The Rockets and Yao's reps are frightened over his future, and the concern is the most base of all: Does Yao Ming ever play again?
"The realization has hit them that this is grave," one NBA general manager said.
For now, the Rockets have privately told league peers it could be a full season before Yao might be able to return to basketball. Multiple league executives, officials close to Yao and two doctors with knowledge of the diagnoses are describing a troubling re-fracture of his navicular bone. Three pins were inserted a year ago, but the foot cracked in the playoffs and isn't healing.
"It sounds like he's missing most of next season, if not the entire 82 games," one league executive who has had recent discussions with the Houston front office told Yahoo! Sports. "That's all that [the Rockets] will concede quietly, but they know it's probably much worse."
After Yahoo! Sports first reported the severity of Yao's injury, Rockets team physician Tom Clanton conceded franchise's fears to the Houston Chronicle.
"At this point, the injury has the potential for him missing this next season and could be career threatening," Clanton said. "One of the things we are trying to get is a consensus opinion on that, to make certain there is no option we are overlooking that would provide an earlier return or would be an option for treatment that he would prefer rather than doing additional surgery."
Houston general manager Daryl Morey refused comment on Monday and a team spokesman said the Rockets will not have further comment until Yao undergoes additional medical tests.
There's no reason for the Rockets to disclose the severity of the injury, nor the uncertainty over Yao's future. Before the Rockets confirm a dire diagnosis, they plan to send him to three more specialists this week, a source said. For now, the Rockets have season tickets and sponsorships to sell.
This has turned into an impossible situation for the Rockets' capable GM. Even if Yao plays again, Morey knows it's just a matter of time until his lower body breaks down. His feet and ankles just can't support the mobility of his 7-foot-6 frame.
With four surgeries in three years, the Rockets worried they were reaching a breaking point. Well, it's here. After missing 86 games in the previous three seasons, the 28-year-old Yao missed a mere five this past regular season before injuring his foot during the Rockets' second-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers.
It wasn't until last week when Houston issued a statement saying Yao's fractured foot hadn't healed properly, that he would be unavailable "indefinitely." Prior to Thursday's draft, Morey tried desperately to trade into the high lottery to take Spanish prodigy Ricky Rubio(notes). Houston needed a young star, but had too few assets to make a deal with Memphis or Sacramento. It seemed odd to teams that Houston had thrown Shane Battier(notes) and Aaron Brooks(notes) into offers within weeks of pushing the NBA champion Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.
Now, the Rockets have tough decisions to make: Do they keep pushing Tracy McGrady(notes) and his expiring contract on the market or let the $22 million expire next summer? So far, Morey is getting offered bad contracts and junk talent for him. What's more, does Houston re-sign Ron Artest(notes) to a $40 million-plus contract when contention is no longer viable? Why not create cap space for the summers of 2010 and 2011? Why not get younger now? Yao could opt out of his contract next summer, but odds are that Houston won't be so fortunate.
The Rockets should do themselves a favor and just start over. That isn't easy in a sophisticated and rabid NBA market like Houston, but what everyone long suspected has reached fruition: Yao and McGrady are no longer a faulty foundation, but a collapsed one. Houston needs to proceed with an understanding that they're no longer chasing the Lakers, but beginning again.
Rest assured, Houston has long been fearful that Yao's responsibilities to the Chinese national team were rapidly contributing to his breakdown, and perhaps they've finally been met. Yao wouldn't have missed the Beijing Olympics for the world, but it was clear he wasn't fully healed in those Games. The Rockets paid a price for his nationalism, his obligation and now the darkest fears are close to confirmation: It isn't just a season on the brink for Yao Ming, but perhaps a career.