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How the Brook Lopez whiff in free agency let Alperen Sengun blossom

Striking out on Brook Lopez worked out for the Rockets after all.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Milwaukee Bucks Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that I was pissed that the Houston Rockets weren’t able to secure Brook Lopez in free agency this past summer. It’s not that I didn’t believe in blossoming star Alperen Sengun, I just wasn’t certain that he could fulfill all of the Rockets’ needs at the Center position.

My doubts have quickly dissipated because Sengun has been awesome this year, and even though the season is still young, he only projects to get better. Oh, what a fortunate turn of events.

Prior to the season tipping off, my original line of thinking was that the Rockets’ summer felt incomplete after they nailed the draft and received two notable commitments in Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks. I was eager to see an improved perimeter defense with the arrivals of VanVleet and Brooks in Ime Udoka’s system, but I still was nervous about the interior defense.

However, there were two things I didn’t fully account for.

  1. I didn’t realize how quickly Udoka’s emphasis on defense would take into effect. Not only are the Rockets holding teams to low field goal percentages (sixth lowest overall), they’re also not letting teams get many shots up period. Only the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic have allowed less shots per game than the Rockets.
  2. I also didn’t realize that Sengun would have a growth spurt this summer that would push him up two inches to a legitimate 6’11”. Football and baseball most commonly claim the phrase “a game of inches”, but it has always seemed to me that this phrase makes most sense in a sport that opens up more doors for you the taller you get.

With those two points in mind, it brings me back to Lopez and why I was originally bummed at him spurning the Rockets so that he could remain with the Milwaukee Bucks. Despite the fact that he was drafted in the 2008 NBA Draft, Lopez somehow adapted his game from being basically just a post-up threat, all the way to being a floor spacer with a superior defensive presence.

Even though he’s 35, I was willing to throw a short-term deal — I’m aware this isn’t my money — with a large enough salary to lure him away from the Bucks. It appeared Fertitta was too, but ultimately the Bucks were able to retain him with a similarly-sized deal that brought him continuity and wealth.

For the Rockets, it’s looking like that was for the best. It’s not Lopez’s fault that the once-vaunted Bucks defense looks unrecognizable. The Bucks canned Budenholzer, and the drop defense method that turned Lopez into last year’s DPOY runner-up also took a backseat. He still has some game left in him.

However, the Bucks’ present day issues aren’t what would have thrown a wrench in Sengun’s growth had Lopez came to Houston. It would have boiled down to playing time. That’s what could have potentially decelerated Sengun’s ascension.

Consider that Lopez is down to 26 minutes per night after playing 30 last season. Sengun is up to 31 after playing approximately 29 last season. Adding Lopez to the fold would have meant that there would be 25-30 minutes per game of missed opportunities for Sengun.

It simply wouldn’t have been feasible because sooner or later, we have to know what we have in all of these draft picks, particularly Sengun and his unique skill package. Sengun would have most likely been pushed to the second unit as well because there’s no way Lopez was coming here for $24 million per year to play sixth man.

As for Alpy, he’s taken this opportunity to grow — literally and figuratively — and he’s flourished so far. He may never become the DPOY candidate or quite the threat from three-point range that Lopez has turned into, but he’s showing growth across the board by the game.

The fact that he’s shooting more threes is just a tip of the iceberg in his development. Less pump faking and more shots in rhythm — I’m not worried about the current percentage — will eventually make him someone other centers have to run out to.

More importantly, he’s battling on defense and making the extra effort to give his team a chance. His teammates notice it too. The Rockets wouldn’t be a top five defense in the league if he wasn’t pulling his weight.

While I may still have questions about the minutes behind Sengun going into the future, I’m digging the upward trajectory he’s headed towards. There’s still time to find a complementary piece behind him, and even if it’s not a new shiny toy such as Brook Lopez, Sengun is making the dire need for that dwindle down by the day.