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One on One: Choosing the right Thunder starting line-up

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The Thunder starting lineup is still in flux. Who should be playing along side Russ, PG, and Adams? Dom and Bobby duke it out.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest questions debated this off-season was who should start in the power forward spot. With the departure of Melo, this became an unavoidable question (though it should not have been avoided last season).

With the relatively recent news that Andre Roberson will be out for several months at least recovering from a torn patellar tendon, that opens up another starting spot to be filled at shooting guard.

With the season about to begin, these decisions must be made quickly. Dom and I are going to weigh in with the lineups that really should be the first to take the floor each night.

Note: We are working off the assumption that three of the starters will be Westbrook, Paul George, and Adams. While I would love to be a contrarian and argue against that for the sake of arguing, it wouldn’t provide any value, so I’ve restrained myself. Also, Westbrook may miss a few games, but it shouldn’t be a significant portion of the season, so he is considered the starting point guard. - Bobby

Dom: The vet and the rook

I’m of the belief that the ideal starters given the options at hand for Billy Donovan at power forward and shooting guard are Patrick Patterson and Hamidou Diallo, respectively.

At the power forward spot, Patterson seems to be a popular choice by many and for good reason — he’s a heady vet who brings pretty solid defense while being able to stretch the floor for Westbrook and George to function better on offense. We have a pretty small sample to work on, but last year per Cleaning the Glass, the three man lineup of Westbrook/George/Adams without Carmelo Anthony but with Grant had a +5.6 net rating in 299 possessions. In 157 possessions with Patterson in for Grant, that ballooned to +17.0. That number realistically isn’t sustainable —especially without Roberson — but the offense can definitely flow a bit better.

The starting lineup currently has one locked-in, plus-three point shooting option in George. Westbrook isn’t awful, but certainly not a floor spacer, and Steven (though he can light it up in practice!) just doesn’t have that as part of his game at all. It’s incredibly difficult to have an efficient offense in the NBA today without being an at least average and somewhat high volume three point shooting lineup on the court most times (last year only two top 10 offenses ranked below 15th in both three point shooting frequency and percentage, Charlotte and the Clippers). The Thunder simply lack those options. Adding Patterson to the lineup gives a bit more shooting than we’ve seen from Grant, and the defensive drop off is minimal (if there at all). In a down year, Patterson’s regular season DRAPM was similar to that of Grant in what many thought was Grant’s breakout year.

As for the shooting guard position, we’re in essence drawing from whatever we deem is the least flawed of some very flawed options. Alex Abrines offers shooting and mutton chops, but not much else. Terrance Ferguson is the second year pro who flashed some tools but also showed he’s a bit tentative at times. Diallo is the raw second round rookie who played well in summer league and preseason but hasn’t seen the bright lights of the NBA yet. Personally I eliminate Abrines right away, as the defensive flaws are too much right now and I’d prefer to have one semi-reliable shooter off the bench.

I may be foolish in believing in games that don’t really matter yet but I’m taking the mystery.

Diallo was taken with the 45th pick in last year’s draft and currently is the same age as Terrance Ferguson. The difference I can see so far between the two is that Diallo shows more assertiveness and confidence, while Ferguson shies away more, in-game. Ferguson is also more slight of build (6’ 7” 184 pounds) than Diallo (6’5” 198 pounds) and it shows in his defense at times.

While Ferguson showed flashes last year right away against the Lakers, it never really developed further, and at this point I’d give the nod to the rookie who in my eyes has more promise. From The Ringer’s NBA Draft guide, Diallo has been compared to Tony Allen in some ways, and his biggest knocks were an inability to be a lead guard (hey, they don’t need or want him to be one!) and his shot mechanics, which reportedly are improved but still less than ideal. His strengths included being a versatile defender who hustles and rebounds well, and the pre-season has reinforced that perception. He looks and sounds exactly like a guy Sam Presti would draft.

The combination of Diallo’s physical tools and Patterson’s intelligence and shooting to me make this the duo who should be added to the starting lineup until Andre Roberson returns.

Bobby: The legacy kid and the Spaniard

Pay attention, because I’m about to blow your mind with some logic that will conflict with what all the talking heads have been telling you all summer. The correct pair of players to start is not Diallo and Patterson. In fact, it includes neither Diallo or Patterson. The correct pairing is...

(dramatic drumroll)

Alex Abrines and Jerami Grant!

Now, I know you’re probably shocked to hear me say this. I’m neither player’s biggest fan, and I’ve been pretty critical about them in the past. But that is precisely why you should take this seriously. Because you know I wouldn’t say this without data backing it up.

First of all, lets establish a couple of points. First, the pairing should have at least one shooter in it. While this is explicitly required, having a starting lineup with only one decent shooter in it would put a lot of pressure on Russ and PG to create. Therefore, we pretty much need either Abrines or Patterson in the starting lineup.

Second, Ferguson shouldn’t start. Now, he may be the most likely starter at the SG spot. In fact, I believe Donovan even said that was likely the case. But it shouldn’t be. And I’m not eliminating him because of a concussion — that would be a really low thing to do. The reality is, Ferguson doesn’t bring anything to the table on either end of the floor right now. I hope he does someday, but:

I’ve also personally ruled out the other guys who didn’t get as much run (or make much of an impression) during preseason: TLC, Nader (who may have been recovering from injury), and Burton. I also don’t want Schroder to start. His role is as backup PG, and he doesn’t really fit beside Russ, as their games are somewhat redundant.

The reason Abrines should start over Diallo is two-fold. First, he compliments the starters better. He provides an outside threat that is otherwise missing, beyond PG (and Patterson, potentially, but we’ll get to him). He’s going to draw more defensive attention as he moves off-ball, as he can both shoot and go to the rim. Russ and PG provide gravity that will get him more open looks that he would get on the bench. And because PG is a solid perimeter defender, Abrines could take the lesser defensive assignment.

From that last note, we get the other side of the coin. A bench lineup of Schroder-Abrines-Ferguson would be horrific defensively. Like, among the worst defensive 3 man pairing in the league, potentially. Replacing Abrines with Diallo in that group will provide a stronger perimeter defender who can take assignments against 6th men like Lou Williams.

By the way, this scenario is also best for Diallo. Starting on a contending team comes with a lot of pressure not to fail. Any mistake that is made gets magnified, and that isn’t conducive to growth. There is a say: “Fail fast, fail forward.” Often, there is more to learn from taking risks and failing than from playing it safe, staying under the radar, but never getting those experiences. With the bench, Diallo will get to face the opponents’ best bench player and take some risks without as much negative result. This will hasten his development, and I’m high on his long term prospects.

The case for starting Grant could be based on needing a shooter with the bench, but that relies on Abrines starting, and I want this case to stand on its own merit. So we’ll look at him independently.

Grant is a more efficient scorer than Patterson. That may seem surprising, given his lack of shooting touch, but his TS% last season was 5% better than Patterson. Even his eFG%, which doesn’t include free throws, was almost 5% better. And Grant is really, really good at getting to the stripe. Oh, and he gets there 4 times as often per possession as Patterson. This is really beneficial for a starter, as it gets the opposing starters into foul trouble, so it has double the payoff. And he should have easy opportunities to keep drawing these fouls, as PG and Russ suck the defenders away, forcing them to recover harder while opening them up to more defensive mistakes.

On top of that, Grant was better at rebounding last season, which could be important with Roberson out. He was also a better shotblocker, which pairs well with Adams. This is actually an important point. Adams is great at being in the right spot and being the anchor of the defense, but he doesn’t have that presence as a shotblocker that used to deter players from driving at the rim when Serge Ibaka was here. That isn’t necessarily needed, but it is nice, especially with our defensive scheme that pretty much gives opponents free runs to the rim. Grant can help clean up the mess.

Patterson also pairs better with newcomer Nerlens Noel than Grant. Grant and Noel are too jumpy to play beside each other. You need that dependable presence to pair with the springy shot blocker. Additionally, Patterson provides a veteran voice to direct the bench. A lineup of Schroder-Diallo-Ferguson-Grant-Noel is insanely young. Having experience to help guide them is important.

I know this isn’t a popular argument. But the logic is clear. Donovan should start the season with Abrines and Grant on the floor.

Poll

What is the best Thunder starting lineup?

This poll is closed

  • 48%
    Dom nails it — Diallo and Patterson are the right choice
    (88 votes)
  • 40%
    Bobby knows best — Grant and Abrines are the Thunder’s best, last chance
    (73 votes)
  • 10%
    Neither one of these guys knows what they’re talking about...but I do (write in below)
    (19 votes)
180 votes total Vote Now