There’s a big opportunity for an OKC wing player to step up this season — perhaps bigger than the team would like.
When Andre Roberson played last year, the Thunder blew it’s opponents out of the water, suffocating teams with one of the best defenses in the NBA. That defense was a major part of OKC’s success in the months of December and January, when they briefly looked like contenders (or at least like the type of team that would be contenders in an era without the nigh unstoppable Golden State Warriors). When Roberson was lost for the season, the team’s defense fell back to average, and OKC played like a team that didn’t know what it was. There were plenty of reasons for the Thunder’s season long struggles and ultimate playoff failures — a predictable and stagnant offense, problems scoring when Russell Westbrook rested, cold streaks from Paul George, Carmelo Anthony being a far worse player than advertised — but the collapse of the defense without Roberson was one of the biggest factors. With Roberson back (and the turnstile defense of Carmelo Anthony gone), the hope was OKC could return to an elite defense from game 1 and hit the ground running.
As is often the case in Oklahoma, things are not going as the Thunder’s leadership hoped. Roberson is expected to miss at least the first two months of the season, and there is no guarantee that when he returns he will be the same player. If Roberson is not the same athletically, his value as a player plummets — his lockdown defense is heavily predicated on his speed and strength. In either case, the Thunder need to be better prepared for life without Roberson than they were for all of last season. When Roberson was on the court last year OKC played at an elite level, posting a net rating of +8.4, which would have been second in the league if sustained for the entire season. Anytime Roberson was off the court, whether he was injured or just resting, OKC was a pedestrian +1.
Someone will need to take Roberson’s place, for at least the short term and quite possibly the long term. Roberson is in a rare class of player on defense, and no one on OKC’s roster can replicate his abilities on that end of the court. The wisest move for OKC would be instead to insert a wing who can help jumpstart the offense, and count on the trio of Paul George, Steven Adams and pick-your-power-forward (Patrick Patterson or Jerami Grant) to keep the Thunder at a high level defensively, if not quite at the elite level Roberson brought them to. You can make up for a drop on defense if the offense improves a corresponding amount; the trouble last year was OKC didn’t get much better on offense by replacing Roberson with Corey Brewer in the starting lineup, but they sure got worse on defense. To improve on last year’s disappointing finish, OKC needs a shooting guard who can, well, shoot, in order to take the offense to another level.
The obvious answer if you want shooting is Alex Abrines. Abrines is the inverse image of Roberson — while Robes lack of shooting allows defenses to overload the paint, Abrines is an excellent deep shooter who forces defense to respect him. That’s about all he does though — he cannot really create his own shot, and his threes mostly result from other players drawing the defense’s attention rather than his own ability to get loose.
Still, Abrines was the best stand in for Roberson last season — with Abrines playing alongside the other 4 starters (Westbrook, George, Carmelo Anthony and Steven Adams), OKC managed a net rating of +5.3, which would still be a top 5 mark in the league if sustained all season. That’s miles ahead of the starters with Corey Brewer (+0.9 — barely a playoff team) and Terrance Ferguson (-3.0 — a mark barely better than the Dallas Mavericks, who spent the last couple months of the season trying to lose). Yet the coaching staff never really trusted Abrines in a starting role, placing their trust in the veteran Brewer instead.
It’s clear Abrines’ defensive limitations annoy the coaching staff, but he didn’t actually make the team meaningfully worse on that end of the court. Without Roberson, the Thunder’s defensive rating was a pathetic 110.1. With Abrines on court (and no Roberson), the team’s defensive rating was 107.9 - in other words, once Roberson was out, the Thunder were better defensively with Abrines in than without. It wasn’t just the numbers either — Abrines looked better as the season wore on. No one would confuse him for Roberson, but he did a much better job staying in front of his man and moving his feet, culminating with Abrines having the second best defensive rating of any Thunder player in the playoffs against Utah, behind only Jerami Grant.
Abrines is not the liability he once was, especially when he’s surrounded by other great defenders. The lineup of Westbrook-Abrines-George-Grant-Adams was OKC’s very best last season, with a ridiculous +31.9 net rating in an admittedly low number of minutes, and the grouping spurred their famous game 5 comeback win against the Jazz. That lineup, and Abrines, should have the coaching staff’s trust by now.
Through the preseason, however Terrance Ferguson has been getting the starting nod — whether that’s due to the coaching staff preferring him or Abrines having back troubles isn’t clear yet. The fully realized version of Ferguson would be an incredible fit alongside Westbrook and George — he’s fast and athletic, a perfect running partner on the fastbreak, and he profiles as a good shooter, even if that didn’t translate last year. Unfortunately, Ferguson is a long way from reaching his full potential, and was a disaster as a starter last year. Ferguson’s upside is certainly higher than Abrines, but last season did not instill much confidence — his defense was a lot worse than Abrines, in large part due to his thin frame and struggle adjusting to the speed of the NBA. That can be changed as he fills his body out more and gets used to life in the big leagues, but I’m not certain he’s ready yet.
OKC has a couple other options. Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, acquired in the trade that dumped Melo, also intrigues. He made a huge leap shooting the ball in Philly last year, although he still only hit 33% of his attempts, and shows a willingness to put the ball on the court and drive. Hamidou Diallo, the team’s rookie, will at the very least be fun to watch, and is a fine addition to Presti’s collection of ridiculously long wings with questionable shooting ability. Both of those player should be given lots of chances on the second unit this year, and if their potential starts to turn into something more concrete, starting could be in their future as well. But both are unproven. Assuming Westbrook is healthy, the team could choose to close games with Dennis Schroeder at shooting guard, and I’m anxious to see that combination at work, but it won’t be the way they open games.
Abrines has real flaws, but the Thunder’s other starters can cover for them, while his strength shooting the ball will unlock more on offense. Ferguson and Diallo are more exciting, oozing potential, but they have yet to display any consistency. Paul George’s decision to commit to OKC for the long term this summer means OKC can afford to be patient and give those young guys time to learn without fearing a down season will lead to one of their stars walking in the off-season.
Still, OKC has the potential to be a 50 or more win team right now, and there are plenty of minutes on the second unit for the young guns. Starting Abrines gives OKC the best chance to hit the ground running and avoid a slow start like last year. If Ferguson shows real signs of improvement early on, he deserves to get bumped into the starting lineup — it’s a long season and a lot can change. But at least for opening night, Abrines is the guys fans should want to see starting alongside Westbrook, George and Adams.
Who is the best fit at shooting guard while Robes is out?
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Steven Adams (Shoot the J!)