At the heart of almost every championship caliber team I have ever followed, there was one thing they all had in common, no matter what sport they played — a strong defense. Offense generally gets the fanfare, but defense wins championships because it wins games when the offense stumbles (and it always stumbles, even for the best teams).
WTLC’s new writer, Ben Mertens, recently wrote that the Thunder would do well to sign Tony Allen if the Chicago Bulls waive him, which is very likely, according to Adrian Wojnarowski. I’ll take it a step further. The Thunder should be waiting outside the Bulls facility with a contract in hand, ready to sign the moment the Bulls let Tony Allen go.
Not long after Andre Roberson, the heart and soul of the Thunder’s defense, fell with a season-ending rupture to his patellar tendon, WTLC’s Editor in Chief, J.A. Sherman shared this article by Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript with me. In his write-up, Katz does about as good a job as I have ever read of explaining why Robes made such a huge impact on the Thunder’s ability to play effective defense. At the core of it all is Andre’s mind.
“One thing that Dre is great at is he’s really good at anticipating and knowing what guys are going to do before they do it, knowing guys’ tendencies,” Huestis told The Transcript. “That’s something I’m going try to implement.”
Josh’s heart is in the right place, but the Thunder doesn’t just need Robes ability to read his opponent’s tendencies implemented. They need them duplicated...now.
Katz also points out something else about Robes — his willingness to sacrifice personal glory for the team. We all knew he never sought fame offensively, but until Katz pointed it out, I didn’t recognize how much he was sacrificing defensively.
Currently, Paul George leads the league in steals with 108, with Russell Westbrook hot on his heels at 107. Katz explains why Roberson deserves the lion’s share of credit for those numbers:
It [Thunder defense] forced 18.6 turnovers per 48 minutes while he [Roberson] was on the floor compared to 14.6 per 48 when he was off. If it belonged to a team, that 18.6 figure would be the best in the NBA since — no, this isn’t a typo — the 1997-98 Boston Celtics did it. The number while he’s off would be 15th in the league this season.
George could be bound for defensive accolades, but he saw his league-leading deflection average cut in half during the eight games Roberson missed due to left patellar tendinitis at the start of January. It’s no coincidence.
When Roberson isn’t there, George has to guard ball-handlers more, which doesn’t as often allow the Thunder to use him as a safety on the weak side, where he’s at his best. More so, Oklahoma City causes many of its turnovers by forcing dribblers into awkward positions and capitalizing on lobbed, ill-advised or errant passes from there.
Roberson is the one driving ball-handlers to those spots.
George and Westbrook get the glory for the steals, but it was Robes’ “knowing guys’ tendencies” and forcing them into bad positions that lead to those steals.
There are great players in this league, and then there are students of the game. Robes is the latter, and his classes started 4 seasons ago as a rookie under the tutelage of Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison.
This is my favorite screenshot of the season:
Robes’ defense was the key to the Thunder erasing a 17-point second half deficit that night, and Thabo didn’t hesitate to congratulate his former pupil’s effort.
Therein lies the Thunder’s dilemma. In Robes’ absence, they are left with a willing rookie in Terrance Ferguson, a smart, but not overly instinctive Josh Huestis, and the overall defensively challenged Alex Abrines, to fill the void. Unfortunately, there is no way to get around the fact that those three, even when given the most favorable rotations possible, aren’t going to get the job done most of the time.
During Robes’ eight game absence earlier this season, the wheels fell off the Thunder’s defensive train and in the recent 3-game skid — all very winnable games — indicates that eight-game nightmare was no dream. The Thunder needs Tony Allen, a player named to the last 6 NBA All-Defensive teams, and they need him like yesterday!
From Mertens’ post:
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.
A 36-year-old Allen won’t replace a 26-year-old Roberson’s athleticism, but his added nine seasons of defensive classwork can duplicate, or possibly even exceed, what goes on between Robes’ ears.
Robes is just entering his prime and Allen is very likely past his, but throughout his career, Tony has covered some of the best players this game has ever seen, and it is impossible to put a price on the encyclopedia of knowledge he has amassed.
Signing Tony Allen is a no-brainer
As Mertens points out, the Thunder can sign Allen for the veteran’s minimum if the Bulls waive him. That’s great, but the Thunder’s need is desperate and Presti has a $1.9M trade exception in his pocket that would cover the rest of Allen’s $2.1M salary. That exception can’t be combined with the Thunder other $2.5M trade exception, so I wouldn’t risk sweating out the 48 hour waiting period and risk another team taking something OKC needs so desperately. The Thunder have an open spot on the roster, and they can fill that spot as well as a defensive need without giving up a single asset on the roster with a trade exception that normally wouldn’t bring anything of value.
Inserting Allen into the starting rotation will move Terrance Ferguson and Josh Huestis out. Kid Ferguson is an athletic and willing defender with a future, but he’s not ready for prime time, while Josh, who is admittedly improving on the defensive perimeter, is better suited guarding forwards and providing help-side defense in the paint. Additionally, Allen’s insertion would allow PG and Russ to take up their weak side positions on defense again and wouldn’t need to worry about finding shots for TA, similar to Robes.
Allen’s entire career is predicated on defense, and his pedigree is traceable through his days playing for Eddie Sutton, the first coach to take 4 different teams to the NCAA tournament, to legendary Hall of Fame Coach, Henry Iba. Sutton’s teams were defined by their ability to play defense. If a player couldn’t defend, they didn’t play for Sutton, and Allen was his finest student. Combine the grassroots fundamentals provided by Sutton with Allen’s NBA experience with Memphis big man Marc Gasol, and the Thunder would gain a player that has forgotten more about playing in a Thunder-like defense than many players will ever know.
Throughout Allen’s career he has averaged 1.4 steals per game but his teams, primarily the Grizzlies, have averaged over 8 steals per game each year. J.A. Sherman calls it the “Multiplying Effect.” This season the Thunder are averaging 9.2 steals per game, but Roberson has averaged only 1.2 of them during that time. A “Multiplying Effect,” exactly as Katz described, is what Robes has been creating. He does the work while the team reaps the benefit. Allen was cut from that same team-first cloth.
Finally, while Allen may fall short of Robes athletic ability to pull double duty and cover his teammates' errors, that is something left to every Thunder player to clean up themselves while Andre is out. After all, TA did manage a 94.6 defensive rating with Anthony Davis and the Pelicans by his side. Think of the possibilities with Paul George, Steven Adams, and the Thunder backing him up.