Yao Ming's return from foot surgery might come sooner than anyone expected.
In an interview with ESPN The Magazine's Sam Alipour, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said Yao could return at some point in the 2009-10 season and the team no longer feels his broken left foot is a career-threatening injury.
"Yao Ming is progressing well. I don't think that [a career-ending scenario] is something that will happen, based on what I'm hearing from the doctors," Morey told Alipour. "They do know that the bone will heal and he'll get back on it. And they have not actually ruled out [his return] this season. I think that's less likely than likely, but they haven't ruled it out.
"And next season, the outlook is very good. He just took off the cast for a short period [two weeks ago], so the doctors could examine it, and everything is going well. Everything is on track."
The 7-foot-6 Yao, a seven-time All-Star, had surgery in July, more than two months after suffering a hairline fracture late in a playoff game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Surgeons grafted bone onto the tarsal navicular bone and realigned Yao's foot to reduce stress on the repair. At the time of the procedure, he was expected to be immobilized in a cast and using crutches for at least six to eight weeks.
"Once the cast is removed, he'll be able to start rehab on his foot, and the cast has a little ways, multiple weeks, to go," Morey told Alipour.
Yao played in 77 regular-season games in 2008-09, his most injury-free season since 2004-05, when he played in 80. Before last season, Yao missed chunks of the previous three seasons with leg and foot injuries.
In 2006-07, Yao missed 32 games after breaking his right leg. He sustained a stress fracture in his left foot in 2007-08, underwent surgery and sat out 26 games.
"He comes to the gym pretty much every day. He's become pretty good at making shots from a seated position," Morey told Alipour. "I've been joking with him that when we're in the NBA Finals, and he gets knocked down, and he hits the shot falling backwards to win the game, all this hard work will have paid off."
Yao is due to make more than $16 million next season, with a player option for 2010-11 that would pay him more than $17 million.
He has averaged 19.1 points and 9.3 rebounds in his career.
Sam Alipour writes about the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.