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Yao Ming likely out next season

CHRIS DUNCAN | 7/17/2009, 8:59 p.m.

HOUSTON (AP) -- The Houston Rockets thought they had become championship contenders last summer when they acquired Ron Artest to join Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, a pair of perennial All Stars.

Less than a year later, the Rockets are rebuilding from scratch with no Artest and no idea when McGrady or Yao will play again.

The final blow came Friday, when Yao announced he would have surgery next week on his broken left foot, a decision that will likely keep him out all of next season. The team said there is no timetable set for the return of the 7-foot-6 Yao, a seven-time All Star, but that he is "expected to be available for the team's training camp in 2010."
McGrady, also a seven-time All Star, could be sidelined until next February as he recovers from risky microfracture surgery on his left knee.

Artest? He said at the end of last season that he wanted to stay in Houston - but only if he felt the Rockets had a legitimate chance to win the NBA title. He's now getting ready to play with Kobe Bryant and the NBA champion Lakers after signing a multiyear deal a few days after the start of the free agency negotiating period.

The Rockets knew some of this was coming, asking the NBA for a disabled player exception several weeks before free agency began. The NBA granted the Rockets' request, an acknowledgment that the league doubted Yao would play next season. The team promptly used the money to land forward Trevor Ariza from the Lakers.

But that's small solace to Rockets fan and general manager Daryl Morey, who called the 28-year-old Yao the franchise's "cornerstone" just a month ago.

Morey said that he isn't conceding next season, but acknowledges the Rockets are probably have little choice now but to build for the more distant future.

If the season started now, Houston's starting lineup would likely be Ariza, Aaron Brooks, Shane Battier, Luis Scola and either new acquisition David Andersen or 6-foot-6 Chuck Hayes, who played center for Houston in the final four games in the playoffs after Yao was injured.

"We don't want to take any time off, with question marks on Yao and Tracy (McGrady)," Morey said. "It's put some challenges in our way. But we don't want to take time off if we can, so we want to keep adding players like Trevor, who can help us now and can be part of young core that's going to grow together and win a lot of games."

Morey has spent an exhausting few weeks scrambling to put together a competitive roster.

Literally the minute free agency began July 1, Morey showed up at Marcin Gortat's front door, trying to persuade the restricted free agent center to join the Rockets. The 6-foot-11 Gortat eventually re-signed with Orlando, where he's backed up Dwight Howard for the past two seasons.

This week, Houston acquire the 6-11 Andersen in a trade with Atlanta. Andersen is a former second-round draft choice, a two-time Olympian and a contributor on four championship teams in Europe.

But he's no Yao, a game-changing player and one of the NBA's most valuable and recognized ambassadors.

Thanks in large part to Yao's impact, the NBA launched NBA China in January 2008 and now has nearly 150 employees in four offices there. NBA games and programming are available on 51 television and digital media outlets in China and NBA merchandise is sold in about 30,000 retail locations there.

Bryant has had the top-selling jersey in China for two straight seasons. Yao ranks 10th - most likely because most fans bought them in the first years after Yao broke into the NBA.

Houston drafted Yao with the No. 1 overall pick in 2002 and he averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds as a rookie. He was an All-Star starter in 2003 and has been voted the top center in the Western Conference each year since.

He never took a long break from basketball early in his career, playing for the Chinese National team in each of the first six summers after he was drafted. The demanding schedule coupled with his extraordinary height may have contributed to the injury issues he began to encounter in the 2005-06 NBA season.

His last four seasons have been ended prematurely by serious injuries. He missed a total of 83 regular-season games between 2005-08 and sat out the first-round playoff series in 2008, which Houston lost to Utah.

His troublesome left foot is injured for the third time. He broke a bone in the foot with four games left in the 2005-06 season, then suffered a stress fracture in February 2008, during the Rockets' 22-game winning streak. He had pins inserted and rushed his rehab to play for China in the Beijing Olympics.

He played in 77 regular-season games in 2008-09, his most durable season since 2004-05. The foot held up fine until the second round of last season's playoffs, when he went down and then hobbled off the floor at the Toyota Center.

Yao returned to China after the season, leading a basketball camp and even voicing a character for a Chinese-language animated film. He recently purchased his former team, the financially troubled Shanghai Sharks, but said that was not an indication that he was planning an early retirement.

Yao has been consulting with doctors and finally decided on a complicated procedure, similar to one performed on Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas in 2001. The surgery involves a bone graft to promote bone regeneration, the team said. He's also hoping to reduce the arch in the foot by realigning and restructuring the bones.

"This surgery will allow me to continue my career playing basketball and I look forward to returning to the court," Yao said in a statement. "I am very grateful to have the support of teammates, friends and fans as I dedicate myself to making a completely successful recovery."

Ilgauskas missed 58 games in the 2000-01 season with the same injury and had surgery on Feb. 7, 2001. He returned to action on Dec. 4, 2001, after missing the first 17 games of the season.

Dr. Tom Clanton, the Rockets' team doctor, will perform the surgery on Yao, who is due to make $16 million this season and holds the option for returning in 2010-11.

The Rockets have gone 146-74 when Yao and McGrady play at the same time, but it's happened so rarely over five seasons that it has never mattered at crunch time. All Morey and the Rockets can do is wait to see if their two best players of the past decade will ever play again.