The Oklahoma City Thunder will be without guard Andre Roberson for the foreseeable future. Roberson will miss the next two months because of a setback in his recovery from a serious knee injury. He could be forced to miss the entire season. His absence makes things much more complicated for the Thunder as they head into the season.
The Thunder will not be able to replace Roberson in the lineup. He is one of the best wing defenders in the NBA. When Roberson was on the floor last season, the Thunder posted a defensive rating of 96.5, which far outpaces the Utah Jazz’s league-best 102.9 defensive rating from last year. Without Roberson, the Thunder’s defensive rating was 108.4, which was right around the league average. The data shows that the Thunder need Roberson on the court if they want to have an elite defensive unit.
Based on Roberson’s terrible shooting percentages, one would think that the Thunder are much better on offense with Roberson off of the floor, but that is not the case. The Thunder’s offensive rating was just five points better when Roberson was not on the court. The five-point increase in offensive rating does not even come close to making up for the 11.9-point decline in defensive rating that occurs when Roberson is not in the lineup. There is no other way to put it: The Thunder are a much better team when Roberson is on the floor, and they are a much worse team when he is on the bench.
The Thunder’s backcourt depth will be tested while Roberson is out. In other words, the Thunder’s wing players are going to need to step up. None of the players who will compete to replace Roberson have had much success in the NBA. The most accomplished player of the bunch is Alex Abrines, who is entering his third season in Oklahoma City. Abrines has made 38.0 percent of his career three-point attempts, which shows that he has given the Thunder some much-needed shooting off of the bench in over the past few seasons. He is not a great defender, but his presence on the floor will force opposing teams to more closely guard the perimeter. Abrines and Paul George could combine for double-digit three point makes on several occasions.
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot started 26 games over the past two seasons as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. He did not fulfill his potential in Philadelphia, but he will get an opportunity to play in Oklahoma City. If he wants to be a rotation player in the NBA he must improve in two key areas: outside shooting and defense.
Terrance Ferguson played in 61 games with the Thunder as a rookie last season. He has the potential to be a solid rotation player for the Thunder. At his best, Ferguson can be an athletic 3-and-D wing who can defend multiple positions. Right now, he is still learning the NBA game, but he could have a breakout season in his second year in the NBA.
No matter who steps in, the Thunder will struggle to finish in the top four of the Western Conference this season. The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are still the top two teams in the conference. The Thunder are one of several teams that are essentially fighting for the third spot in the West. That cluster of teams includes the Thunder, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans, and Los Angeles Lakers. At least two of those teams will miss the playoffs this season, which is a testament to the strength and depth of the Western Conference.
A case can be made that the Thunder (48 wins in 2018) are not one of the top four teams in the aforementioned cluster of second-tier contenders. The Jazz (48 wins) were the best defensive team in the NBA last year and won 29 of their final 35 regular season games. The Nuggets (46 wins) have a strong homecourt advantage and a deep roster, and they also had a strong finish to the 2018 season. The Pelicans (48 wins) also had a good finish to their 2018 season, as they swept the Trail Blazers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Timberwolves (47 wins), Trail Blazers (49 wins), and Spurs (47 wins) all return most of their top contributors from last season. The Lakers (35 wins) added LeBron James in the offseason, and they will almost certainly be one of the most improved teams in the NBA.
The Thunder are going to need to stay afloat without Roberson. They must get contributions from Abrines, Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Ferguson in the first two months of the season if they want to contend for one of the top four spots in the Western Conference.
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