Opening night is less than two weeks away, and, for one contending team out West, already there’s not one, but two injuries to worry about. Andre Roberson will be out at least two more months after experiencing a setback in rehab for his left knee injury, a Thunder spokesperson said Thursday.
Roberson ruptured his patellar tendon in January and was sidelined for the rest of the season following surgery. A suture from an additional procedure reportedly caused discomfort and kept him from playing. Roberson was originally expected to return around November. Just two weeks ago, general manager Sam Presti said, “We don’t think we’re going to be without him very long.” Now, Roberson will be out until at least December. With Russell Westbrook’s status also uncertain for opening night after the guard had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in early September, the Thunder could begin the season without their entire starting backcourt.
This is a less than ideal spot for the Thunder to be in, especially after a triumphant offseason during which they re-signed Paul George to a long-term deal. OKC was expected to compete for one of the top spots in the West behind the Warriors this season in large part because of its defensive potential. Now, the Thunder will be without their best defensive player for an unknown amount of time. Roberson’s absence last season led to the Thunder’s defensive decline. With him, OKC was a top-10 defensive team, allowing just 103.4 points per 100 possessions. Without him, OKC allowed 107.0 points per 100 possessions.
Roberson’s injury puts a lot of pressure on, well, everyone else on the roster. Westbrook may be exposed more on the defensive end without Roberson. George, meanwhile, may be asked to guard the opponent’s best offensive player again, putting a lot on his plate on both ends of the floor. But for all of the big moves the Thunder have made the past two offseasons, their success in the early part of this season could come down to their less-known acquisitions.
Re-signing Jerami Grant to a three-year, $27 million deal could seem like a bargain if Grant continues to develop his shot (he shot a career-high 53.5 percent from the field last season) and parlays his length to become a true stretch-4. Getting Dennis Schröder and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot back in the Carmelo Anthony deal to give the roster more depth now seems crucial. Schröder should take on a larger role than previously expected, especially if head coach Billy Donovan decides to play him more alongside Westbrook. He’s not exactly a guard known for his defense, though. Terrance Ferguson, on the other hand, could be. Ferguson is only 20 and heading into his second season with OKC, but he’s already shown flashes of becoming the sort of two-way guard the Thunder have struggled to find to fill the void next to their two superstars. Ferguson’s 6-foot-9 wingspan and athleticism could help him turn into a good defender. Any player with this bounce can get up to contest some shots:
Ferguson played only 12.5 minutes a game last season, but the fact he was able to get any minutes at all on a playoff team as a late-first-round draft pick will be beneficial in the long run. It’ll be interesting to see how much Ferguson’s playing time increases in his second year (he started in the Thunder’s first preseason game), especially now that Roberson will be out. For all of Roberson’s defensive prowess, his lack of shooting has always complicated his fit. Ferguson won’t be able to replicate Roberson’s defense, but he could provide more value on the offensive end.
The Thunder need to grind out wins until Roberson returns to stay afloat in what should be a competitive West playoff race. OKC has a chance to become a more balanced version of what it was last season without Melo; it certainly paid a hefty price to try to do so. The Thunder can probably still get there, but losing their best defender for a significant portion of the season will make it much more difficult.