Should Alex Abrines Start?

Oladipo to Sixth Man?


Because it’s fun to jump to conclusions really quickly, I found myself sitting on a big question in regard to the Thunder’s starting lineup. With Victor Oladipo missing the last two contests with back issues, rookie Alex Abrines has been thrust into the starting lineup…and he’s performed really well.

How well?

Two Games in Starting Lineup

  • 16 Points per Game
  • 44% Field Goal
  • 44% Three Point
  • 32.1 Minutes per Game
  • +16.5
  • 2–0 record

Now I will be the first to say — two games is hardly indicative of what we could or should expect over the course of an extended period of time. And in NO WAY is this an argument that Abrines is more talented than Oladipo, because he’s not. Not even close. Don’t go there.

But with the Thunder currently in serious need of back court help in the second unit — and always in need of three-point shooting around Russell Westbrook — could the team benefit from moving Oladipo to sixth man — à la James Harden?

Here are alternating arguments for and against such a move.

Let’s dive in. Click to vote your opinion at the end, as well!

Argument For:

“Alex Abrines is a better three-point shooter, thus his talents are maximized next to Russell Westbrook. Conversely, due to skill set redundancy between Oladipo and Westbrook, they are best when staggered.”

This argument certainly makes sense to me, as Oladipo and Westbrook are similar players in the way they play the game — despite there being a large gap in their ability. Dipo is a poor man’s Westbrook to some extent, and staggering their playing time could potentially maximize Oladipo to his fullest potential.

With Abrines being a fantastic three-point shooter — 43% since January 1st — he creates a world of confusion for defenses. The opposing two-guard can’t leave him to help out on Westbrook, because if they do, Russ simply kicks it out and Abrines makes them pay from deep. He’s running back on defense rubbing his beard before they know what hit them.

If they don’t leave Abrines to help out on Russ, Westbrook can easily beat his man to the basket or to his favorite spot at the elbow. That’s an easy two points.

So what do you do if you’re on defense? It’s a serious conundrum.

Argument Against:

“The most talented player should start, and Abrines is just not nearly as talented as Oladipo.”

This argument exists because, while the Thunder is certainly a talented team, it isn’t THAT talented. The cup doesn’t runneth over with talent, so starting Oladipo makes a lot of sense from that perspective. It’s putting your best product on the court from the beginning and asking it to go to work.

The counter-argument is that James Harden was more talented than Thabo Sefolosha, but played his role very well in reserve. This is true….but how many times did you scream at your TV and say “JAMES HARDEN SHOULD BE STARTING!”

I did more than once. So I get this side of things.

Argument For:

“Alex Abrines is a good offensive player, but a poor defender. Thus, his defensive inefficiencies are best masked when between Westbrook and Andre Roberson.”

This is the absolute truth here — as stashing Abrines in the starting five with Westbrook, Roberson and Steven Adams should protect him from a lot of the abuse he could otherwise take. Dre would be able to help out enough to keep teams honest, and Adams should be around at the rim to help deflect anyone that beats Abrines off the dribble. There is defensive insulation there.

On the flip side, Oladipo would be moving to a second unit that is currently known for blowing Thunder leads. He’s a fantastic wing defender, and would help tremendously in keeping Enes Kanter out of trouble at the cup.

Argument Against

“Because of Abrines’ defensive inefficiencies, he’s a liability against some of the more talented back courts in the NBA.”

We just talked about how Abrines would be insulated by better defenders, but that doesn’t mean he’s a perfect fit in all situations. Golden State gives everyone fits, so this may be a bad example, but consider this.

Russ on Steph.

Dre on KD.

Abrines on Klay?

Oladipo makes a lot more sense in the starting lineup when the opposing team has more than enough playmakers to keep Roberson busy elsewhere. You don’t want to leave Abrines on an island by himself against elite players in this league, but you can do so with Oladipo. Maybe the starting lineup becomes situational in these instances, or maybe you just leave it as-is.

Argument For:

“Unless Sam Presti intends on signing a backup Point Guard out of the buyout market, Victor Oladipo is a better option to run the second unit than Semaj Christon.”

So I’m sure Semaj Christon is a great guy — I root for the kid. But man, he hurts this team more often than he assists it. He’s currently rocking an offensive rating of 89 — and a defensive rating of 111 — which is a really fancy way of saying “He’s killing us out there.”

By moving Oladipo to the James Harden role, you’re putting the ball in his hands and asking him to run the second unit. He has played PG plenty throughout his college and professional life, and averaged around 4 assists per game during his time in Orlando. He’s a reliable ball-handler, facilitator and scorer. It’s a serious upgrade over Semaj Christon, and it immediately makes the second unit much more formidable.

Argument Against:

“Moving Oladipo to the second unit eliminates a lot of what Enes Kanter has excelled at in recent months. As the focal point of the bench mob, he’s become the de fact scorer, rebounder and facilitator. Don’t remove the ball from his hands and put it in Dipo’s.”

Before Oladipo went down with a sprained wrist on December 11 against Boston, Enes Kanter was averaging 0.9 assists per game over the first 32 games of the season. Over the nine games Oladipo missed? The assists per game rose to 1.4.

Sure, that increase isn’t significant, but that stretch fundamentally changed the way Kanter was utilized on the second unit. He’s kept that average at 1.4 APG in the 16 games he’s played since then, and as such, his 1.1 APG on the season is the highest of his career. That has a lot to do with how he began working with Abrines during Oladipo’s absence.

Running the second unit through Kanter allowed the bench mob to play from the inside out, with many possessions starting with the ball going to Kanter in the post. From there, he was able to make the decision to score or kick out — and when he kicked out, he often found Abrines waiting with open arms. Point Kanter was born, and the addition of Doug McDermott should allow him to find shooters more often when he passes out of the post.

Moving Oladipo to the second unit would take the ball out of Kanter’s hands and the bench would play a more traditional style of offense. The benefit may outweigh the the cost, but it’s at least a thought.

In short, there is a lot to consider when you ponder such a move. And this may be a completely wasted exercise, as there is no indication that Billy Donovan is considering it at all. But given what you read here, it’s time for you to cast your vote:

Thunder Up.