Commentary

Playing the guessing game

Yao Ming's foot injury has left the Rockets with lots of unanswered questions

Updated: June 30, 2009, 5:26 PM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

Yao MingBill Baptist/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Rockets aren't sure how long they will be without their big man in the middle.
In the realm of possibilities, the fact that Yao Ming's left foot has made no improvement since he fractured it in May could mean the Rockets center will miss all of next season.

It could also mean he never plays again.

Or that he is limited in training camp but starts the season and has another All-Star campaign. Or misses the first 25 games of the season but leads them to another strong playoff run. Or misses the first 50 and wins a title.

In short, what he can offer the Rockets next season is a complete unknown. Which, in some ways, is the worst possible scenario for GM Daryl Morey.

As of right now, on the eve of free agency, he doesn't know what Yao's prognosis is. The next course of treatment hasn't even been decided. Yao remains in the U.S., seeking second and third opinions, and will decide how to proceed. According to multiple sources, doctors could continue having him rest and see whether the leg responds. If it does, he still might be ready to play by November. If it doesn't, he'd probably have it surgically repaired, which would put him in greater jeopardy of missing part or all of the season.

Or he could elect to have a surgical procedure now that would cost him part of the season.

Or he could go with a more aggressive procedure that would put him out now but improve his chances of a complete recovery a year from now.

For those handicapping the possibilities, Yao had surgery for essentially the same injury in March 2008 and returned to play in the Olympics four months later, followed by the best and most successful season of his career.

The quotes in the Houston Chronicle from Dr. Tom Clanton, who discovered that Yao's foot hadn't responded to treatment, contains the same information he gave the Rockets last week, a team source said. Sources say the Rockets didn't emphasize in their subsequent release that Yao could miss the season because Clanton didn't emphasize it.

For what it's worth, the Rockets and Yao's representatives are appalled that Clanton went public with the results of his examination. Yao was disappointed the exam showed no progress, but a source says he never contemplated missing all of next season.

The question he's trying to answer right now, a source says, is whether to have surgery and thereby guarantee he'll miss part of the season, or give it more time to heal naturally, leaving open the chance he'll be ready to go in October. The risk is that if it still doesn't respond to rest, he'll then have to have surgery, which would push his return to later in the season than if he had surgery now.

The sticking point for the Rockets is that they have decisions to make right now on re-signing Ron Artest and possibly dealing Tracy McGrady. The league consensus is that Artest can't be the best player on your team, because it empowers him to exercise his most erratic impulses, on and off the court. But if Yao can't play, that's exactly what Artest would be.

The Rockets have admitted they have been seeking trade options for McGrady, whose status for next season is unknown after he underwent microfracture surgery on his knee in February. But if there's a decent chance of the worst-case scenario -- Yao's career is over -- then the Rockets have to think about letting McGrady's $23 million deal expire, getting forced-retirement relief from the league on Yao's contract and going after a new superstar.

Of course, if Yao can play next season, the team would be best served by moving McGrady for a veteran scorer who can contribute right now and shoot for a title.

The Rockets understood the realm of possibility's width from the minute Yao walked out of that examination last week. What they didn't know -- and still don't -- are the percentages. Is there a 2 percent chance he won't play next season? Ten percent? Fifty?

That's what the second opinions he's seeking over the next few days will determine. For now, Yao's starting the season or not playing at all next season are the least likely outcomes. Having surgery, returning sometime in midseason and continuing his career is the most likely.

None of which makes the Rockets' position over the next 48 hours any easier.

Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer