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The Daily Dose: Houston grows weary of waiting on T-Mac

By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Jan 13 2009 6:55PM

A lot of times, one win is all you need to forget your troubles in the NBA. Two and you're rolling. Three, and it's, "Who dares to play us in the first round?"

But there are also times when a win streak is only a mirage, wet soap covering up hidden ugliness inside the window.

This is Houston. And, yes, they have a problem. (God, I hate using that old, tired, trite saying. Please, help me come up with another one. Like, "Houston, why didn't they base a high-ratings series on your town?" Or, "Houston, what do you do with the Astrodome these days?" Anything new would be greatly appreciated.)

The Rockets' recent uptick in play may have camouflaged their issues to those who aren't paying attention. But a season that began with such promise in the 713 is rapidly deteriorating. You get a gold star if you suspect Tracy McGrady is at the center of it all.

After limping and gimping around on his left knee through December, McGrady was put on a two- to three-week rehab assignment on Monday to improve his conditioning. "Conditioning" was the word the team used, deliberately so.

Now, in sports, you can be conditioning to rehabilitate a surgically-repaired part -- like, "Gilbert Arenas is still conditioning his knee." Or, there's conditioning when you're not in shape -- like, "David Aldridge is conditioning, and we hope he'll be able to finish the mile-and-a-half run sometime in the next decade."

So, which is it with McGrady?

"He's conditioning," Rockets GM Daryl Morey said Tuesday. "Tracy said it himself. He wants to do his off-season conditioning program. So that's what he's doing."

That's great. Except ... it's not the offseason.

"He couldn't do it in the offseason because of the (knee) surgery," Morey said.

If this were someone else, it probably wouldn't be that big of a deal. But it's McGrady, who disclosed on the Rockets' media day, four months after his May knee surgery, that the knee was about "75, 80 percent," and also said he would probably need shoulder surgery after the '08-09 season was over, despite having had that cleaned out in the offseason, too.

Hence, no offseason conditioning program.

The Rockets are putting a positive spin on this, but Waiting for Tracy is a play that nobody in Houston wants to see anymore -- up to and including the big man, Yao Ming.

"They don't speak," an extremely plugged-in person tells me. "And Yao wants him out."

That's not likely this season, as McGrady's $20.3 million is toxic to too many teams' luxury tax plans. Next summer, though, when McGrady will have an expiring, $22.4 million contract, teams may well circle the Rockets looking to make a deal.

It's not personal between Yao and McGrady. They like one another. But Yao's frustration is real. And Yao is not the only person that's grown tired of McGrady's self-diagnosis, his up-to-the-last-minute decisions on whether he'll play or not. This isn't questioning his toughness; McGrady took a bunch of pain-killing shots just to get through the first round of the playoffs. And it's unfair of anyone to judge McGrady on his ability to play well in pain; some can, some can't. Ron Artest wanted to keep playing on what the team is now calling a "stress reaction" in his ankle after gutting it out for a month, but he's been shut down for a week to 10 days.

And it's not McGrady's fault that Artest is hurt, just as Shane Battier has been hurt most of the season, or that these Rockets -- who were so resilient last season in winning 22 straight without Yao for a good chunk of that streak -- haven't shown much of that resolve.

But the sad irony is that McGrady has become Grant Hill, his former Orlando teammate who suffered through injury after injury after signing a huge, $93 million contract -- a physical deterioration that wore on McGrady's nerves as one Magic season after another was torched because of another Hill operation.

One veteran scout who worked a Rockets game recently was shocked by the deterioration in the still-29-year-old McGrady's game.

"I thought to myself, 'My God, he's old,'" the scout said. "It was amazing."

You need to know who you can count on, and the Rockets have no idea if they can count on McGrady anymore. When Coach Rick Adelman pointed out the elephant in the room late last week, the team had to act.

"The in-and-out was affecting the team," Morey said. "Rick wanted to put a definitive plan in place."

Morey allowed that there's "a lot of frustration" concerning McGrady.

"Everyone wants him to be where we know what he is capable of doing," Morey said. "I mean, he basically kept us in the Utah series (last year) ... both he and Ron were trying to fight their way through, probably coming back before they should. We were OK with that (before) because the doctors said they couldn't hurt it any more, which is still the case."

In the meantime, there's still a season going on, and the Rockets, seventh in the West entering play Tuesday, still have a role to play. Maybe McGrady still does, too, if his knee comes around. During training camp, McGrady said his doctors put full recovery from the May surgery at six months, which should have had him full strength in December. Maybe three weeks of offseason conditioning are what McGrady needs.

If not ...

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Morey said.

That is exactly what Portland president Larry Miller said Friday about what the Blazers would do if any other team signed Darius Miles, putting his $18 million salary back on Portland's books after it threatened to sue any club that brought Miles in.

We're still waiting to see what Portland will do.

And Houston still waits on McGrady.

Always, Houston waits.

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