Sports debates are fun.
They’re not like other debates. The existential, moral and spiritual stakes are low. We can get pretty passionate about arguing over who puts a ball in a 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 was watching the NBA Finals with some friends and we had a fun debate.
“Who do you guys think is the best Canadian player in the NBA?”
“Gotta be SGA”.
“I don’t know, man. Murray is more playoff-viable. Gilgeous-Alexander has to get a consistent jumper before I buy him as a deep playoff run 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 has an outlier skill. You can’t build a team around him”.
“Also fair, and I’ll be honest, I haven't exactly watched a lot of Thunder games recently”.
That’s when I realized - I have. I’ve been watching the bad teams for several years. When you root for a rebuilding team, you scout the competition. This leads us to another point of contention:
Who has the best young core in the NBA, and where do the Rockets stand?
A couple of notes here.
Firstly, I’m only looking at teams with true “young cores” - meaning, all of 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. The Golden State Warriors don’t make the cut simply for having Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody on the roster. The Portland Trail Blazers don’t qualify unless they trade Dame in the next half-hour or so.
Even the Memphis Grizzlies don’t qualify. I’m trying to look at teams that are still developing. Memphis is built around roughly 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 determined outcomes - teams that count at least some rookie and sophomores as their most important players. That leaves the Rockets, the San Antonio Spurs, the Orlando Magic, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Detroit Pistons.
I’m also not doing a statistical deep dive here. I’m not a fan of using metrics to project young players. There’s too much circumstance muddying the waters. A player may be behind their developmental schedule for any number of reasons outside of “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 as role players and ascend to stardom. There are young players who just need development in one key area to put it together - no number can measure the probability of them developing that skill.
So I’m just going to be going off of my own eye test, and my own notions of team building. I’m also going to 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 10 or so best players in the entire NBA. That’s not a claim we can even approach making about any member of the Houston Rockets.
The Thunder have good players around him too. 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-fashioned, but I think one of the guys in your starting backcourt should be a knockdown shooter.
That’s fine. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong - and if I’m right, they'll eventually trade Giddey for a haul. Meanwhile, Jalen Williams looks like a steal (even if the Matrix glitched 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 the rookies. Cason Wallace feels like a can’t-miss guy. He may not be a star, but he’s going to be an elite point-of-attack defender who spaces the floor at a bare minimum. Chet Holmgren has looked as-advertised in summer league. The Thunder are a problem.
The Spurs might be too. In the spirit of objectivity, I’ve got to put them ahead of the Rockets as well.
Are you one of those who isn't sure about Victor Wembanyama? Congratulations: you’re a contrarian. I’m among the mindless sheeple who think that only injuries can stop this kid from being the best player in the world.
Otherwise, Jeremy Sochan may be an irritant - but he’s their irritant. Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell might not have a lot of room for improvement, but they’re 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. Though, I think it’s very tight with Orlando.
Paolo Banchero has flashed 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. The Magic are nice.
I do think they’re leaning a little aggressively into the whole “everyone’s a big wing” thing. The Magic would do well to feature 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 with Banchero and Wagner 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 excellent young player).
By contrast, the best thing about the Rockets is their sheer range of talent. They’ve got two alpha scorers in Green and Cam Whitmore. A pair of defensive wings in Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason (Whitmore crosses over here as well). The Rockets also have two genius-tier playmakers in Amen Thompson and Alperen Sengun. Outside of a good young defensive big, the Rockets have virtually every type of young player you could imagine.
Of course, contingencies apply here. Smith Jr. was an elite shooting prospect, but he’s got to become a strong NBA shooter. Green’s efficiency will ideally spike as well. Still, the Rockets at least have theoretical floor spacing. The Magic are built largely around players who arent even supposed to be shooters.
The same holds for the Detroit Pistons- only worse. Apologies if you’re stumbling into this as a Pistons fan, but between Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Ausar Thompson and Jalen Duren - who is going to shoot?
I know, I know. “We’ve got a number of guys who can put the ball on the floor and make a play”. For who? Make a play for who?
And why trade for Wiseman? There’s Jalen Duren, having a strong rookie year at 18. Hey, let’s go get another non-shooting big whos been in the NBA for three years and hasn't flashed, frankly, anything. What? Isaiah Stewart deserves playing time? Agreed.
Get me James Wiseman.
I don’t see it. At the same time, maybe I’m wrong.
It’s certainly debatable.