Remember last week when I couldn’t rule out the possibility of the Thunder winning out the rest of the season? Yeah, well life comes at you fast. The only predictable thing about this Thunder team is that it is entirely unpredictable. There were encouraging signs and plenty of valid excuses to be made for this week’s three consecutive losses, but the last time I checked the exchange rate on moral victories was rather low.
As Rick Pitino would say, “Andre Roberson’s not walking through that door.” His elite perimeter defensive skills are gone for the season, and though it’s been a point of contention in our Slack channel, I’ve said all season that I don’t believe the Thunder will make any trades before the deadline. If Presti can really swing an impact wing for five small loaves of bread and two fish, the second coming is upon us.
That means the current roster is perhaps what the Thunder will have for the rest of the season, and 48 minutes of shooting guard play will need to be cobbled together from Terrance Ferguson, Alex Abrines, Josh Heustis and Raymond Felton. Yikes.
In the five games since Roberson’s injury, it’s been Ferguson that has slotted into the starting lineup. But after 23 and 19 minutes in the first two games he’s gotten just four, 11 and 11 minutes in the past three, which could be because his impact on the game has been akin to that older guy in a pickup game that’s just out there to get some exercise.
In his stead, it’s been a two-guard-by-committee, with Billy Donovan attempting to ride the player who is contributing the most in any given game. In the past three games, that’s been Alex Abrines. In the month of January Abrines averaged just 5.9 minutes in the team’s 13 games and looked very much like he had one foot out the door. But in the past three, he’s gotten 29, 24 and 26 minutes respectively. Without a doubt, he has the highest ceiling of the possible candidates.
That sounds great, but it would be foolish to play Abrines with the first unit. Russ, PG, and Melo certainly don’t need the scoring help, and the sum total of his floor spacing would come nowhere near the negative defensive impact he would have. Somehow this season he’s gone from bad to worse that end, giving up 1.02 PPP (points per possession) — 12th percentile in the league — in what Synergy generously labels “Poor.”
Consider this isolation set with Malik Monk:
He clearly belongs with the second unit, where he’ll get more opportunities to shoot and get into a scoring rhythm, while hopefully not be exposed quite so easily defensively.
Let’s run that set again, this time with a different offensive player: Minnesota’s Jamal Crawford. He gives an even more shifty version of that same Monk crossover. The difference here is that we’ve also got a new defender in position: Josh Huestis.
Much different result.
Now don’t get me wrong, Huestis has been the Thunder’s most tantalizing player for years now. In theory, he’s always been the perfect 3-and-D wing, until reality sets in and the game inevitably gets moving too quickly for him to keep up.
I’m not saying he’s the team’s savior, but I am saying he’s the best available option.
Defensively there’s no question. You thought Abrines’ defensive efficiency was bad? Ferguson’s 1.052 PPP allowed is in the league’s seventh percentile. And which above average two-guard can Felton defend? Huestis is by no means elite, but he’s far and away the best of the bunch there.
Offensively, he can give the team at least as much as Roberson did. Back cuts, screens, running in transition. He’s definitely struggled shooting from the outside, but it’s not like TFerg’s 28.4 percent from three is jumping off the page. Both Huestis and Ferguson have a tendency to disappear into the flow of games and go stretches without any contribution, but most reasonable viewers would agree that Huestis is more reliable to make good decisions with the ball in his hands.
The biggest reason why he should join the starting lineup is mental. Just like the fallen Roberson, Huestis is the type of player who lacks that “irrational confidence” found in most NBA players. If he felt the trust associated with a starting position and consistent minutes, it might boost his level of play.
It’s a pretty bleak situation but there’s still hope for making lemonade out of lemons. If the Thunder fails to make a play on the trade or buyout market, Huestis is the best option available for Billy Donovan.