNation blog.

Scout's Take

On whether the Bucks should start rookie Yi Jianlian (right), the No. 6 pick from China, who averaged 10.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in eight preseason games:

"He is looking really comfortable on the court right now. He's 7 feet, has a nice dribble pull-up game, is great running the wing and has phenomenal hands. He can't post up much yet, and he's an average defender, but that won't hurt his chances—the Bucks are trying to be a better defensive team, but they haven't been good in the past, and they won't be this season. Besides, his main competition at power forward, Charlie Villanueva, is prone to mental lapses on both ends."

PHOTOJONATHAN FERREY/GETTY IMAGES (YAO)PASS-FAIL For the system to succeed, Adelman (below) needs Yao to be a playmaker. PHOTOBILL BAPTIST/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (ADELMAN)[See caption above]
PHOTOJONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES (YI)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)