In July 2009, the Rockets received news that would have meant a death-blow to most teams. Their star center, Yao Ming, would miss the entirety of the 2009-2010 NBA Season to surgically repair a hairline fracture in his left foot.
The injury was described as "career-threatening," and many basketball analysts declared Yao Ming's career, at the tender age of 28, officially over.
During that off-season, tough-nosed defender Ron Artest defected to play with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, but the Rockets picked up a relatively young talent from said squad in Trevor Ariza via injury exception.
Finally that hellish year for the Houston Rockets arrived, and the Rockets fought like dogs, earning the respect of NBA analysts across the board as a scrappy, defense-savvy team.
At the trade deadline, the Rockets managed to land Kevin Martin after moving a decrepit Tracy McGrady and fan-favorite Carl Landry.
Call them tough, call them defensive-minded, call them a young, developing, grind-it-out team. Now, try this:
Call them a slowly-built, dark horse in 2011 NBA Playoff contention.
In stark contrast to the glitzy recruiting of the South Beach Stooges, the Rockets have quietly built a capable starting five in Brooks at one, Kevin Martin at two, Ariza/Battier, recently re-signed Luis Scola, and the to-be-ready-for-2010-training-camp Yao Ming.
The Rockets also signed veteran center Brad Miller as Yao-insurance.
Anytime you have players like Miller and Shane Battier or Trevor Ariza coming off the bench, chances are you have a pretty strong squad, provided the young Brooks doesn't shoot the Rockets out of games and runs the floor with distributing the ball in mind.
Don't count them out.
This might be the year that Yao actually plays through an entire season without getting hurt.
Then again, this writer said that for three consecutive years when he effectively murdered fantasy teams from 2005-2008. Of course he comes back in 2008 like gangbusters. The thing is, you never know with Yao.
Yao recently spoke to the media in a subdued, even glum, interview where he admitted that he may never return to his peak playing days.
Not a problem. The Rockets don't need Yao to play at his peak.
He just needs to provide consistent rebounding and be a viable low post option when the perimeter players are unable to establish a rhythm.
That shouldn't be too hard for Yao, who is a naturally gifted jump shooter and post presence. Oh yeah, all that and he's 7'6".
Yao could be intentionally coy or he may be being honest, in order to subdue anticipation regarding his performance.
One thing is for sure, this is the humble Yao that the NBA has overlooked due to injuries for the length of his career.
After all, this is the Yao who took a borderline-racist mocking of the Chinese language from a clearly insecure Shaq and downplayed it as a joke. This is a genuinely stand-up guy in simply unfortunate circumstances.
Those of you who have followed the NBA for a long time might remember that foot problems plagued another truly great big man: Bill Walton.
His problems with injuries are well-documented. Of course, Mountain Man came back in 1986 off the bench for an absurdly talented Boston Celtics squad that ultimately won the NBA Championship.
These Rockets are nowhere close to as talented as those Celtics were, but big men with big hearts like Yao and Walton have something in common; they're not going to go down without a fight.