An Improved Defense Pushes The Rockets Towards Contention

APRIL. 9, 2011; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Jamal Crawford (11) tries to drive to the basket on Houston Rockets power forward Luis Scola (4) during the fourth quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. The Rockets won the game 94-89. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE

A few weeks ago, the Rockets were facing an uphill climb to the playoffs. In a 10 team race for 8 playoff seeds, the Rockets were locked in a battle with Phoenix and Utah for the last spot, made tougher after losing their two starting guards. After an impressive 8-3 stretch over their last 11 contests, the Rockets have started to build some breathing room between them and the competition on the outside looking in.

Instead of just making the playoffs, the Rockets' goals may have shifted, especially with home court advantage in the first round up for grabs. With nine games left, the Rockets are just two games out of the 4th seed. At the same time, they have just a two game lead over the 9th seeded Suns.

Are they closer to the mediocrity of Phoenix and Utah, or are they true contenders to go places in the playoffs like the Clippers? Jump for more!

When Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin went down with injuries that threatened to end both of their seasons, most expected the Rockets to slowly fade in the competitive playoff race out West. Nobody could have expected that Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic could outperform their predecessors, that Luis Scola would have a late season resurgence, or that Marcus Camby would play his best basketball since his Denver days.

With Kyle Lowry coming back, this team starts looking very dangerous. Some are quick to dismiss a star-less roster as nothing more than a regular season phenomenon, but Memphis showed last year that a balanced roster with a solid defense could make some noise in the playoffs.

Daryl Morey often preaches that any team needs to have a top ten offense and a top ten defense to contend. For the first 40 games of the season, the Rockets were not close to that mark defensively. However, they have improved dramatically as of late, and have been playing at that level over the last 15 contests.

The importance of the additions of Dragic, Lee, and Camby into the starting lineups on the defense cannot be understated.

Kyle Lowry is widely considered one of the best defensive point guards in the league, but he has regressed badly on that end this season. The Rockets were often forced to put Courtney Lee and Chandler Parsons on quicker point guards this year as Lowry's tired legs couldn't stay in front of them. Dragic is a longer defender who has outperformed Lowry on that end. He's guarding his position and doing so very well as a starter.

Lee's impact goes without saying. Kevin Martin has never been anything better than average defensively at any point in his career, and this season is no exception. Not having to scheme to hide a lesser defender has allowed the Rockets more freedom on the defensive side of the ball, giving Courtney Lee and Chandler Parsons the ability to switch off on dangerous oppoenents.

Finally, Marcus Camby may have had the biggest impact on the improvement of the Rockets' defense. When acquired, most expected he would split minutes with Samuel Dalembert, allowing the two to stay fresh. Incredibly, the 38 year old has bumped Dalembert from the lineup and relegated him to a 15 minute per night role.

His shot-blocking has been welcome, but his discipline has been at least as important to this resurgence. Not only does he almost always make the right decision, but he has kept other players disciplined as well. Even Luis Scola looks more invigorated on defense, as Camby will let him know if he blows an assignment.

Some suggest that the Rockets are going to look elsewhere for the the star talent to carry them to contention, but what if the talent is on the roster now? Goran Dragic has shown he's a legitimate point guard that can lead a team, Kyle Lowry is an All-Star caliber player, and the team has young two-way players in Courtney Lee, Patrick Patterson, and Chandler Parsons here for the long-term.

Including Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee's cap holds, the Rockets could still have well over $10 million to sign on free agents this summer. If Kevin Martin is moved (though I believe the Rockets are going to try and give him a chance to reestablish his value before trading him), they could have $20 million to throw at their young free agent of their choice. With the resources to give him a contract and a promise for significant playing time as a backup to both Lowry and Lee, the Rockets are in a position to retain Dragic and form a tremendous three guard rotation.

So you have the basis for a championship roster in a top ten offense and defense, you can add any free agent you can convince to come to Houston, and have a potential lottery pick in a solid draft. Maybe that's not a championship roster, but it's a lot closer than you'd get if you lost 60 games for three years in a row. If you don't trust me, read this.

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