The Oklahoma City Thunder never quite found their identity during the 2017-18 season. After adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony last summer, they were certainly going to have some difficulty coalescing, but Andre Roberson’s midseason patellar tendon injury threw them for a loop just as they were beginning to surge.
Thanks to their moves this offseason, the Thunder should have no such issue in 2018-19. With Roberson, George, and Steven Adams in the starting lineup, and the newly re-signed Jerami Grant likely joining free-agent addition Nerlens Noel off the bench, OKC appears poised to have one of the NBA’s most stifling defenses.
Before Roberson went down with his season-ending knee injury in late January, the Thunder touted the league’s fifth-best defense. In the 763 minutes in which he shared the floor with George, OKC allowed opponents to score only 94.2 points per 100 possessions, which would have led the league by a mile. But in the 2,100-plus minutes in which George was on the floor without Roberson alongside him, the Thunder gave up a whopping 109.0 points per 100 possessions, which would have been tied with the Sacramento Kings for the fourth-worst mark leaguewide.
During Las Vegas Summer League, Roberson told Brett Dawson of The Oklahoman he’s on track to return by the start of the 2018-19 season. He has yet to try running, however, and head coach Billy Donovan is taking a more patient approach.
“I’m going more of the mindset that we have to prepare without him, I think,” he told Dawson. “… For him to go down like he did in January and not do anything, it’s gonna take him some time.”
Whenever Roberson does make it back, he’ll give OKC an All-Defensive-caliber lockdown wing if he can return to his previous form. That luxury affords George the opportunity to avoid covering the opponent’s top scorer on any given night, allowing him to devote more of his energy on offense.
The Thunder should benefit from some addition by subtraction, too. Their decision to salary-dump Carmelo Anthony to the Atlanta Hawks not only saved them north of $60 million in luxury-tax payments, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, but it also spared them from having him continue to sabotage their defense.
Anthony has long been ambivalent toward the point-preventing end of the court, as he has never posted a positive mark in defensive box plus-minus in his 15 NBA seasons. Before last season, he typically outweighed his faults on defense with his offensive contributions, making him an overall net positive. In OKC, however, his offense likewise tanked as he struggled to adjust to his new role, which sent him plummeting to a career-worst year.
As Yahoo Sports’ Dan Devine noted in early March, Anthony was a glaringly obvious target for opponents to attack, which threatened to upend the Thunder’s already-flimsy defense sans Roberson. He ranked 73rd among 84 power forwards last season in ESPN.com’s defensive real plus-minus, which put him behind the likes of Julius Randle, Dragan Bender and Trey Lyles. The Thunder allowed 2.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the bench rather than on the court, which was the third-highest mark among OKC rotation players behind only Corey Brewer (8.9) and rookie wing Terrance Ferguson (7.0).
With Anthony no longer on the team, the Thunder can now slide either Grant or Patrick Patterson into their starting lineup at the 4. The latter figures to get the nod for offensive spacing reasons—Grant is a career 30.1 percent three-point shooter, while Patterson has knocked down 37.0 percent of his long-range attempts across his eight-year career—but both players will be a marked upgrade over Anthony.
Grant figures to play significant minutes regardless of whether he starts or comes off the bench, as he gives OKC yet another rangy wing defender alongside Roberson and George. When all three share the court with Westbrook and Adams, the Thunder will have the size and lateral quickness to switch defensive matchups freely. The Houston Rockets employed that tactic against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, where they pushed the defending champions to seven games before running out of steam.
An early February matchup against the Warriors may give the Thunder confidence in that approach. Only a week-and-a-half after losing Roberson for the year, they started both Anthony and Josh Huestis, although the former played only six minutes before leaving with an ankle injury. Grant and Patterson combined for 65 minutes off the bench that night, helping to fuel a 125-105 rout of Golden State.
“They’re a very good defensive team. We know that,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr told reporters afterward. “They’ve got a lot of size and length, and if you try to go through them one-on-one, you’re not going to have a lot of success, and it seemed like that’s what we were trying to do.”
With Roberson back, Grant and Patterson soaking up Anthony’s minutes and Noel now in the fold as a backup center, Kerr’s comments apply even more resoundingly to this year’s Thunder team. While Noel’s miserable 2017-18 season with the Dallas Mavericks hardly suggests he’s poised to be a difference-maker on a title hopeful, he could dominate defensively if he embraces a limited role.
During his rookie season with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014-15, Noel almost single-handedly helped an otherwise G League-caliber roster finish with a league-average defense. He became the first player in NBA history to average at least 1.8 steals and 1.8 blocks per game as a rookie, and he ranked among the league leaders in a host of other defensive metrics. His instincts on that end of the floor help him jump into passing lanes and gum up set plays, forcing opponents to improvise on the fly.
After gambling on himself and turning down a four-year, $70 million contract offer from the Mavericks last summer, Noel’s market was tepid this year, which caused him to accept OKC’s two-year, $3.7 million deal. He’ll have to put his lost 2017-18 campaign in Dallas behind him and be on his best behavior this year to score a bigger payday down the road. Playing well as the backup center on a stifling Thunder defense could afford him that opportunity, especially if he demonstrates the ability to switch assignments freely.
Dennis Schroder will be OKC’s biggest defensive wild card, as he’s been horrendous on that end of the court for much of his career. At 6’2″ with a 6’8″ wingspan, he has the physical tools to become an above-average defender, as he was during the 2015-16 season. But much like Anthony, his effort on that end of the floor waxes and wanes unexpectedly.
Since Schroder will be shouldering a much smaller offensive load with the Thunder as a backup point guard, he should theoretically be able to devote more energy toward defense. That could help him rehabilitate his image around the league, too, after Atlanta soured on him enough to salary-dump him. While he’s signed for three more seasons, he’ll need to become far more well-rounded to get another fat contract down the road.
It may be tricky for OKC to regularly manufacture points outside of George, Schroder and Russell Westbrook, as Roberson, Grant, Noel and Adams are all defensive-minded players. Rather than emulate the Rockets or Denver Nuggets and attempt to outscore all challengers, the Thunder should play into their strengths and lean on their defense to carry them.
If nothing else, it beats the alternative of relying on Westbrook to jack up 30-plus shots per game.