Allowing 103.1 points per 100 posessions, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the fifth-best defense in the NBA. Unsurprisingly, an astronomical part of that success has been the effort of Andre Roberson.
A stretchy defender willing to earn his salary by chasing the league’s biggest names around the hardwood, Roberson serves as the backbone of the Thunder’s playoff hopes. Among players who’ve logged at least 15 minutes per game, Roberson is fifth in defensive rating, a testament to his active hands, quick feet and unrelenting pressure behind the ball.
Partially through the third quarter of a Saturday afternoon game in Detroit however, Roberson collapsed when trying to elevate for a Russell Westbrook alley-oop, rupturing his left patellar tendon. Ruled out for the season, the Thunder are sure to be searching for answers for an invaluable member of their team.
But who should try and fill Roberson’s massive, defense-oriented shoes?
While the depth chart says that Alex Abrines is the next man up, and Terrance Ferguson earned the start against the Philadelphia Sixers on January 28, coach Billy Donovan might be better served giving Jerami Grant the starting spot. Thus far, Grant has only garnered one starting job this season, in place of Carmelo Anthony in a November victory over the Dallas Mavericks.
In five-man rotations, Grant usually doesn’t slot in next to Thunder big man Steven Adams. However, Grant’s lanky six-foot-eight stature and seven-foot wingspan can take residence in opposing passing lanes while having the length to disrupt shooters around the perimeter.
After Roberson, none of the Thunder rate in the association’s top-50 defensive players. The Thunder do, however, have five in the top-100 with at least 15 minutes per game: Westbrook, Adams, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Grant.
Moving Grant to power forward and shifting Anthony and George to shooting guard and small forward respectively might also give the Thunder a new look on offense. As the majority of Anthony’s shots have come from at least 16 feet from the bucket, Grant combats Anthony’s ever-present search for range by occupying the post. Of course, starting Grant would be a direct hit to the Thunder’s second unit, which already isn’t winning any awards.
Running Adams with Grant to start the game however would be reminiscent of a more traditional five-man lineup in the age of small ball. Stocking up on defense to start the game while providing additional rebounding and a dash of interior scoring might keep the Thunder’s opponents guessing as they head towards the All-Star break.