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Look out, Mavs and Spurs. Yao Ming is back, and—fragile foot permitting—the center could make Houston a force again in the league's most competitive division

Early in the third quarter of a preseason game Yao Ming stumbled over a Pacer's foot and crashed to the floor. The 7'6", 310-pound center was on the hardwood for just a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity to every Rockets player, coach and executive—not to mention the 12,469 fans at the Toyota Center. "You are always worried when the big fella goes down," says Houston guard Kevin Martin. "And you're happy when he gets up."

Keeping Yao upright and mobile is priority No. 1 in southeast Texas this season. With Yao sidelined all of last year after he broke his left foot in the 2009 postseason, the Rockets missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Now, 15 months removed from complicated reconstructive surgery—the procedure involved grafting bone to his fractured tarsal navicular and then realigning the bones in his foot to reduce stress—Yao is the key to the team's hope of reemerging as a Western Conference contender. When he was last healthy, in 2008--09, the seven-time All-Star averaged 19.7 points and 9.9 rebounds and helped the Rockets push the Lakers, the eventual NBA champions, to seven games in the conference semifinals. Without Yao, Houston won 42 games, its lowest win total since 2005--06. "You don't play for that long, and all the pressure in the world is on his shoulders," says coach Rick Adelman. "Everyone is thinking about what he was like two years ago."

The Rockets have put a lot of manpower into Yao's recovery. Last season the team hired Darryl Eto, a top fitness coach, as director of strength and conditioning, in part to assist with Yao's rehabilitation. Over the summer they became one of the few NBA teams with an on-staff physical therapist when they hired Jason Biles. Eto, Biles, assistant strength and conditioning coach David Macha, and trainer Keith Jones oversee a program for Yao that includes leg massages, movement training to improve his efficiency and ease stress on his foot, and time spent using a specialized pump that promotes blood circulation in his tree-trunk-sized legs. To protect him from suffering any setbacks, the Rockets will limit Yao to 24 minutes per game this season. In July they signed free agent Brad Miller to a three-year, $15 million deal to back him up.

Of course it will take time for the 30-year-old Yao to return to full strength. He says his foot is pain-free but describes his conditioning as "bad"; when asked what part of his game was the hardest to get back, he deadpans "everything." But the Rockets are optimistic that he will make a full recovery. There's reason to believe. Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas underwent a similar surgery in 2001; he played just 29 games in two seasons before the procedure, but has been one of the league's most durable players since. And already there are signs of progress: After scoring a total of eight points in Houston's first two preseason games, Yao scored 19 in the next two. "No matter what we're running, I want him to keep going to the low post," says Adelman. "He is going to have his good nights, and he is going to have his tough nights. We just want him to get more comfortable every time he is on the floor."

If there was a bright side to Yao's absence for the Rockets, it was how well their offense adapted without its leading scorer. Last season Houston cranked up the running game, finishing in the top 10 in the league in points per game (102.4) for the first time since 2000--01 and possessions per 48 minutes (94.0) for the first time since '99--'00. Point guard Aaron Brooks spearheaded the attack, averaging 19.6 points and winning the NBA's Most Improved Player award. In the off-season Houston swapped forward Trevor Ariza for two-guard Courtney Lee as part of a four-team trade; Lee, who is better in transition than Ariza, joins an athletic corps of wing players that includes Martin, Shane Battier and Chase Budinger. And forward Luis Scola, who averaged 16.2 points and 8.6 rebounds as the primary post option in Yao's absence, was re-signed to a five-year, $47 million deal. "It's funny, we have as up-tempo a team as we've had since I've been here," says Battier, who arrived from Memphis before the 2006--07 season. "That's sort of counter to what we do with Yao. But that being said, all these guys can complement Yao if he can regain his form."

A healthy Yao will be needed to keep pace in the NBA's most competitive division. The Mavericks won 55 games and the division title last year and should be even better after having a full training camp to incorporate its midseason acquisitions from the Wizards—center Brendan Haywood, swingman Caron Butler and guard DeShawn Stevenson. What's more, Dallas traded for center Tyson Chandler, a defensive and rebounding menace who is finally healthy after missing 68 games over the last two seasons with foot and ankle injuries.

Dallas's backcourt of Jason Kidd, 37, and Jason Terry, 33, isn't exactly eligible for A.A.R.P., but the guards won't be racking up 40-minute nights anymore, either. Enter 22-year-old Roddy Beaubois, the Mavs' top pick in the 2009 draft, whose scoring output doubled in the second half of last season, when he averaged 10.2 points per game. The 6'0" combo guard terrorized bad defenses last year (of his 15 double-digit scoring games, 12 came against lottery teams) but flamed out in the playoffs (5.3 points per game). Still, Beaubois's rise has been rapid—he didn't play in the French pro leagues until he was 18—and another year in the Mavericks system should speed his maturation process.

The Spurs should be improved as well. San Antonio (surprise!) imported another top international talent in reigning Spanish League MVP Tiago Splitter, a hard-banging 6'11'' center. Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili sat out this summer's world championships to rest their worn-down bodies, while power forward DeJuan Blair cut his body fat from 14% to 7% this summer and added a teardrop to his repertoire. The contributions of Splitter and Blair should ease the burden on power forward Tim Duncan and keep the 34-year-old fresh throughout the season.

Then there is small forward Richard Jefferson, who was out of shape when he showed up for camp last season and bombed in his first year in San Antonio, averaging the fewest points (12.3) and assists (2.0) since his rookie season. Still, the Spurs re-signed him to a four-year, $39 million deal after receiving assurances that he would focus on his conditioning and spend time during the off-season working with the coaching staff. Jefferson reported to camp at 7% body fat and developed a better grasp of the Spurs' complex offensive system. "It's more instinctive now," says Jefferson. "I'm more comfortable with the pick-and-rolls, with the catch-and-shoots. I'm going to be ready, down and loaded when that ball comes to me."

The Grizzlies were a team of extremes last year. They led the league in points in the paint (51.4 per game) and set franchise records for scoring (102.5) and field goal percentage (46.9%). But they coughed up the second most points in the paint (47.7 per game) and ranked in the bottom third of the league in opponents' scoring (104.0) and shooting (47.8%). Similarly, Memphis had both the most productive starting lineup last season (82.5 points per game) and the least productive bench (20.0). The Grizzlies hope an improved Hasheem Thabeet at center will balance out the D. The No. 2 pick in the '09 draft averaged 3.1 points and 3.6 rebounds and was unceremoniously shipped to the D-League in midseason. But Thabeet was a fixture at off-season workouts, honing his footwork and polishing his post moves with Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier. The sessions lifted both Thabeet's play and his confidence. "His attention to detail is better," says coach Lionel Hollins. "Last year he didn't want the ball. Now he's comfortable in the paint and can catch and finish around the basket."

To bolster the bench, Memphis drafted offensive-minded guards Xavier Henry of Kansas and Greivis Vazquez of Maryland in the first round and signed former Celtics swingman Tony Allen to a three-year, $10 million deal. "Tony brings a big energy," says Hollins. "He's an active personality. When practice starts, he turns it on."

The Hornets, who finished last in the division last season, have a healthy Chris Paul. That's the good news. The bad news is that the All-Star point guard reportedly requested a trade. Paul eventually declared his desire to stay, but the organization—which has undergone an overhaul with the hirings of general manager Dell Demps and coach Monty Williams—needs results to dissuade Paul from leaving as a free agent in the summer of '12. To that end Demps loaded the roster with shooters, adding Ariza and guards Marco Belinelli and Willie Green to incumbents Peja Stojakovic and Marcus Thornton. "Chris is a once-in-a-generation point guard," says Williams. "But we can't put all that pressure on him. With the guys we have, we should be able to space the floor and give Chris room to operate."

Operate? That's not a word anyone wants to hear in Houston. Yao's health will be the key to the division race—and even the local media appreciate how important he is to the Rockets' hopes. When a reporter accidentally stepped on Yao's toe in a postgame gaggle earlier this month, the rest of the group jumped back a step, an instinctive attempt to avoid any more contact. Yao shouldn't expect the same kind of consideration from opponents. But if he's healthy and effective, he could help create separation between Houston and the rest of the division.



WITH 2009--10 STATS



REASONABLE DOUBT Unless Paul is convinced that the Hornets' overhaul will yield long-term results, he could exit in 2012—if not sooner.