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Replacing Roberson: Could a trade for Tony Allen be the Answer?

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The Thunder have days to find solutions to the hole that an injured Roberson left. Is TA the answer?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It may not have been as earth-shattering as the Blake Griffin trade, but the news broke today that another Power Forward involved in a famous face-punching incident has been traded: Nikola Mirotic is on his way to the Pelicans (in fairness to Mirotic, he was the victim of the face punching, not the aggressor like Blake was).

At first glance this may not seem to have a big impact on the Thunder; Mirotic helps the Pelicans, but he shouldn’t be enough to make the Pelicans a threat to overtake OKC (if he is enough to do that, OKC has much bigger problems). A little later, however, an interesting nugget of information came out: The Pelicans were sending back Tony Allen in return for Mirotic (alongside Omer Asik, Jameer Nelson, and a draft pick), and the Bulls are likely to immediately waive him, since he doesn’t fit in with the youth movement Chicago is trying to build.

That should perk up the ears of the Thunder. Last week the team lost Andre Roberson to injury; as I wrote, no one was more important to the Thunder’s elite defense this season than Roberson. Replacing him in time for the season’s final push is a must. As fate would have it, if you were to try to come up with the player most similar to Roberson in the NBA, Tony Allen might be the name you can come up with. Robes and Allen are both the same archetype, the shooting guard who can’t shoot, but compensates with lockdown defense.

Alas, there’s one crucial difference between the two; Roberson is 26 and in his prime, while Allen is a full decade older and distinctly not in his prime. He’s been injured for a lot of this season, but was recently cleared to return. In the 22 games he played, he failed to light the world on fire; the Pels defense was actually slightly worse when he played, per Cleaning The Glass, though the teams 107.5 defensive rating (meaning they allowed 107.5 points per 100 possessions Allen played) would still be the 15th ranked defense in the league- an average mark. Allen has never been able to shoot- if his defense has regressed, is he actually useful to the Thunder?

I think so. When looking at data on anything, but especially the murky area of NBA defense, there’s sometimes more beneath the surface than initially meets the eye. When Allen shared the court with Anthony Davis while DeMarcus cousins sat this season, the Pelicans had an elite defensive rating of 94.6 this season; in the reverse case, where Allen played with Cousins and Davis sat, they posted an abysmal rating of 115.4. 94.6 would be the best defensive mark in the league by a mile if sustained over a season; 115.4 would be dead last by an equally large margin. Nor is this simply a case of Davis elevating a defense vs Cousins dragging it down; when Davis plays without Cousins on the whole, the Pels defense is an unimpressive 110.6. There’s plenty of noise in that data, as with all defensive metrics, but it seems to me that if you pair Allen with other talented and engaged defenders and he can still produce and even elevate your unit. Throw him alongside Paul George and Steven Adams, and he should be able to at least partially replicate Roberson.

There’s another advantage to acquiring Allen; as a result of being waived by the Bulls, the Thunder can simply sign him, rather than having to make a trade. As I wrote when discussing the Thunder’s options at the trade deadline, to make any sort of trade they’d have to give up one of Alex Abrines/Terrance Ferguson/Josh Huestis, plus a draft pick, to acquire anyone useful. Acquiring Allen, however, would require nothing more than paying him the veteran minimum.

The Thunder should look hard at all their options, but acquiring Allen wouldn’t stop them from also making a trade. His age and injuries this season may give you pause, but acquiring him costs the Thunder nothing, and if he is able to even somewhat approximate Roberson, even for only 20 minutes a night, the Thunder will be in much better shape than they will be relying Ferguson or Abrines. This is a low-risk, medium-to high reward situation; the Thunder should pounce at it. The roster is still a piece or two away from being complete, especially without Roberson, and time is running out.



I’m Ben. I’ve been a fan of basketball all my life, but began to (unhealthily, some say) really obsess about the NBA in 2015. There’s no better league in the world and I love everything about it- the strategy, the stats, the pettiness, the feuds, the playoff battles. No team better represents what I love about the league than the Thunder- they have a fascinating mix of talent, an incredible fan base, and the pettiest superstar in the league. I’m excited to get to write about them here at WLTC.


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