Five Thoughts 1-27-18 (Thunder 121, Pistons 108)

Absolutely no need for five thoughts. There is only one thing that happened tonight that truly requires any attention or recognition… unfortunately.

It’s funny (actually it’s not funny at all, but I often preface in-funny things with “it’s funny,” so why stop now), at halftime I’d decided my thought number one was going to center around how unstoppable the Thunder starting five have been for the last two months. Today they extended their win streak to 16 when Russ-Andre-PG13-Melo-Adams are the fivesome to start the game. Not only are they winning, but with those five on the floor they were dominating. It was as if Presti’s vision had come to fruition. The chemistry looked right; roles settled; like a well oiled machine with each part doing it’s job to make the engine rev. And lately, they’ve been leaving people in their dust. Tonight, the bench was pretty terrible, but the starters were almost toying with the Pistons. I felt a little sorry for Detroit at one point. The 15-0 lead to start the second half was total dominance. And then…. damn. I’ve always been a Andre fan, my blog history proves as much. But this year he was finally in his perfect role, where his strengths were highlighted and his weaknesses hidden. His minutes were down, his impact was up. The fact that we were streaking and then he goes out for several games and we tank and then we start streaking again when he returns should be proof enough of his importance. The fact that Andre has such a positive impact while barely being able to shoot a basketball is astounding. It speaks to just how good he is at everything else.

I feel terrible for him, first and foremost. This is devastating injury for an athlete. It is far worse than an ACL tear and probably worse than a broken leg. Everything we have ever heard about patellar ruptures is that they are painful and require a long and arduous rehab. His season is obviously over, but beyond that, Andre will be facing a very long battle to get back. Feel for him; tough to see him in tears like that. I have no doubt the physical pain was palpable, but I am guessing the majority of that emotion was Andre realizing the ramifications. Certainly thoughts go out to him for a full recovery.

It is also no surprise that from that exact moment, the Thunder looked lifeless the rest of the game whereas they had been destroying the Pistons prior. The air was totally let out of the balloon. Thunder did enough to close it out and Russ really had some nice plays down the stretch to seal it, but you could tell the entire team was distracted and deflated by what happened to Andre. That will fade. They won’t play with their heads down for long. Emotionally, they will get over it and it might even ratchet up their level of focus and intensity, knowing there is a void that needs to be filled. I’m not worried about that. What I am worried about is what they CAN’T replace.

That’s the thing about Andre– there just aren’t many guys in the league that do what he does. Now, you can absolutely argue that a player that is 25% worse than Andre defensively and 50% better offensively is actually a better overall player. I might agree with that. There are lots of players in the league that are more valuable overall than Andre as an individual player. But every team has different needs. The Thunder don’t really need another guy in the starting five that can fill it up. Sure, you can’t ever have enough shooters on the floor, but our top three plus Adams inside should be plenty of offense the majority of the time. There simply aren’t many guys in the league that can defend Damian Lillard AND Lebron James AND James Harden AND Kevin Durant. Andre is not only an elite one on one defender, he is highly versatile. This allows us to take our other elite wing defender (PG) and mix and match them to create hell for opponents.

While Andre doesn’t do anything offensively in the stat sheet most nights and while he has zero ball/shooting skills, he does often make a positive impact on the offensive end simply by being so active. He is an excellent rebounder and this year he has been spending far less time standing in the corner and far more time slashing to the basket. He simply creates havoc for the other team on rebounds, loose balls, tips, taps, put backs, etc…

The Thunder do not have a suitable replacement. TFerg will almost certainly step in for now. He is a VERY intriguing prospect. He’s already a little more advanced offensively than most 19 year olds and he at least tries hard and is athletic on defense. He will almost certainly score more than Andre did and he will absolutely be more of a threat from three. Teams won’t be able to completely leave him unguarded. But asking him to step into Andre’s role and do what Andre did for a team with title aspirations is asking a lot– it is asking far too much actually. We know for sure Abrines and Huestis can’t do it. Abrines might be the worst defensive player to don a Thunder uniform; and Huestis is just limited all around. So while this injury will open the door for those guys to likely get more minutes off the bench, I don’t expect to get much more from them than we are getting now. Honestly, the one guy on the roster who most closely resembles Andre in terms of skill set is….Kyle Singler. So there you go.

Prior to this injury, I was calling for Presti to try and make a deal to improve the bench scoring. That is still on the table, but now a new dynamic is in play. Perhaps he changes his approach from “we will call around and see if something works,” to “we really need to add someone else to this rotation or else.” They don’t have a ton to offer– I wouldn’t trade TFerg unless it was a no-brainer. But there are always teams out there in a bad spot with a guy that just need to unload. We know Presti can work some magic on these deals. I won’t count him out. That said, it’s hard to imagine they can swing a deal for another guy in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year. Perhaps he is able to simply find another good all around, veteran wing. Maybe he becomes a starter or maybe they leave TFerg there and bring the new guy off the bench. But now, I do think they’ve gone from WANTING a little something extra to NEEDING it. Only bright side to this injury is that it came prior to the trade deadline. Presti now has two weeks to try and figure something out.

My overall assessment to what this does to the Thunder’s chances this year? I’m a positive guy, but honestly, my thoughts tonight are not positive. This won’t send them spiraling or anything. I don’t think some sort of immediate nose dive is coming. And I do think there could be nights where it has a positive effect– certain teams don’t require Andre as much and against those teams having a little extra offense might be beneficial. We also no longer have to worry about how to the handle the Hack-a-Andre strategy. But the reason OKC was a threat to Houston, Golden State, and other elite teams is because we could throw two of the best wing defenders in the league at them. We could hound Kevin Durant AND Klay Thompson at the same time. We had extreme size, strength, and athleticism at the 2-3 positions which is where those teams are strongest. In other words, Andre was at his peak value against the best teams, best players, in the tightest spots. In all reality, this is an irreplaceable skill in my eyes. I’m not throwing in the towel, but without question I believe whatever chances the Thunder had to do something special this year are now significantly reduced.

Ed Kleese is a long-time Thunder season ticket holder and a smart Thunder fan. You can read all his work on his own personal blog.

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Ed Kleese