The Problem of Yi

For the past two seasons, the Nets organization has blindly put their faith behind Yi Jianlian with very little to show for it in terms of statistical results. Now, as the front office gears up for one of the biggest off-seaons in the organization’s history, they are seemingly being punished for their belief in Yi. The Chinese import has no role in the future of this organization with the drafting of Derrick Favors and Damion James and the team’s reported desires to sign a top PF in free agency. Meanwhile, the $4 million and change they currently owe Yi for 2010-11 – because the front office just HAD to pick up his rookie option, sight unseen, despite two largely disappointing seasons to start his NBA career and reports that he’s a few years older than his birth certificate says – has proven to be an obstacle in their chase for two max salary free agents.

The agony that is Yi is complicated further when you read Dave D’Alessandro’s latest report which indicates that with the team’s effort to dump Yi and his salary, they’ve apparently discussed packaging him with a member of the team’s young core in order to make his contract more appealing to another team. As we saw with the Chris Douglas-Roberts trade, the Nets are more than willing to dump a contract for future considerations like a trade exception or a draft pick. Apparently, as of now, no other team is ready to concede that Yi is worth that pittance. Even Marcus Williams yielded the Nets a draft pick.

But hopefully there is a lesson learned for the Nets organization with this Yi situation. As is this case in all professional sports, it’s a dangerous roll the dice and commit, in years and dollars, to a player who is all potential and no performance. In his first two seasons in the NBA, Yi only proved that he was a concept – a long, tall, power forward with a quick first step, and some range from behind the arc. But outside of a small handful of games, his play rarely matched this concept. He showed an alarming lack of basketball IQ, no defensive instincts whatsoever, and an inability to remain consistent on offense. Yet, the organization ignored these red flags when they picked up his option before this third season in the NBA. Back before the 2009-10 season started, the front office made it clear that they were ready to move on from a player like Sean Williams, who like Yi, was more of a conceptual player rather than one based in the reality of performance. But they couldn’t throw in the towel on Yi. And after three years, this was clearly a mistake.

If the front office can’t find a way to shed Yi’s salary without giving away a legitimate asset like a Courtney Lee or Terrence Williams, picking up his option may prove to be one of the biggest sins of the Vandeweghe era. If the team can’t move Yi, it could hypothetically prevent them from being able to financially lure LeBron James and a FA of his choice to Newark next season, providing an opening for the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks to make a play for the King. If the Nets trade Lee or TWill in order to dump Yi, they are giving away basketball talent, and one of the cogs of the team that should be used to attract free agents. If the Nets keep Yi, lose out in free agency, and wind up having to play him major minutes for a third consecutive season, it signals to fan that organization is not moving forward in their five-year plan under Mikhail Prokhorov.