Mick Kupchak was reduced to tears today as Yao Ming signed a 5-year, 75 million dollar deal with the Houston Rockets. But this isn't about Mitch Kupchak at all. Yao Ming is one of the top centers in basketball (mainly a reflection of the declining quality of centers in the NBA), and is now paid like one. Just by looking at a list of NBA salaries, Yao Ming's annual average salary of 15 million would rank 4th next season, right behind Kevin Garnett. Is Yao Ming anywhere near as good as Kevin Garnett? The answer right now is no, but to be fair, they do play different positions.
Despite his lack of game-changing skill, the Rockets had to lock up Yao Ming to a large deal. If he had hit the open market, someone would have paid him more. Why pay this much money to someone who didn't even average a double double last season? There are a variety of factors:
1. Zydrunas Ilgauskas got paid. When a borderline good center like Ilgauskas gets paid 11 million per year, it drives up the salaries for other centers. Thus you end up with the actual good centers like Yao Ming wanting much more than that.
2. Salaries in general went up this offseason. Teams such as the Bucks had plenty of cash and no good players to spend it on, so they did the next best thing. They gave money away to players like Michael Redd (I never thought a pure shooter who wasn't too good at shooting last year could ever make 15 million per, but wrong I was). With Redd's ridiculously inflated deal, players (and their agents) decided that they should make a whole lot more than their skills dictated too. Before you knew it Antoine Walker was making 9 million per for 6 (!) Years, and it was being called a reasonable deal.
3. Who else is there? If the Rockets let Yao Ming go, who would they put in the middle? The world's only living fossil, Dikembe Mutumbo? The NBA lacks good centers. Yao Ming is among the top 4 or 5 centers in league, depending on whether you want to call Amare Stoudemire a center. Sure his 18-8-1 pales in comparison to Garnett's 22-13.5-6, but at least he's a center. Seriously all tall people (having skill at basketball is not a requirement) should call themselves centers and find an NBA version of Drew Rosenhaus to get them jobs. I can see it already.
4. He makes a ridiculous amount of money for the Rockets franchise. The Chinese market has opened up to the Rockets since they drafted Yao Ming. Their games have been televised and they have been selling merchandise, among other things. Since there are 1.2 billion people in China, there is a lot of potential money to be made. If the Rockets cut Yao Ming loose, all of this would vanish. This isn't an on-court reason, but it's just as important. Sports franchises are, after all, businesses.
So, essentially, despite the fact that he is not and may never be an inside force like Shaq or the Alonzo Mourning of old, Yao Ming is still a very good center, and above all, is important to the Rockets franchise. He will be a cornerstone of this team for years to come, and will be a perennial all-star in the West.