The human foot is a fragile thing made up of many small bones —a 7’6”, 310-poound man running up and down a hardwood floor on it every day is tempting the foot injury gods.
Need proof, ask Yao Ming — the best center on the face of the earth, someone who can block shots inside, who moves well for a man his size and has a soft jump shot from 17 feet out. The rare big man who can hit free throws.
A big man whose feet are failing him and may cost him next season. Or his career.
Yao injured his foot on May 8 in a playoff game against the Los Angels Lakers, not due to any dramatic moment but just his foot giving out. The same foot in the same place where three pins were placed in it during a 2008 surgery. He bounced back four months later from that first surgery — some said too quickly — to play in his country’s Beijing Olympics. Then he followed that up with maybe his best NBA season.
But now the injury is back. The first orders from the doctor in May were to rest, keep a cast on it and that it would heal itself. That didn’t work, and the fracture has gotten worse.
This week Yao is going to see a parade of foot specialists, then a decision will be made. But likely it will mean more surgery. And that likely will mean extended time off, deep into next season, if not all of next season.
Two surgeries, more pins on one spot in one foot — that is the kind of thing that often ends careers. Which would be a sad and premature end to a fantastic career.
All of this leaves the Rockets in a bind. This was a team that with Yao — and even without — pushed the eventual champion Lakers farther than anyone else in the playoffs. This was a team that was looking to unload the oversized, dead weight contract of Tracy McGrady and bring in another piece that could help them make a title run next season.
But with no Yao, there will be no title. So what does General Manager Daryl Morey do? Build as if Yao will be back next year? Think about two years from now? Think that Yao may never recover and start to tear the whole thing down?
It starts with the decision on whether or not to bring back Ron Artest — a guy who played a key role in the playoffs. But as a role player, when he is the best player on a team he doesn’t fear taking over the offense and putting up terrible low-percentage shot after low percentage shot.
Yao and the Rockets are at a crossroads. And there are no easy answers for anyone involved.