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NBA grants injury exception for Yao

EVEN if the Houston Rockets are worried about Yao Ming's return from a broken left foot, the NBA All-Star center is trying to put everyone at ease.

"I am optimistic about the future and I will return to playing basketball when my foot has fully healed," Yao said in a statement released by his agent yesterday. "My focus is on selecting the best treatment option for my injured foot and committing myself to do what I can to ensure a complete recovery."

Yao is still consulting with doctors about the hairline fracture and will announce within a week what kind of treatment he's chosen. How long that treatment might sideline him is the biggest question facing the Rockets in the offseason, though they've already cashed in on his injury in a sense.

The Rockets applied for a disabled player exception from the NBA a few weeks ago, betting their Chinese center will miss next season as he recovers. The NBA agreed that Yao's return is unlikely and approved the request, freeing about US$5.7 million that the Rockets used to sign free agent Trevor Ariza from the Los Angeles Lakers.

General manager Daryl Morey said the league's approval for the injury exception does not rule out Yao's return this season.

Yao broke his foot in a second-round playoff game against the Lakers on May 8. He was fitted for a boot that immobilized his foot and the team initially said he would miss 8-12 weeks.

The Rockets said less than two months later that tests showed Yao's foot had not healed and he was out indefinitely. The team doctor said later that the injury could potentially end his career.

The Rockets are also awaiting on the return of Tracy McGrady, who underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee in February and could be out until the middle of next season. Morey said he could've applied the disabled player exception to McGrady, but thought the league would be more willing to grant the request in Yao's case.

"We chose the one we thought had the best likelihood of succeeding," Morey said.

Since the league granted the injury exception, Morey and the Rockets retained their midlevel exception (also equal to about US$5.7 million) to offer to another free agent. The injury exception can only be used on one player, but the midlevel exception money can be divided and used on multiple players.

When free agent Ron Artest signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, Morey moved quickly to sign Ariza, a versatile forward who will fill Artest's spot in the starting lineup.

The Rockets are still looking for an experienced center - their projected starting lineup for now would have no player taller than 2.06-meter (6-foot-9) Luis Scola. Morey made an aggressive pitch to Orlando Magic center Marcin Gortat, but Morey said the Rockets were unable to offer enough money.

Morey said he was pursuing another free agent, and hoped to announce another signing "in the next week or two." But he said the Rockets would mostly likely acquire a center to replace Yao through a trade this summer.

"The Rockets have kept me informed of what they are doing and why. I support them in their efforts to make our team as good as possible," Yao said in a statement released through his agent, John Huizinga.

Morey also has to make a decision on free agent guard Von Wafer, who made US$797,581 last season. Wafer may be the odd man out after the additions of Ariza and draft-night acquisition Jermaine Taylor.

But the main concern remains Yao, whom Morey called the "cornerstone" of the team last month.

Yao played in 77 regular-season games in 2008-09, his most durable year since 2004-05, when he played in 80. In between, Yao missed chunks of three seasons with leg and foot injuries.

Yao is due to make more than US$16 million next season with a player option for 2010-11 that would pay him over US$17 million.


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