At the conclusion of the Thunder’s 2016-17 season, Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti spent time discussing the concept of winning on the margins. But what are some specific examples of that?
One of the ways the Thunder can make that happen heading into next season is through the continued development and improvement of players who have exhibited signs of being “elite role players”. Not every player in the NBA can be a superstar – one of those transcendent, all-around, multi-tooled performers that impacts the game in every facet. It’s just not realistic.
The Thunder has one such player in Russell Westbrook, and two youngsters in Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo who are striving and honing those skill sets to be able to impact the game on offense with their scoring, movement and passing and on defense with their disruptiveness and physicality.
There are other players on this Thunder squad, and throughout the NBA, whose skills are more specific and more weighted to certain aspects of the game. Those players can be equally as impactful as some of those well-rounded stars, but it means maximizing their talents and minimizing deficiencies.
Throughout the roster, the Thunder has players for whom that description could fit. Alex Abrines and Doug McDermott are marksmen from the perimeter. Jerami Grant’s defensive versatility and shot blocking is a marvel to behold. But two players in particular have put themselves in the running for NBA-level accolades. Enes Kanter has been a Sixth-Man of the Year candidate each of the past two seasons, and Andre Roberson made strides forward again in 2016-17, placing him squarely in the All-Defensive Team conversation.
Let’s start with Kanter – an ultra-efficient offensive scoring machine that can finish with grace and dexterity around the rim, utilizing a plethora of improvised post moves to create shooting windows, separation and fouls by putting his opponent in awkward positions. This past season, Kanter ranked 18th in the league by scoring 33.1 points per 100 possessions that he was on the floor.
The only players ahead of him were Westbrook, Isaiah Thomas, DeMarcus Cousins, DeMar DeRozan, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Lou Williams, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward. A lot of All-Stars in that group.
“He's got the best hands on the team, and he's a good shooter from the free throw line. He's a really good high post shooter,” Presti noted when describing Kanter’s offensive game. “This is a guy in the future that we'll be looking at that's a three-point shooter. He shoots ball incredibly well from the mid-range, and I think that's an opportunity to unlock his game.”
For the Thunder to take another step forward, Kanter will need to invest even more in his offensive abilities, as Presti suggests. Becoming a fully dynamic offensive force will cause defenses to shift even more heavily in his direction, opening up avenues for his teammates. Kanter noted that he’ll work on his jumper, including behind the three-point line, this off-season.
He’ll also continue to improve his leg strength and lower body agility. Every player, even superstars, have weaknesses in their game. The key for all of them, like with Kanter, is to shore those up as much as possible. So not only will Kanter be working on his lateral movement on defense and recognition of coverages, but he’ll also use other ways to impact play than just his strength. His fellow ‘Stache Bro, Steven Adams, explained that it isn’t just being able to physically cover pick-and-rolls, but to mentally be ahead of the play to be in the right position.
“It's the adjustments that you make from that and the type of angles that you take,” Adams said.
One thing that Kanter recognized throughout the season was that there are some matchups that are better for him than others, which is natural for most players in the NBA. As a result, he might play 30-plus minutes against a team that uses traditional big men. In other instances against guard-heavy teams he may spend more time hyping up his teammates from the bench. But regardless, he’s been a positive, uplifting force in the locker room. In a way, he’s channeled the spirit of Thunder fans that he sees every night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“When you look at Thunder fans, Thunder Nation -- we have good games, bad games, but they're always there to support us,” Kanter said. “They're always there to cheer for us.”
Highlights: Enes Kanter (24 points, 11 boards) - March 22, 2017
Roberson might just be the reverse angle of Kanter. A defensive whiz – Roberson deeply studies the ins and outs of his opponent’s tendencies, then goes out on the court and routinely holds his opposition to below their normal scoring averages. He took on the challenge of the opposition’s best perimeter scorer every night, despite having to guard point guards, shooting guards and small forwards depending on the game.
“I always tell myself that, to try to be in a star in my role, master your craft,” Roberson explained. “That's what I've been trying to do. Be one heck of a defender and build around that. Work on my offensive game. Work on scouting. Off the court eating habits. So I've just been building around that and trying to become a complete NBA player.”
In the playoffs, Roberson was the Thunder’s second-leading scorer at 11.6 points per game, blocked 3.4 shots, made 2.4 steals and dished out 1.8 assists per game. He even shot 52.2 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from three-point range. Head Coach Billy Donovan’s usage of Roberson on the offensive end was creative and in many cases effective. But it was still up to Roberson to put forth the effort to be effective on both ends.
“He's just come so far as a contributor for our team, and he exhibits a lot of the things that were great about the season,” Presti said.
Highlights: Andre Roberson (13 pts, 5 blks, 2 stls) - April 23, 2017
In high school and college, he was a power forward, playing around the rim to hone his shot blocking and rebounding abilities. Now in the NBA, he’s been shifted to shooting guard and small forward. He’s had the ball in his hands more. He’s been on the perimeter with more frequency and has tried attacking the rim with higher frequency.
There are still areas where he must improve – particularly with his corner three-point shooting and at the free throw line. But the Thunder’s coaches are confident that he’ll invest, like he has his whole career, into addressing those deficiencies to keep him on the floor at crucial times.
“When there is a challenge put in front of him or there is an area he needs to get better at, he always puts his best foot forward and tries to get better at that,” Donovan said of Roberson.
That’s the type of attitude that the Thunder wants all of its players to have this offseason, from Westbrook to rookies like Domas Sabonis. If each player comes back as more formidable in their respective strong suits and less challenged in other areas, the entire level of the group can elevate. And that is how an entire team can make a collective leap.