Rockets must cease Yao-injury denial, chart rebuilding plan
The Rockets have been trying, in vain, to deal the oft-injured Tracy McGrady
Ron Artest wants money and a ring -- things he might find elsewhere
In Texas, we call it Snipe hunting.
The Houston Rockets are searching for something that does not exist. They are sending Yao Ming out on a medical safari of sorts, in search of a second, third -- 10th? -- opinion on his perennially broken left foot.
The truth is, so long as the Rockets continue to believe they will be able to rely on this 7-foot-6 Paul Bunion at any point in the foreseeable future, the entire organization will be teetering along a thin line.
They will fall further behind the top-tier teams in the NBA's Western Conference and opportunities that could get this club right will be lost.
The Rockets have two choices, realistically, in the wake of devastating news that the fracture in Yao's left foot has not only not healed, but significantly worsened:
1) Be an average team
Clearly, option 2 is the smartest way to go and there definitely are ways to get there. Instead, the Rockets are going with an imaginary option 3: beating the bushes in search of a medical opinion they want to hear.
They want someone, anyone, in a white coat to tell them there is a better path for Yao -- something that won't require Yao to miss the 2009-10 season, if not blow out his career altogether.
The last thing any organization wants to do is tell fans it is blowing up the team and starting over. But guess what? It's already blown up.
The Tracy McGrady experiment was a huge failure. He is fragile, became the most despised athlete in Houston since Brad Lidge and will be out at least through February recovering from microfracture surgery. The Rockets have been trying to find a taker for him for some time.
The Ron Artest joyride was fun while it lasted. Artest, now a free-agent, wants money and a ring. He may not be the smartest guy in the room, but Artest can certainly read the writing on the wall.
With McGrady on the block and the latest Yao news, Artest may be saying he wants to return to Houston, but why would he burn a bridge? In his heart, Artest knows he can get more money and a better chance elsewhere. He's likely gone.
And then there's Yao, who had surgery on the foot in April 2006 and again in March 2008. When he re-injured the same foot in the postseason series against the Lakers in May, the foot was placed in a cast. His recovery time was supposed to be eight weeks.
Now, the Rockets' own team doctor says the injury could end Yao's 2009-10 hopes or possibly end his career.
The Rockets are fooling themselves if they think their title dreams are intact. They have about as much chance of contending with the current roster, as they do actually finding a doctor willing to tell them Yao's going to be just fine.
Longtime Houston orthopedic surgeon Kenneth R. First, who specializes in sports-related injuries, has followed the Yao saga since 2006.
He called it "wishful optimism" that Yao would be able to cast the foot again, sit out a period of time and play with a cracked bone in his foot.
"This is about the worst possible scenario for this franchise, let alone Yao," Dr. First said. "I don't think they're going to get 10 doctors to come to the same exact opinion. At some point, a decision has to be made here. The prognosis is poor ... the odds that Yao can avoid injury [again], are just not great."
And if a third operation in barely more than a three-year span is required?
"Then you get into Bill Walton-land," Dr. First said.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has always had a knack for grasping the breadth of the picture by studying the tiniest details. He is an NBA Moneyball-type numbers-cruncher who in private moments must realize Yao's return is a long shot.
This picture should be clear to Morey: The only way to catch back up with the Lakers, Spurs and Nuggets is to take a step backward, re-tool, and change the age and direction of this team completely.
While several trades or potential free-agent acquisitions have been tossed around since news of Yao's plight broke, none appear to be enough to keep the Rockets in the upper-echelon of the league.
Chris Bosh? Amar'e Stoudemire? That sounds fine, but the Rockets would either have to give up too much or pay too much to get a fill-in marquee player. They still would have to plug holes in the lineup elsewhere, too.
Even then, the Rockets would not be much more than an average Western Conference team, compared to the Lakers, Spurs, who have added Richard Jefferson, or Nuggets. And owner Leslie Alexander would not be too keen paying luxury tax money just to be average.
Without Yao, the Rockets' best bet is to go young and get better. In fact, even though his public comments have said otherwise, Morey probably knew as much before the draft. Without a pick in the draft, Morey convinced Alexander to spend $6 million buying draft picks from other teams.
The result was the Rockets landing a scorer who could replace Von Wafer in Jermaine Taylor and an athletic wing in Chase Budinger, who could complement Shane Battier's defense with offensive skills and range.
Why do you think the Rockets also are talking trade with Minnesota, with an eye on point guard Ricky Rubio? The draw and excitement of a team built around Rubio and other young pieces could lead the Rockets to a Portland Trail Blazers-type resurgence.
There are other young or relatively young pieces already in place, like Carl Landry, Luis Scola, Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry. And a serviceable big man like Antonio McDyess, who lives in Houston during the off-season, could be had for mid-level exception money or slightly more.
The Yao-McGrady-Artest thing didn't work. The Rockets need to recognize it never will work. They'll never again be able to count on Yao.
The longer the Rockets are in denial, the further behind the elite teams they will fall.
Would you believe a team that took the world champs to seven games suddenly must rebuild? At least it would be easier and take less time than rebuilding Yao's left foot.
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