- The addition of Corey Brewer brings back an element the Thunder have been missing since Andre Roberson's season-ending injury. As crazy as it might sound, Brewer might be the key to OKC's most effective closing lineup.
From the moment the Thunder traded James Harden after their 2012 Finals run, the team has struggled to hide glaring weakness in big moments. In stark contrast to top-shelf talent like Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City would close playoff games with the likes of end-of-career guys in Derek Fisher and Caron Butler, or players with serious liabilities in Andre Roberson and Alex Abrines. As crazy as it may seem to suggest, even after overhauling the team last summer, the Thunder may have finally found their most effective closing lineup—thanks to Corey Brewer.
OKC’s starting lineup with Roberson, Russ, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Steven Adams was wreaking havoc this season. After a slow start to the year, that group finally gelled, and had an absurd defensive rating of 95.9 in 539 minutes together. There were good reasons to believe, until Roberson’s season-ending injury, that this lineup would be the one OKC could give the Warriors and Rockets the most trouble with in the postseason. George and Roberson were perhaps the best perimeter defensive combination in the league, making the Thunder best equipped to deal with Golden State and Houston’s talent on the outside.
The issue, of course, was Roberson’s offense, and how that would translate to the playoffs. Last year, over five games of their playoff defeat to the Rockets, OKC was 9.8 points per 100 possessions better on offense when Roberson was on the bench. Compare that to the regular season, when the Thunder actually had a better offense when Roberson played. As important a player as he is defensively—and Roberson is one of the best in the league—his offense becomes a much bigger problem in the postseason, when opponents begin to blatantly ignore him.
Last year’s Thunder team also cratered defensively whenever Roberson was off the court. That may not be the case this year. With Brewer in the starting lineup, OKC’s defensive rating is 104.8—it’s not elite like the old group, but that mark would be 11th overall in the NBA. The benefits come largely on the other end of the court, where Brewer is helping the Thunder push the pace and providing more space for his star teammates to operate. OKC had won six in a row before its clumsy loss to Boston on Tuesday, and for large stretches the team looked the most cohesive it’s been all season.
It’s an absurdly small sample size, but since Brewer entered the starting lineup on March 8, OKC has the third-best net rating in the league, somewhat notably higher than both the Blazers and Rockets, who’ve been the hottest teams in the league for a month.
So, how exactly does Brewer help, and how can it translate to the playoffs? Offensively, the Thunder have been playing much faster with Brewer in the lineup. The pace for the starters has increased from 97.4 to 105.04 with Brewer, who’s always been one of the most eager players in the league to run out in transition or hunt for quick scores. He adds an energy to the starting group, almost forcing everyone to catch up to him.
It helps that Brewer himself is also shooting an incredibly unsustainable 38.2% from three on 3.8 attempts per game, a mark that’s 10 percentage points higher than his career average. Shooting + pace + space has basically been the formula for success in the modern NBA, and Brewer is helping the Thunder run more efficiently in those aspects.
In the postseason, Brewer likely won’t be able to maintain his torrid shooting streak, but any gravity he provides on offense will end up being a significant upgrade over Roberson. This isn’t meant to denigrate Roberson, but any attention paid to Brewer, even if it’s minimal, allows OKC’s best players to thrive. With one less defender in the paint, the Westbrook-Adams pick-and-roll becomes much more lethal. With a little more focus being shifted to Brewer, PG and Melo have an extra half-second on their catch-and-shoots. And while Brewer is far from a lockdown perimeter defender, he’s no stiff either, and at the very least he can guard any wing until George decides to take over for the closing stretch.
Brewer certainly makes more sense as a closer than some of the Thunder’s other options. Playing Jerami Grant next to Adams likely makes the team too big. Alex Abrines could struggle defensively. And Josh Huestis is a little too green.
The Thunder aren’t a better team without Andre Roberson, but with someone who is somewhat passable as a 3-and-D wing in his place, they may not be that much worse. OKC would certainly rather be at full strength come playoff time and have its best defender to throw at the likes of Steph Curry and James Harden. But without that option, having a player who allows your superstars to function better offensively is a nice backup plan. It’s far too soon to call Corey Brewer a savior, but as long as his play doesn’t fall off a cliff, the Thunder’s goals may still be in reach.