Everything is a list these days. Have you noticed that? The top 10 reasons you might be an avatar controlled by an extraterrestrial species. Top 10 microbes to adopt as house pets. The top 10 top 10 lists you can’t miss and the top 10 reasons why.
It bleeds into NBA discourse, too - especially during the offseason. There isn't much to talk about these days, so naturally, the major media outlets are releasing their top 100 lists.
Now, Houston Rockets fans have got bees in their bonnets. Spoiler alert: Unless Fred VanVleet is your favorite Rocket, you’re not going to be happy with these lists. Let’s be honest - Fred VanVleet isn't your favorite Rocket. You’re a Jalen Green guy or a Sengun enthusiast. You may prefer Tari Eason like the pretentious hipster that
you are I am. Well, it doesn't matter - your guy didn’t rank well.
Is that justified? Frankly, it depends on what list you’re talking about.
The Rockets need to prove themselves
On Bleacher Report’ top 100, Jalen Green ranked 80th, Alperen Sengun ranked 82nd and Jabari Smith Jr. ranked 84. No other Rocket placed. Meanwhile, on The Ringer’s list, Sengun came in 93rd. Please don’t shoot the messenger, but... that was it for Rockets for The Ringer.
It’s too easy to cry foul instinctually. Frankly, Bleacher Report was actually generous. Last season, Jalen Green had a Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) of 0, Alperen Sengun had a VORP of 1.9, and Jabari Smith Jr. scored -1.1. For context, that means Green was well outside the top 250 by this metric, and Smith Jr. was one of the worst players in the NBA. Sengun fared a little better: his score puts him somewhere in the top 70.
Win Shares (WS) tells a similar, albeit different story. Green scored 1.8, Smith Jr. scored 1.9, and Sengun scored 5.2. In the overall rankings, that means Green slips, Smith Jr. rises, and Sengun holds. Still, the central point is this: neither of the most commonly used advanced metrics suggest that any of these three were egregiously underrated by either list.
Although, Sengun was a little underrated. Even then, it’s fair to assume that each publication was baking in some of the concerns about his defensive viability into their rankings. Neither of these metrics is perfect: Sengun is not an ironclad top 70 NBA player yet.
Sure, that raises another point: neither of these metrics is perfect. Fine. Pick a metric: none of them are going to paint Green or Smith Jr. as a top 70 player last season.
Are there contextual reasons? You bet. The tanking tax in practice. The Rockets had these guys playing with non-NBA players. Yes. What is Bleacher Report or The Ringer supposed to do about that? They’re not going to take a leap of faith. These publications need proof of concept in order to give these guys the recognition that, in theory, they likely deserve.
The most legitimate grievance that Rockets fans have is the treatment of other young players compared to their guys. BR has Cade Cunningham as the 39th-best player in the NBA, and The Ringer has him 65th. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Cunningham was prone to similar inefficiencies as Green as a rookie, and he hardly played last year.
In all likelihood, his stock actually benefited from sitting out his sophomore year. Cunningham didn’t get the opportunity to do anything right - or wrong. So, the collective consciousness substituted the version of Cunningham they expected to see into their assessment. People skew optimistic.
Otherwise, I think these lists were reasonably fair. If either publication were ranking players based on future outlook, they'd probably do it differently.
What’s that? No. No! Dear God...
Potential of Rockets is underrated
Here’s where the tone shifts. Now, I get indignant. Bleacher Report also published some articles ranking players on their ceilings. When it came to the Rockets, they got it wrong.
BR split these pieces up on the basis of positional groups. In their ranking of guards with the highest ceilings, they opted to pretend the Rockets didn’t exist. Please click this link before continuing on here.
There’s got to be a fundamental misunderstanding about the term “ceiling” here, right? Let’s never mind the Rockets for a second: Darius Garland has a higher ceiling than Scoot Henderson? How? The best version of Scoot Henderson is what... a hyperathletic version of Garland?
They say they’re factoring current production into their rankings. Two questions: how and why? If they’re factoring current production into their rankings, Henderson should be off the list altogether. That makes for an unfair rubric if we’re including rookies.
Back to the Rockets - Josh Giddey has a higher ceiling than Amen Thompson? Patently absurd. As with Garland and Henderson, we’re talking about two players with strikingly similar profiles - and a gulf between them as athletes.
Thompson, by my estimation, should be third on this list. Green should be sixth. Again, we’re talking about their ceilings, right? Ceiling is intrinsically tied to athleticism. That’s because athleticism is static - these guys will be as athletic as they are until they decline - and skill is elastic. Thompson is the most athletic person in the NBA, and Green isn't far off.
So their potential is tied to their skill development. Think about it. It’s easier for Amen Thompson to develop a shot than it is for Josh Giddey to get more athletic. It’s that simple. Thompson has a higher ceiling because he’s got a higher baseline in the static variable and more room for growth in the elastic one.
In terms of bigs, the Rockets fared a little better. Alperen Sengun came in eighth, and Jabari Smith Jr. came in sixth. I don’t have an issue with those rankings in a vacuum. With that said, the fact that Walker Kessler sits between the pair suggests that, again, BR has a tenuous grasp on the concept of “ceiling”.
Listen. I’ve preached the virtues of interior defense as loudly and proudly as anyone. If I have any reputation, it’s “that guy hates Alperen Sengun” (I don’t). So, let me be clear:
Walker Kessler does not have a higher ceiling than Alperen Sengun.
He’s got a much higher floor! Kessler is going to be a very good NBA player. There is a much wider range of outcomes for Sengun - and some of them include superstardom. Kessler has almost no potential to be an offensive hub. How on earth does he have a higher ceiling than Sengun?
He doesn’t - just as Cade Cunningham doesn't have a higher ceiling than Amen Thompson, and Josh Giddey doesn’t have a higher ceiling than Jalen Green.
Once again, I suspect the Rockets are paying a tanking tax here - this time, in terms of their leaguewide perception. There’s some bad juju around this team. They should shed it this year.
Check back next summer to see where the young Rockets rank.