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Rockets Must Choose Between Kevin Martin and Courtney Lee

Kevin Martin had perhaps his worst game ever as a Rocket on opening night. On the other hand, Courtney Lee put together a pretty decent game, putting in 15 points on 6-10 shooting and playing much better defense than Martin.

It's just one game and their performances are nothing more than tiny data points in the context of multi-year careers, but the game brought an issue to the forefront that needs to be addressed. Which shooting guard are the Rockets going to commit to for the future?

In an economic climate where flexibility is becoming the currency, the Rockets cannot afford to commit upwards of $20 million to a position where they don't have a true superstar. Read on after the jump for more!

This off-season, the Rockets are clearly planning to make a splash. Yes, we've heard the exact same tagline for years, but by landing Samuel Dalembert on a deal with only one guaranteed year, the Rockets have positioned themselves to have as much cap room as they'll need to land any huge name free agent on the market.

If the Rockets choose to bring back Terrence Williams, Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger, and Patrick Patterson on their rookie options (while declining Jonny Flynn, Samuel Dalembert and Hasheem Thabeet's options), they could clear about $16.67 million in cap room. However, achieving that cap room would require that they renounce the restricted free agent rights to Goran Dragic and Lee, something that would give the Rockets pause.

If the Rockets could land Dwight Howard or Deron Williams, they would do it in a heartbeat. But, if they want to improve the team for the future, they need to pick now between Lee and Martin. And as much as I love Kevin Martin, you'd have to put him on the market first. Despite the expectation that Lee will get a big contract this summer, he is younger, better defensively, and fits with the roster around him better than Martin does.

Martin has been the better player for years, but the difference between him and Lee is not big enough to warrant any trepidation with trading Martin.

If the Rockets were able to move Martin for an expiring contract and a couple of nice young prospects, they'd clear huge cap room for the off-season of 2012 and maintain cap flexibility moving forward. They wouldn't completely tank because any team with Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola will win some games, but they would position themselves nicely for 2012-13 and beyond.

Without change, this team is not going to be making any significant noise in 2011-12. Adding a player like Jan Vesely(!), Rodrigue Beaubois, or Wesley Johnson to the mix as well as manufacturing over $25 million in cap space for this summer could be huge for this franchise as they continue to transition from an average team to a championship contender.

Obviously, the Rockets' biggest problem over the last half decade has been finding players willing to take their money. Deron Williams and Dwight Howard are extreme long shots as neither has expressed any interest in Houston (and Kevin McHale's tampering efforts were apparently unfruitful), but there are other avenues to improve the team. Restricted free agency is a crap shoot, but if a player like Kevin Love wants out of their city, the Rockets could work to secure a young player to build around in a sign-and-trade.

Other players, like Omer Asik, Danilo Gallinari, Nicolas Batum, George Hill, and Russell Westbrook (ha) will also be restricted free agents.

The Rockets would exhaust all opportunities to land a star that could keep the Rockets in contention before trading Martin for unproven young players, and that would be a worthy endeavor. If the Lakers are willing to send Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in a monstrous package for Dwight Howard, the Rockets would have to try and get in on three way talks to give Orlando a veteran-laden offer that includes Bynum, Martin, Luis Scola, and more.

Doing so would set the Rockets up with an intriguing core and cap flexibility to improve the team long term. If Deron Williams bolts from New Jersey, he'd at least have to give the Rockets a hard look before going to Dallas or another team with deep pockets. The same is true for any other high caliber free agent out there.

Moving Martin would put a huge scoring load on the players that remain because he scored so well and so often, but it appears that doing so is the Rockets best option. Right now, they either need to land a star or rebuild, that has become abundantly clear. Trading Martin would accomplish that, no matter who they acquire.

But I'm just one idiot with a keyboard who loves Martin but is ready to move on. What say you?