-- When the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announces this year's class next Monday in Houston during the NCAA Final Four, Yao Ming will be among the inductees according to ESPN's Calvin Watkins.
Since it's the Basketball Hall of Fame and not the NBA Hall of Fame, Yao's induction probably owes at least as much to his international career and his pioneering role in the game's growth in China as it does his career with the Rockets.
Had Yao's NBA career not been derailed by foot injuries, however, there's every reason to believe that he was on a Hall of Fame path.
Yao's unusual Hall of Fame résumé
Assuming Yao is indeed inducted into the Hall of Fame, he'll be among the modern inductees with the shortest NBA careers. Just five Hall of Famers who debuted after 1960 have played fewer games than Yao's 486.
Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis got at least as much credit for their intentional play as what they accomplished coming to the NBA later in their careers. Drazen Petrovic falls in the same category, and also had his career cut short prematurely by his tragic death in a car accident at age 28.
Ralph Sampson is a unique case as the most recent Hall of Famer elected primarily because of what he did in college. A three-time Naismith Award winner at Virginia, Sampson did make the All-Star Game each of his first four NBA seasons before injuries sapped his performance and availability.
That leaves Bill Walton as the closest comparison for Yao's career. Both centers were struck down in their primes by navicular injuries just as they were playing their best basketball -- Walton in the midst of the season he won MVP, the year after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to a championship, Yao after earning All-NBA Second Team honors in 2008-09. He would play just five more games before being forced into retirement.
Yao shined briefly
Because it's a cumulative stat, Yao doesn't quite come out looking quite like a Hall of Famer in the championships added metric I created to help analyze players for ESPN's all-time #NBArank. Looking at regular-season and playoff performance, Yao's 0.4 championships added rank him 130th all-time, behind players like Tim Hardaway and Chris Webber who didn't even crack the Hall's list of finalists this season.
On a per-game basis, Yao is in elite territory. Per 82 games, he posted 0.06 championships added, which puts him 26th all-time, alongside inner-circle Hall of Famers like Isiah Thomas and Clyde Drexler. Because Yao never went through a decline phase by playing into his 30s, this isn't a fair comparison.
Nonetheless, Yao's combination of effective play and a short career is one of a kind. Even Walton doesn't rate as well on a per-game basis because he returned to play off the bench in his 30s, long after he began battling injuries. So Yao (the red dot) stands out on a graph of Hall-eligible players who entered the NBA after 1960 showing championships added per 82 games against total games played:
Among the 40 players who added at least 0.05 championships per 82 games, the next-shortest career belongs to Willis Reed. Reed played 650 games -- precisely two more seasons' worth than Yao.
Yao was on a Hall path
The last way we consider the impact of Yao's injuries on the course of his career is to compare to other players through the same age. During his last full NBA season, Yao was 28. Looking only at age 28 and earlier moves Yao's championships added total up all the way from 130th to 74th, a ranking that has usually ensured Hall of Fame selection in the past.
More remarkable are some of the names behind Yao on the list. He ranks just ahead of John Stockton, who finished 25th in championships added. Other notably durable stars like Ray Allen (77th through age 28) and Reggie Miller (83rd) were also behind Yao at the point injuries affected his career.
It's impossible to say exactly what the rest of a healthy career might have looked like for Yao. (I did take a stab using my SCHOENE projection system before he announced his retirement.) And, of course, even before Yao's career was ended he missed extended chunks of several seasons due to foot injuries that might have been the inevitable product of his 7-foot-6 frame.
Still, there's no doubt that Yao was on his way to accomplishing even more had he avoided a career-ending injury. Yao's importance as an ambassador and as the first Chinese star in the NBA ensured he was destined for the Hall of Fame no matter what. Had he stayed healthy, Yao likely would not have needed to rely on those credentials to reach the Hall on the first ballot.