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For a decision to be based on something so simple, the question of when Tracy McGrady will play basketball quickly grew complicated.

After all the drama of his declared target date now two weeks past and insistence that he is ready, McGrady has returned to Rockets practices and continued to travel with the team, hoping for his chance like so many players on the fringe of a roster.

Rockets coach Rick Adelman said again on Wednesday that there is “no timetable” for McGrady’s return. There is, he said, one criterion to meet for McGrady to make his season debut. McGrady, Adelman said, must be ready in Adelman’s estimation to help the Rockets win.

As uncomplicated as that seems, however, the decision seems more about basketball than health considerations, with the Rockets wanting McGrady to improve in private workouts and team practices, rather than to move his next step of rehab to actual games. McGrady’s most recent prediction about when he would return had him playing by the Rockets’ current road trip. That now seems unlikely.

“We have to keep talking about it and evaluating it,” Adelman said. “It’s more than just throwing him out there. It’s how is it going to affect our team, how is he going to help us, how many minutes can he play. All those things I feel in my mind I have to be certain about.”

The decision has been made more difficult, Adelman said, because the Rockets can no longer afford a step back if McGrady works his way back on the court.

“Last year, we were able to work him in, even if he struggled some, because we had Yao (Ming), we had Ron (Artest); we were pretty good,” Adelman said. “This year, how much effect will he have on us? That’s what I’m trying to judge now. He’s coming along, but you want him to be able to go out and do well and us do well, so it’s a win-win situation.

“Tracy wants to play, but we want to be very cautious about it. We tried that last year, when he was in and out of the lineup. We want to be sure when he is there, he doesn’t have any setbacks. When the time is right and we feel he is going to be a positive addition, we’ll make that decision.”

Not a distraction

The Rockets, insist, however, that there has been no distraction from McGrady’s moving closer to the court or contending he is ready to be there now. After knowing for months that they were have to play without McGrady and Yao Ming, they play now with McGrady’s availability uncertain, but said they are not concerning themselves with the timing of his return.

“Somebody could start thinking about it, but we’re not coaches to decide,” Luis Scola said. “We’re not his knees to decide when he’s going to be helping us or when he’ll be able to do what he was doing forever.

“We just need to play through. Right now, he’s not on the team. We can’t do anything about it. He looks good. We have to worry about what we have to do to win with the team we have.”

Fewer changes

Last season, when McGrady and Artest went in and out of the lineup, sometimes shortly before tipoff, the continually changing lineups became a distraction. The Rockets had 17 different starting lineups last season; one this season. Eventually, they do seem to expect another change, even if there is still little clue about when that will be.

“I never played with anyone who has had microfracture (surgery), so I don’t have a baseline,” Shane Battier said. “The things that make him special — his court vision, his presence — are still there. Obviously, timing will be an issue.

“We haven’t seen him go up and down. But he doesn’t look too bad.”

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