The Thunder should be riding high right now. 30-20, on an eight game win streak, just two games behind the Spurs for third in the conference. The new big three are clicking. Steven Adams is having a breakout season. Russell Westbrook is showing up to games wearing bathrobes.
But Saturday night’s win over Detroit turned out to be the most pyrrhic victory imaginable, with Andre Roberson now due to miss the entire season after suffering a ruptured patellar tendon.
Those who don’t follow the team closely and only know Roberson for his poor free throw and 3 point shooting might not think this isn’t a large blow. Thunder fans know better. The Thunder have made defense their calling card this season, and Roberson is what makes this team’s defense work.
The Thunder allow their opponents to score 105.2 points per 100 possessions, the 5th best mark in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. When Roberson is on the court, that falls to 98.4 points, which would be the best mark in the NBA. When Roberson sits, the Thunder allow a ghastly 110.7 points per 100 possessions, which would make them the 25th ranked defense in the NBA. The Thunder’s defense goes from elite to bottom of the league without Roberson. (For comparison, when Paul George, whose name also is thrown around in Defensive Player of the Year conversation, plays, the Thunder defensive rating is 104.9; when he sits, it’s 106.0. That’s still a drop and PG is a great defender, but no one else has near the level of impact on defense that Roberson does).
So, what should the Thunder do to fill this massive hole in their starting lineup?
Roberson’s two obvious replacements on the roster are Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson, the two young shooting guards. Neither is a suitable replacement for Roberson this year. Abrines has shot 39.6% from beyond the arc this season, an excellent mark. That improved shooting and spacing does improve the Thunder’s offense; when Abrines plays the thunder put up 111.1 points per 100 possession, to 108.8 when he sits. But the offensive gains are offset by the defensive losses; The Thunder have allowed only 104 points per 100 possessions when Abrines sits, a number that jumps to 108 when he plays. Put simply, the Thunder outscore opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions when Abrines sits, and only by 2.6 when he plays. 2.6 is a fine mark- the Thunder can still win games when Abrines plays. But compare that to Roberson- when Andre plays, the Thunder outscore opponents by a massive 8.4 points per 100 possessions. Abrines’ 3 point shooting is sweet, but Roberson’s defense matters more.
The story is similar with Ferguson- when he plays the Thunder’s offense puts up 108.5 points per 100 possession, but they give up 110.7 points-the Thunder are actually outscored when Ferguson plays. That’s not really Ferguson’s fault, nor is it surprising- he is a 19 year old rookie, still trying to figure out the league. But looking at the stats from our two young shooting guards makes clear that the improved offense the Thunder get from replacing Roberson with a better shooter is not nearly as important as the defensive punch that Roberson brings.
A few days before the Roberson injury, I advocated for the Thunder try to bring Tyreke Evans in via trade before the fast approaching trade deadline. At the time I was imagining him in a sixth man type role- now it would be as the starting shooting guard. Evans can score the rock better than Roberson, but he’s nowhere near the lockdown defender Robes is. Evans is better suited than Abrines or Ferguson to start, but he still can't do what Andre can. The Thunder’s best bet for replacing Roberson might not be a traditional shooting guard at all.
Beyond his lockdown defense, Roberson is also a great team rebounder. Robes averages a healthy 4.7 rebounds per game, but his rebounding is a classic case of quality over quantity. Dre grabs 12% of available defensive rebounds when he plays, to 10% for Abrines and an anemic 3.4% for Ferguson. Importantly, his rebounds aren’t empty calories; when Roberson is on court, the Thunder only allow a 23% offensive rebound rate (i.e., their opponents rebound 23% of their missed shots), a number that goes to 27% when he sits. 4% may not look like a big number, but it’s actually the difference between being 4th in the league and 26th- in other words, the difference between being elite and being disastrously bad. Part of Dre’s impact on team rebounding is that when he plays, he forces bad shots; part of it is that he himself rebounds well. If the Thunder aren’t able to replace his lockdown perimeter ability, replacing his rebounding instead would go a long way.
To survive without Roberson then, the Thunder may want to consider going against the grain of this smallball league and go Big. They tried it Sunday night against Philadelphia; while Terrance Ferguson started, Billy Donovan elected to close with the fab four plus Jerami Grant in Ferguson’s place, a configuration where Paul George is effectively playing the 2 and Carmelo Anthony the 3. It worked well against the Sixers; up until tonight, this combination had not been particularly effective ( a net rating of minus 12.7) in limited minutes, but the Thunder should keep trying it, alongside other ultra big combinations. Coming into tonight, the Thunder’s best lineup to feature Wesbrook/Adams/Melo/George and not Roberson had neither Abrines nor Ferguson in Roberson’s place but Josh Huestis- that 5 man pairing is +12.9, although surprisingly, they accomplish that not through approximating the stifling defense of the normal starting 5 but by playing putrid defense alongside world class offense. I wouldn’t expect that to continue, but it’s worth experimenting with this group more.
The Ultra-large pairing I’d most like to see would be the four starters plus Patrick Patterson. PatPat hasn’t had the season some hoped when OKC acquired him, but he’s quietly been very effective playing alongside Steven Adams. When Adams and Patterson have shared the court without Roberson, the Thunder have held opponents to 105.5 points per 100 possessions- not nearly as good as when Roberson plays, but still an excellent mark. Crucially, the Thunder have held opponents to a 22.7% offensive rebounding rate when the two big men share the court. Nor has playing two plodders shut down the offense; The Thunder have managed 110.9 points per 100 possessions when the plodders play together, which would be the 6th best offense in the league if sustained over an entire season.
For my money, short of a trade (which I’m certain Sam Presti is already looking at), trying out this ultra big lineup is the best thing the Thunder can do. Patterson isn’t the defender Roberson is- defensive player of the year candidates don’t grow on trees. But he has some ability to switch, he rebounds well, and on offense he quietly has knocked down nearly 40% of his attempts this year. Billy Donovan hasn’t tried this lineup at all this year, but he should. They don’t need to start Patterson, but it’s worth seeing how this lineup performs in games as the Thunder gear up for the playoffs. Roberson, as an elite defender who simply couldn’t score, was one of the weirdest players in the NBA, yet absolutely crucial to the Thunder’s success. To survive without him, the Thunder need to get even weirder.