Examining Yao Ming’s Bizarre Minutes Limit

16 09 2010

In the desert, an oasis. Today (more accurately last night, but these are semantics) we were treated with real live meaningful NBA news in the form of Yao Ming’s minutes limit as he returns from a broken foot that caused him to miss the entire 2009-1o season. Here’s the important part of Jonathan Feigen’s Houston Chronicle article, in case you missed it:

Yao will play no more than 24 minutes per game, Rockets vice president and athletic trainer Keith Jones said. There will be no exceptions. If Yao has played his 24 minutes and the Rockets have the ball and eight seconds on the clock to make up a one-point deficit, Yao will not play those eight seconds.

Yao’s playing time will not average 24 minutes; it will end there. If he plays 22 minutes in one game, he will not play 26 the next. For that matter, if he plays two minutes one game, he will not play 26 the next. When Yao reaches his 24 minutes, he will be through for that game.

In other words, the Rockets will be instituting basketball’s version of a pitch count. In baseball, the idea is that a particular amount of body stress in one game carries its own individual risk, i.e. stress does not average out over time. So Yao’s 24-minute limit won’t carry over to other games — it’s not as if playing only 20 minutes in one game make it totally cool for his foot to take 28 minutes of punishment the next time out.

What’s unconventional about this decision isn’t so much the distrust of averages but the belief that it should be the status quo for the entire year. Elsewhere in the article, Rockets trainer and VP Keith Jones notes that the policy could change if/when the team gets into playoff crunch time in April and beyond, but that’s a long ways into the season, particularly for a team that isn’t a sure bet to make it into the postseason. It’s even weirder when you account for the fact that Yao is the team’s best player, at least on paper.

Ultimately, it’s the supreme care the Rockets are taking with their star that makes this decision stand out. Basketball teams (and the players themselves) usually try to get their meal tickets back as soon as possible — for proof, just check Brandon Roy entering the playoffs on a very shaky knee last season. But Yao will play so few minutes next season that he’s virtually guaranteed of not making a huge impact on proceedings. If he only plays 24 minutes, he’s a role player, albeit a very good one.

I wonder if it’s all worth the risk. Yao turned 30 on Sunday and has averaged 32.7 minutes per game in seven NBA seasons (plus his missed season and an unmatched amount of international minutes). Even if he had a perfect bill of health, the realities of big-man careers suggest he doesn’t have much time left as a peak player. Isn’t it worth getting as much out of him as you can before he becomes a non-factor? I hate to discuss this issue as if Yao’s a machine without feelings, and his concerns likely factored into the Rockets’ decision, but at some point a decision has to be made regarding the best way he provides value to the franchise.

Perhaps this won’t matter and the Rockets will take the shackles off if Yao proves himself to be in excellent shape after a month of play. But the Rockets’ window is closing regardless of Yao’s health, and they may regret not taking advantage of an opportunity for the short time it still exists.

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2 responses

16 09 2010
Dave M

At first I thought the idea of such a strict and definitive limit was… strange. But, the more I think about it, the more it appeals to me. It’s completely black and white. Yao will play no more than 24 minutes.

18 09 2010
Yago Colás

Interesting post. I’d missed the news. Two comments:

I wonder about this as I wonder, sometimes, about the pitch count. I get the anti-average principle behind it and the more fundamental principle that involves extending the playing career of an important player. What I wonder about is 1) where they come up with the number 24. I can see that it’s half of a full game, but so what? So, why 24? and 2) why the absolute inflexibility around that number, especially since it appears to be a relatively arbitrary number?

Also, I like your awareness of the trickiness of speaking of these issues (i.e. is Yao a machine? the property of the Houston Rockets? a sentient being? a human being? How do we reconcile the perspective of each?)

Yago

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