ORLANDO, Fla. — As the Thunder seeks to improve its roster this summer, two things have Oklahoma City stuck in a holding pattern.
LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
The two biggest fish on the market have effectively paralyzed the Thunder and every team like it. Free agency, in case you haven’t noticed, has slowed to a crawl, and it’s a direct result of the league waiting to see where those two stars land.
In Oklahoma City, that waiting game has in essence postponed the Thunder’s pursuit of Pau Gasol. He too is waiting to see what happens, thus it’s nothing the Thunder can do to expedite a decision. There is a widespread belief that Gasol would re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers should Anthony join him and Kobe Bryant. Meanwhile, if LeBron leaves Miami his departure would free up more money for the Heat and others to throw at Gasol.
Two players have far-reaching tentacles.
The Thunder, for the time being, simply is handcuffed, unable to do anything else in free agency until the team is certain that Gasol can’t be had. And as the days go by, that predicament has put Oklahoma City’s search for a starting shooting guard in a precarious place.
Thabo Sefolosha will soon be an official member of the Atlanta Hawks. Other teams have snatched up potential replacements one by one over the past two weeks.
Arron Afflalo was traded to Denver. Ben Gordon went to Orlando. Jodie Meeks joined Detroit. C.J. Miles landed in Indiana. Avery Bradley stayed in Boston.
With the type of coin some of those names fetched — $19 million over three years for Meeks, $18 million over four years for Miles — Thunder general manager Sam Presti looks pretty smart for sitting on the sidelines.
But the remaining realistic options are fading fast. They include names like Mike Miller, Vince Carter, Alan Anderson, Antony Morrow and Francisco Garcia.
More and more, though, a somewhat radical idea is becoming a strong possibility — starting second-year guard Andre Roberson.
The Thunder is not just turning down free agents because of costs. Oklahoma City also is content with passing up players because it is comfortable with what it has.
Roberson is made in the same mold as Sefolosha, long, athletic, gritty and defensive-minded. Since the Thunder acquired Sefolosha midway through the 2008-09 season, the team has preferred to keep a lockdown-defender type at the starting shooting guard spot. It alleviates pressure from Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant defensively and allows the two stars to focus on offense.
It’s a formula that has worked well for the Thunder, helping OKC reach the conference finals three of the past four seasons. The team also has long looked at the decision as a simple strategy that helps maximize the talent on the roster by balancing the first and second units with offense and defense. For example, with Sefolosha starting the Thunder always could call on James Harden/Kevin Martin/Reggie Jackson/Jeremy Lamb off the bench.
Plugging in Roberson next season would preserve that approach, with Jackson and Lamb available to punish second-team defenses.
Giving the Thunder confidence in Roberson is its 12-4 record in his 16 games as a starter last season. But that’s only the beginning. Oklahoma City allowed a staggering 80.3 points per 100 possessions with Roberson and rookie center Steven Adams in the starting lineup. They outscored opponents by 28.5 points per 100 possessions.
Of course, Roberson has one huge drawback.
His lack of offense.
Through two games at the Orlando Pro Summer League, Roberson has scored 17 points on 7-for-18 shooting. He’s 1-for-4 from 3-point range.
After seeing how Sefolosha struggled to score, the last thing most Thunder fans want to see is another offensively-challenged player in the starting lineup. For as much pressure as that person takes from Durant and Westbrook on defense he adds as much if not more on offense.
Roberson’s challenge would be to figure out how to play to his strengths (defense and rebounding) while limiting his weaknesses (shooting).
The Thunder sees Roberson as a Tony Allen type of scorer. Allen has averaged between 8.9 points and 9.8 points in each of the past four seasons and hasn’t shot less than 44.5 percent over that span. He became an X-factor against the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs this year, remember, simply by scoring in transition, cutting for layups and generating hustle points.
All those are things Roberson is good at, things he’s showing down here in Orlando.
“Andre has very good tools,” said Thunder assistant and summer league coach Darko Rajakovic, who as coach of the Tulsa 66ers watched Roberson average 16 points on 51.6 percent shooting in 17 D-League games last season. “First of all, he’s a very good defensive player. That gives him the opportunity to put his hands on the ball to get steals and be a good finisher in transition. Also in transition, he’s finding other people…And offensively, he’s very good out of cuts, attacking the rim. He can attack the rim putting the ball on the floor with one and two dribbles.”
Roberson continues to prove this week that he’s a hard worker and an eager learner.
But is he really ready for this?
As the summer snakes on, he might have to be.
“Experience is a big key in this league,” he said. “And I’m willing to put in the time and get better.”