Agree with your assessment VamosRafaNadal
. I think if push came to shove he could have played and maybe won a match or two in Australia -- after all he was practicing with Moya who said that he was playing well; Toni said his level was good etc.; and Nadal said that though his knee was still a bit of a problem, it was a lot better than before. However ultimately as he could not have the "test" he wanted in Abu Dhabi and Doha they decided to be more conservative - why risk 5 set matches on hard court in 30C heat to get to the 4th round or QF? What is that worth to Nadal? Not much. He wants to either be able to fight for the big titles or not be on court at this stage in his career I think.
So I think the plan to return on the South American clay and get enough matches and rhythm in the run up to Monte Carlo makes sense. His PR
manager Benito tweeted to a fan that Nadal was practicing on clay; Moya again gave an interview saying he thinks Nadal will be back at his usual/normal level this year; Toni has said the same -- said he doesn't know when he'll get there but that Nadal's time on court has been good. And finally his agent Carlos Costa was reported to be in discussions with Vina del Mar this week. There have been reports from Argentina and Brazil too about him playing. Obviously he won't play all 4 tournaments in the Golden Swing, but think they're sounding out who offers the best package/appearance fees and also keeping doors open in case he crashes out early for example and wants some matches in another tournament unexpectedly.
If we don't see him in February, then there will be deeper questions I think. But for now I think in a month or so we should have some idea of how he is and how he's playing.