I wrote an article over at RealGM after Yao's retirement on Friday, looking at what he was and what he could have been:
And in the history of the NBA, there were only a handful of players as tall as Yao Ming. Most were either skinny beanpoles whose high center of gravity made them easy to push around (Shawn Bradley, Manute Bol) or sufferers of gigantism (Gheorghe Muresan, Pavel Podkolzin) whose bodies were never meant to reach such heights. None had Yao’s combination of skill, coordination and mass.
Unlike his contemporaries, Yao Ming was supposed to be 7’5 310. His mother was a 6’3 basketball star who led China to the 1976 Asian Championship; his father, at 6’10, was a basketball player himself. They were strongly encouraged by the Chinese government to have children: "We had been looking forward to [his] arrival for three generations," Wang Chongguang, a retired coach who played with Yao’s father and coached Yao, told Time Magazine.
In many ways, he was a taller, stronger version of Dirk Nowitzki -- a 7’5 shooter who used his height to release jumpers over defenders’ heads. Traditional centers, guys who used their size and strength to bang with players in the post, had no answer for him. He routinely abused Dwight Howard, the best defensive player of his generation, in head-to-head match-ups.
It’s often said that he came to the NBA a decade too late, that his game was more suited to the rough-and-tumble era of the 90’s, before the defensive hand-check was outlawed and the game became more perimeter-oriented. But isn’t the converse just as likely: that the absence of Yao Ming and Greg Oden, two super-sized centers selected #1 overall who could never stay healthy, made it easier for today’s generation of guards to rack up MVP’s and titles?
His retirement doesn’t just leave a hole in Houston, which has yet to recover from his absence, but across the entire NBA. A healthy Yao would have challenged for MVP’s, All-NBA teams and championships for most of the next decade. Possessing a more magnetic personality than Dirk Nowitzki and hailing from a much more basketball-mad country, Yao would have become the face of an increasingly globalized game.
It's kind of fitting he'll be linked with Tracy McGrady in NBA history; both had pretty unprecedented skill-sets for someone their height -- one a 7'5 center who could walk and chew gum at the same time, the other a 6'8 perimeter player with a 7'2 wingspan who participated in a dunk contest and could also run point. Maybe they were just too big and athletic for their bodies.
** Though T-Mac did have a pretty solid season last year (if you overlook the whole participating in a team-wide mutiny thing) in Detroit: per-36 minutes, he averaged 12 points on 44% shooting and 34% from beyond the arc while getting 5 rebounds and dishing out 5.4 assists per 2.2 turnovers. If he took the minimum to play in Miami next year ... whoa. **
The last team with a healthy Yao -- the '09 Rockets -- could have made a real run at a title if he hadn't broken his foot against the Lakers. They had LA's kryptonite: a premier low-post defender (Chuck Hayes), the two best perimeter defenders in the NBA at the time (Artest and Battier) and two lightning-fast point guards (Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry). With a healthy Yao maybe they get by LA, and neither Denver nor Orlando was unbeatable that year.