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Rockets Can Stop Yao's Westerly Movement

September 19, 2004|Sean Deveney | Sporting News

The Lakers, with a handful of moves, could create some cap space by the summer of 2006.

The Warriors already have made moves that will leave them with as much as $20 million in cap space in 2006. The Clippers, of course, always have cap space.

This is significant because Rockets center Yao Ming could be a free agent in the summer of 2006. Every three months or so, a rumor pops up that one of the West Coast teams is keeping space open to make Yao a maximum-dollar contract offer. The logic is simple -- Yao is an odd fit in Texas, and he would rather be in a market with a sprawling Asian community, where he would be more comfortable and could maximize his marketing potential. Thus, the Lakers, Warriors and Clippers are the usual suspects.

If those teams secretly are hoping to land Yao, they probably should start making other plans. Yao is not going anywhere.

The Rockets have the advantage of being able to sew up Yao in the summer of 2005 -- a team is able to sign a player to an extension after his third year in the league, before the player becomes a free agent. Expect the Rockets to make Yao a maximum offer next summer.

And expect Yao to accept it. One of the reasons is Carroll Dawson, the Rockets' general manager and one of the most modest and affable guys in the business. Dawson has done a commendable job not only making Yao feel at home with the organization and in Houston, but in bringing Yao's group of novice advisors -- known as Team Yao -- into the fold.

The bulk of Team Yao is made up of University of Chicago business school students and faculty, primarily deputy dean John Huizinga and student Erik Zhang, Yao's cousin. This is their first foray into NBA business, and Dawson has treated them well.

Dawson won't exactly say whether the team will offer Yao a maximum contract next summer -- he would not be much of a negotiator if he did.

But he does say, "He is a treasure. The Chinese look on him as a treasure. Just try walking through an airport with him. Certainly, we're going to do everything we can to keep him in Houston."

Another reason Yao will be off the free-agent list by the end of next summer is Tracy McGrady. Had the Rockets not traded guards Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley (two players who just could not figure out how to take advantage of Yao's size and skill) for McGrady, Yao would have been more reluctant to stay. With Francis and Mobley, the Rockets were a pretty good team, but one with no shot at a title.

Whether McGrady will fit better than Francis and Mobley is yet to be seen, but Houston has upgraded its talent. In Houston's second year under Coach Jeff Van Gundy, the Rockets should pile up more than last season's 45 wins, even in an ever-tougher Western Conference. And that, ultimately, is what Yao wants. It showed during the Olympics. Yao was third in scoring (20.7 points per game) and first in rebounding (9.3) among all players. He dominated in China's 67-66 win over Serbia and Montenegro, with 27 points and 13 rebounds, including four clutch free throws down the stretch. It was the biggest win in the history of Chinese basketball.

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