The Oklahoma City Thunder have historically built their roster with one archetype in mind: long, athletic players who may or may not (usually the latter) be able to shoot from distance. Therefore, while finding enough spacing around their offensive stars has always been a challenge, particularly in the postseason, the Thunder have hung their hat on defense.
That has been the case once again this year, as the Thunder sport a defensive rating of 103.2 (points allowed per 100 possessions), fourth in the league, per NBA.com. It’s also a sizable jump from last season, when OKC finished the year as the ninth best defense with a rating of 106.3. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Before Andre Roberson, one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders, injured his patella in January, the Thunder were an elite defense with a defensive rating of 104.7. The wheels fell off without Roberson, as they only managed an average rating of 108.7 in his absence. Given how Oklahoma City lauded Roberson as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in his absence, it would stand to reason that the Thunder would continue to struggle as their wing stopper began the start of this season on the shelf.
And yet, 16 games into the season, OKC has had no difficulty without Roberson, which begs the question: what exactly are the Thunder doing better?
It starts with personnel. Last season, Oklahoma City was forced to rely on Carmelo Anthony and Alex Abrines to fill minutes on the wing. Now the team has more lanky players in the Thunder mold to fill those slots, namely Dennis Schroder, who was acquired in the Anthony trade during the offseason, and second-round pick Hamidou Diallo.
Schroder has been surprisingly effective after a disastrous stretch in Atlanta last year. Being on a winning team appears to have revitalized him and forced him to rediscover the defensive habits that made him such a promising young guard. Schroder has the length to disturb opposing players and be a deterrent in passing lanes, his small stature obscuring his long arms.