Sports debates are fun.
They are not like other debates. The existential, moral and spiritual effort is low. We can get pretty crazy arguing about who puts a ball in the net better than the next man, but that’s the beauty of it – it doesn’t matter. As Larry King and the Pope both said (seriously, Google it), sports are the most important of all the unimportant things.
I watched NBA finals with some friends and we had a fun debate.
“Who do you think is the best Canadian player in the NBA?”
“Must be SGA”.
“I don’t know, man. Murray is more playoff viable. Gilgeous-Alexander needs a consistent jumper before I buy him as a deep playoff guy.”
“Fair. My thinking is that you can build an offense around SGA. He’s one of the best dribble penetrators in the NBA. Murray is great, but I’m not sure if he’s got an outlier. You can’t build a team around him”.
“Fair too, and I’ll be honest, I haven’t exactly seen a lot of Thunder games recently”.
That’s when I realized – I have. I have seen the bad teams for several years. When you’re rooting for a rebuilding team, you’re scouting the competition. This brings us to another point of contention:
Who has the best young core in the NBA and where do the Rockets stand?
A few notes here.
First, I only look at teams with true “young cores” – meaning all their key players are young. In other words, the Indiana Pacers are disqualified because Myles Turner is the second most important player on their team. That Golden State Warriors not making the cut just to have Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody on the roster. That Portland Trail Blazers do not qualify unless they trade with Queen within the next half hour or so.
Even the Memphis Grizzlies don’t qualify. I try to look at teams that are still developing. Memphis is built around fairly finished products. They’re the best young team in the NBA, but what we’re trying to do here is look at teams with less decisive results — teams that count at least some rookies and others as their most important players. That leaves the Rockets, the san antonio tracksOrlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder and Detroit Pistons.
I’m not doing a statistical deep dive here either. I’m not a fan of using metrics to project young players. There is too much circumstance muddying the waters. A player can be behind in their development plan for any number of reasons beyond “they’re not going to be good”.
Meanwhile, developmental arcs differ too widely to assume linearity in the first place. Some players stink for a few years and then explode. Others start out as role players and rise to stardom. There are young players who just need development in one key area to put it together – no number can measure the likelihood of them developing that skill.
So I just have to get out of my own eye test and my own notions about team building. I will also try (like so hard) not to be a homer. Full transparency: I don’t think the Rockets have the best young core in the NBA.
Where do the Rockets stand?
That would be the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It’s not complicated. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is proven. This is one of the top 10 or so players in the entire NBA. That’s not a claim we can even come close to making about any member of the Houston Rockets.
The Thunder also have good players around them. I’m actually not high on the long-term potential of a Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey backcourt. I don’t subscribe to this modern notion of “as long as everyone is big and they can make plays, it will work”. Call me old school, but I think one of the guys in your starting lane should be a knockdown shooter.
It is fine. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong – and if I’m right, they’ll eventually trade Giddey for a move. Meanwhile, Jalen Williams looks like a steal (even if Matrix botched and put him on a team with a Jaylin Williams with the same hair) and I’m still religious about Ousmane Dieng.
That’s before we consider rookies. Cason Wallace feels like a guy not to be missed. He may not be a star, but he will be an elite point-of-attack defender who spaces the floor at a minimum. Chet Holmgren has looked as advertised in the summer league. Thunder is a problem.
Spurs might be too. In the spirit of objectivity, I also have to put them ahead of the Rockets.
Are you one of those who are not sure about Victor Wembanyama? Congratulations: you’re a contrarian. I’m one of those weak minded sheep who think only injuries can stop this kid from being the best player in the world.
Otherwise, Jeremy Sochan can be annoying – but he is their annoying. Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell may not have much room for improvement, but they are both already very good. Worst of all, the Spurs will likely take another crack at the 2024 lottery.
Of the three remaining teams, I like Houston. I think it’s very tight with Orlando though.
Paolo Banchero has displayed the most tangible NBA potential of any player in this remaining group of three. I’m still taking Jalen Green over Franz Wagner in a redraft, but the case can be made. Magic is lovely.
I think they’re leaning a little aggressively into the whole “everyone’s big wing” thing. The Magic would do well to have some more shooting in their young core. Sure, they grabbed Jett Howard with the 11th pick – but the fact that they reached so hard for a pure shooter so early in the lottery only speaks to the problem.
I like Anthony Black, but I’m not sure how much he contributes when Banchero and Wagner are running the show. Orlando has somehow stacked their roster with talented guards who can’t shoot. They seem locked into a non-shooting big in Wendell Carter Jr. (another outstanding young player).
On the other hand, the best thing about the Rockets is their large talent pool. They have two alpha scorers in Green and Cam Whitmore. A pair of defensive wings in Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason (Whitmore also crosses over here). The Rockets also have two brilliant playmakers in Amen Thompson and Alperen Sengun. In addition to a good young defensive big, the Rockets have pretty much every type of young player you could imagine.
Naturally, unforeseen circumstances apply here. Smith Jr. was an elite shooter, but he needs to become a strong NBA shooter. Green’s efficiency will ideally increase as well. Still, the Rockets at least theoretically have floor spacing. The Magic is mainly built around players who weren’t even supposed to be shooters.
The same goes for the Detroit Pistons – only worse. Sorry if you fall into this as a Pistons fan, but between Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Ausar Thompson and Jalen Duren – who’s going to shoot?
I know, I know. “We have a number of guys who can put the ball on the floor and make a play”. For whom? Make a play for whom?
And why trade for Wiseman? There’s Jalen Duren, who is having a strong rookie year as an 18-year-old. Hey, let’s get another non-shooting big who has been in the NBA for three years and honestly hasn’t flashed a thing. What? Does Isaiah Stewart deserve playing time? Agreed.
Get me James Wiseman.
I can not see it. At the same time, I might be wrong.
It is certainly debatable.