HOUSTON (AP) - Yao Ming was last seen in an NBA game that counted back in May 2009, limping off the floor in the playoffs and unaware at the time that the injury would force him to miss the following season.
Houston has a new look now, younger and deeper than the squad that pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in the second round of that postseason. But with all the changes, the same nagging question still hovers over everything the Rockets do and what they may be able to accomplish this season:
Can Yao stay healthy?
The 7-foot-6 center has missed chunks of last five seasons with injuries, all of them occurring in his legs or the now surgically reconstructed left foot. He's shown flashes of his old self this preseason, scoring 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting in one game and grabbing seven rebounds with three blocks in another.
But no matter how good he seems to look or how quickly he works himself into condition, the Rockets will play it safe as the regular season begins, restricting the seven-time All-Star to no more than 24 minutes per game.
The plan is to preserve Yao for a postseason run _ if the Rockets can get there with him playing such a limited role.
"We have to get a group ready for the regular season, and if Yao is there, it just adds so much to us," coach Rick Adelman said. "But I'm just going to have to take the stance that I want to bring him along as he feels comfortable, and how it fits into our team. It's got to be something that's positive for him.
"That's a long answer to say, I don't know how it's going to work out."
The day before training camp began, Yao downplayed how long he would need to regain his form.
"How hard can 24 minutes be?" he cracked.
With or without Yao, the Rockets shape up as one of the league's most versatile teams.
Point guard Aaron Brooks was named the league's most improved player after averaging 19.6 points and 5.3 assists a year ago. Argentine power forward Luis Scola is also back following a star-making performance at the recent world championships, where he led the tournament in scoring (27.1 points per game).
The Rockets re-signed reserve point guard Kyle Lowry, and he and Brooks formed a small, speedy backcourt at times last season. Houston also acquired 7-foot Brad Miller to back up Yao, and if Adelman wants a bigger lineup, he can choose from durable forward Chuck Hayes, 6-10 Jordan Hill, 6-11 Jared Jeffries and first-round draft pick Patrick Patterson.
Sharp-shooting Kevin Martin should get open looks on the perimeter if Yao attracts attention down low, and the Rockets were thrilled to nab guard Courtney Lee in a four-team trade that sent Trevor Ariza to New Orleans.
Shane Battier again brings experience and leadership to the starting five, and athletic Chase Budinger is another multi-skilled player in reserve.
"I like our depth all the way through," Adelman said. "I don't think anybody should have to play 40 minutes. We need to play every possession all-out, and guys don't need to rest. We have quality guys coming off the bench."
The return of Yao and the roster additions will also allow the regulars to go back to their most natural positions.
Brooks can now focus on running the offense, after leading the team in scoring and shots (575) last season. The 6-6 Hayes was Houston's starting center and can now return to playing power forward. Scola, last year's leading rebounder, will find other ways to contribute.
"My role could change, but I believe you can reach the same level of effectiveness, even though your numbers could be worse," he said. "Yao will make me better, because he's just good. Good players make everybody else better. My numbers will get worse, which I'm fine with."
The undermanned Rockets scrambled to a 42-40 record last year, and missed the playoffs. Brooks, Scola and Hayes started every game, but 13 other players missed a total of 208 games to injuries.
Battier thinks the lessons learned from that uneven season will serve the remaining Rockets well this year.
"It develops a mindset," Battier said. "It doesn't matter who's hurt, who may be playing, who's close to playing, you go out there and play, no matter who's in the lineup that night."
The Rockets embarked on a weeklong trip to China for two exhibition games two weeks before the regular season. Houston's schedule starts with road games against the Lakers and Golden State before the Oct. 30 home opener against Denver.
Adelman was worried about how the demanding itinerary would affect all his players, not just Yao.
"That makes it hard because you're not going to have the practice time, traveling all the way over there and all the way back," Adelman said. "Because you're doing that for the league, they give you a chance to play the Lakers at home on opening night. ... We have to find a way to get through that period where we're ready for that regular season."