For those of you who are not aware of my thoughts concerning the eventual resurrection of the Ming Dynasty, here is a primer: everything is going to be fine. You can trust me on this. Or not. But it would be a lot cooler if you did.
I think Yao is going coming back strong. Similar surgery proved successful for Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and a full year off from basketball-related activities (a first for Yao post-injury) should give The Great Wall enough time for proper reconstruction. He's not going to be the 22/10 guy that he has been in the past, but I'll settle with 18/8 (or something close to that) and 70 games played without complaining.
Yes, book it: seventy games. Unless Kobe Bryant goes knee-hunting. That might throw a wrench into the whole comeback plan.
Assuming Yao comes back healthy enough to move three steps in each direction and jump over a step stool, the Rockets defense should improve instantly, for a number of reasons. Let's take a look at some Synergy Sports data, shall we?
Here, we have the problem of the 28's, in that in each of the following Synergy Sports defensive categories, the Rockets finished third-to-last in the league.
1. Isolation Defense
In most cases, isolation plays take place on the perimeter. In other cases, they take place down on the baseline or at the elbow on a dribble-drive. Isolation plays accounted for 10.9% of opponents' scoring opportunities, and opponents' PPP (points per play) was 0.83 - that's where the ranking (28) comes from.
So how do you fix poor isolation defense? Give opposing guards a (big) reason not to drive. As good as defenders such as Trevor Ariza or Shane Battier are, they are only as good as their help, much in the same way that a running back is (usually) only as good as his offensive line. In most cases, a perimeter defender counters an isolation play by forcing the opponent into rotating help, which usually comes from a low-post player. If the rotating help is sub-par (it's well-documented that this is NOT one of Chuck Hayes' strengths), then the perimeter defender gets hung out to dry and has to make the best of the situation. Removing Yao from the lineup is comparable to, say, the Seattle Seahawks losing Steve Hutchinson to the Vikings. Suddenly, Shaun Alexander has to deal with defensive lineman breaking through the left interior of the offensive line at will, forcing him to use his own talent to somehow find a hole. We can debate all day on how good/bad Alexander himself was at that point, but I think you get the picture. Perimeter defenders need help, and this season, the Rockets' wings did not receive much. Adding Yao automatically brings about an intimidation factor just as much as it implements a talented shot blocker/changer in the lane.
Chuck Hayes can't do it all, and as we learned the other day, he's a solid, yet unspectacular one-on-one defender at best. David Andersen proved to be a less than desirable defensive presence, and while Jordan Hill added size to the middle, he often gambled, went for the shot block, and got beat on the post. The Rockets finished last season 28th in opposing post-up PPP (.94), and it accounted for 13.5% of opponents' scoring opportunities. Again, more Yao will help this.
3. Offensive Rebound
There's that 28 again. The Rockets finished near the bottom of the league in preventing offensive rebound scoring plays (1.17 PPP), meaning that opponents were able to not only grab a lot of o-boards, but also managed to convert on their second chance attempts. Logically speaking, Yao will help shore this up.