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Rockets face headache on Ming injury

Houston face life without two stars with centre to have more tests on foot problem, while McGrady could be out until next year.

Yao Ming, left, pictured battling the Los Angeles Lakers' Pau Gasol, will undergo further tests on the injury that is threatening his career.
Yao Ming, left, pictured battling the Los Angeles Lakers' Pau Gasol, will undergo further tests on the injury that is threatening his career.

On the eve of last week's NBA draft, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said the team was still determined to build around Yao Ming. "He's the cornerstone of the team," Morey said. A few days later, the future of the team and the All-Star centre from China have suddenly been thrown into question amid ominous reports from the team doctor that the hairline fracture in Ming's left foot could not only possibly keep him out of all of next season, but potentially end his career.

That would not only be devastating news for the Rockets, but a crippling blow to the NBA, which would lose one of its most influential international ambassadors. On Tuesday, the league was still holding out hope that Ming would play again. "I think it's awfully premature for us to comment on that," league spokesman Tim Frank said. "Let's see how this works out first." Morey said on Monday he would not comment on the reports about Ming "until we have all the facts".

A team spokesman said on Tuesday that nothing was definitive and that Ming and his representatives were seeking other medical opinions this week. The Rockets already know that Tracy McGrady could be out until next February after undergoing surgery on his left knee. Morey also has to decide what to do with Ron Artest, who becomes a free agent after making over US$7million (Dh25.7m) in a productive first season in Houston.

Artest said after the season that he wanted to come back - but that was when he believed the Rockets could compete for the Western Conference title. Releasing McGrady and Artest could save the Rockets money, but probably cost them a season. It would also mark a disappointing end to the star-crossed pairing of Ming and McGrady. The two have played together in only 220 games across five seasons. Together, they've missed 204 games to injuries and illnesses since McGrady joined the team in June 2004. McGrady watched from the sidelines as Houston beat Portland in the first round last season, the Rockets' first series victory since 1997.

Ming was injured in Game Three of the second-round series with the Los Angeles Lakers, and Houston pushed the eventual NBA champions to seven games. But the fighting spirit the Rockets showed won't be enough to carry them through a whole season without a superstar. But how realistic is that if Ming is sidelined for the season or longer? Morey said last Friday that the uncertainty surrounding Ming had not changed his off-season strategy for trades.

If Ming is out for the season, the Rockets could apply for an injured player exception and use that money toward signing a free agent, said Frank. A doctor approved by the NBA would have to declare Ming out for the season before Houston would get the exception. The absence of Ming would have a major impact far beyond Houston. Rockets games routinely draw television audiences of 20 to 30 million in China.

The NBA became the first American league to host games in China in 2004, when Ming's Rockets played in Beijing and Shanghai. * AP