Now we get into the meat of the rotation. From here on out, these are likely the players that will eat up the bulk of the minutes played and will likely be the ones finishing out games. Injuries to any of these players will have a big effect on the team moving forward.
7. Enes Kanter
As one of the most maligned players in the NBA, Enes Kanter was well on his way to be a 6th Man of the Year candidate last season before he decided to go all Karate Kid on a chair. Unfortunately for Kanter, the chair was well versed in counter-moves, and struck back at Kanter’s forearm, breaking it in the process. The broken forearm sidelined Kanter for several weeks, and even though he came back earlier than expected, he was not the same player as he was before the injury.
Kanter is who he is at this point. He’s an enigma wrapped up in a riddle. On the offensive end, he has the feet of a ballerina, able to keep his feet planted as he does an array of up and under moves that would make Hakeem Olajuwon blush. On the defensive end, though, if he has to move outside of the paint, he becomes a just-born baby deer wobbling through the perimeter. Some nights, he’s a match-up nightmare. Other nights, he’s a 6’11 Achilles heel with a mustache.
Here’s the major difference between Kanter this season and last season. Last year, Kanter was a necessity. The Thunder needed his scoring punch off the bench and in the post to keep the team balanced. Russell Westbrook couldn’t score 50 points every night. They had to put up with his defensive deficiencies to keep points on the board. This year, though, Kanter goes back to being a luxury. With the added scoring from Paul George and Patrick Patterson, the Thunder no longer need to depend on Kanter as a second or third option. They can now deploy him as a scoring big, and if the match-up is unfavorable, they don’t have to play him.
6. Andre Roberson
It’s fitting that Enes Kanter and Andre Roberson are back to back on the ranking. What Kanter is to offense, Roberson is to defense. And, unfortunately, the visa versa is also true. Let’s get the good out of the way first. Roberson is an elite-level perimeter defender. There are times where his defense completely changes the dynamic of a game. He has the perfect physique (strong, wiry frame and a long wingspan) to be a terror on the perimeter and he uses all that to the utmost. His selection for 2nd team All-Defense was well-deserved, and I think he has a good chance of getting 1st team All-Defense this season.
Now, to the bad. There should be no reason a player who has made it all the way to the pinnacle of basketball only shoots 42.3% from the free throw line. Especially a perimeter oriented player. Add to that the fact Roberson is way below average from the 3-point line, and you have the perfect recipe for a player who completely kills any offensive spacing the team has when he’s on the floor.
The good news is that, a lot like Kanter, Roberson now becomes a defensive luxury on the floor. The addition of Paul George, who is a good perimeter defender in his own right, almost negates the necessity of having two elite perimeter defenders on the floor. Go into an end of game situation where the Hack-a-Dre comes into play, and you can simply take Roberson off the floor without giving up too much on the defensive end.
5. Alex Abrines
Looking at the raw numbers, you may wonder why a player with this stat line would be ranked so high. For starters, Abrines led the team in 3-point shooting %. He shot 40% or higher from deep in 4 of the 6 months of the season. In addition to the shooting, he has a high basketball IQ and has the potential to be a secondary ball-handler. And he did all this while being a rookie.
With a season of experience under his belt, I’m expecting big things from Abrines. According to reports, he’s packed on a bit of muscle over the offseason and is looking to expand his game to more than just shooting. On this team, his production is tantamount to how far this team can go. If he is a reliable floor spacer, the floor gets that much bigger for Westbrook and George to operate from.
With Abrines, there are always defensive concerns. He’s lacks elite-level lateral quickness on the perimeter and can sometimes get beat off the dribble. But he wasn’t as bad as advertised on the defensive end last season. A lot of his troubles had to do with getting used to the speed of the game. As the season progressed, he got better at cutting his man off and staying away from the silly fouls. If that trend continues into this season, then the Thunder may have found another player to put out there against elite space and pace teams.