Can Dennis Schroder be Theoretical Cam Payne for the Thunder?

Sam Presti has been busy this offseason. Carmelo Anthony became an Atlanta Hawk; Paul George remained in Oklahoma City; Jerami Grant and Raymond Felton re-signed with the Thunder; Nerlens Noel even joined the club. Outside of surprising us all in succeeding in keeping George in Oklahoma City, the most interesting risk Presti took this summer was acquiring Dennis Schroder from the Hawks so Atlanta could pay Anthony a lot of money to not play in Philips Arena this season. Trading for Schroder isn’t as flashy as signing Noel, or retaining Grant, or even retaining Felton -- but it could be the most interesting. Since trading James Harden, Presti has been on a seemingly never-ending search to find the right backcourt partner for the enigmatic Russell Westbrook; he has looked at Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, D.J. Augustin, Dion Waiters, Victor Oladipo, Ish Smith, and, perhaps most notably, Cameron Payne, who Presti took in the backend of the lottery in 2015. (You can definitely make the case the answer is Oladipo, but Presti acquired the Indiana Hoosier via trade not through the lottery.) The offcourt, handshake compatibility never found its way onto an on-court, basketball compatibility. Maybe Schroder can be the backcourt partner Presti has been searching for. Maybe.

Finding the right partner to play off Westbrook is a difficult task, what makes Westbrook great is what makes Westbrook hard to play with -- if you’re the other guard. Steven Adams, Grant, Enes Kanter, Andre Roberson, George, etc., all have benefited from Westbrook’s unique, Tasmanian devil style approach to the point-guard position because they’re never asked to do too much. Unfortunately, if you’re a guard trying to contribute next to Westbrook, the proposition becomes increasingly difficult because what helps George have one of his best seasons of his career, is a detriment to a player like Oladipo who has shown with the Pacers that he could have done more, but it couldn’t have come to fruition next to Westbrook. Therein lies the dilemma for Presti and Westbrook -- the Thunder need another capable, competent guard to pair next to Westbrook for thirty-plus minutes in the playoffs, but you also don’t want them to be as old as Felton or as bad as Payne. You want to find a guy who doesn’t have Oladipo or Harden-level upside, but you also don’t want a guy teams just completely ignore come playoff time. You want a combo guard who can do a little of everything without ever doing too much. Maybe you want a Dennis Schroder.

Schroder, after years and years of denial, is not good enough to be the lead guard on a good team in the NBA. Schroder is 24-years-old now, will turn 25 before the 2018-19 season starts, and he’s just as much as a mystery now as he was when the Hawks drafted him years ago. He has the length and look of a guard who can defend multiple positions at a high level, but he’s not a good defender; he has the vision and skill set to attack the paint at will, but he averaged 4.0 FTAs a game in 2017-18; he has become a passable deep threat, but he shot 29 percent from deep last season. Nothing about Schroder makes sense, but he’s a player you can’t quit.

The best-case scenario for Schroder, now is a player the Hawks just replaced with: Jeremy Lin. At first glance, this is an odd comparison. Oddly enough, though, these combo guards have a lot in common. Lin has always struggled defensively, has never had an above-average outside shot, and will never be good enough to be the lead guard on a contender. However, Lin found his niche in Charlotte, playing off high-usage guard Kemba Walker for one season before bolting to Brooklyn. Five-man lineups that included both Walker and Lin in 2015-16 for the Hornets routinely posted positive point-differentials -- the Walker/Lin/Batum/Williams/Jefferson lineup was a +63 in 90 minutes together that season. When you watched that Hornets team, it made sense. Courtney Lee was the perfect off-ball guy to have next to Walker to start, but the team didn’t fall off a cliff when Walker played with a true combo guard in Lin, either. In Oklahoma City, Roberson will continue to be the starter next to Westbrook, but instead of inserting an Alex Abrines here or a Raymond Felton there, the Thunder can go close to 48 minutes of a guard rotation of Westbrook, Roberson, and Schroder. Come playoff time, that matters. (See, Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma City Thunder First Round Series, 2018).

Once it was clear that Schroder was going to be playing in Oklahoma City next to Westbrook, NBA Twitter rejoiced. On the surface, this doesn’t appear to be the best fit. Adding another, high-usage, chaotic guard next to a player like Westbrook just doesn’t seem like an idea destined to work. But then you hear about Westbrook being Schroder’s favorite player; then you hear about Presti and Billy Donovan meeting with Schroder to hash out his role on the team next season; then you think about the kind of guard best-suited to come into the game late in the first quarter to relieve a player like Westbrook -- it’s Dennis Schroder. If there was ever a guard who would instantly fall in love with the Cult of Westbrook, it’s Dennis Schroder.

But it’s important to temper expectations. When the Thunder drafted Payne, they had Augustin and Westbrook in place, and Payne had a chance to develop. It didn’t work out, for a variety of reasons, but the rationale for taking a player like Payne at No. 14 in 2015 was sound -- he was an efficient, low-usage guy who could theoretically play off Westbrook for twenty-to-twenty-four minutes a night. There was no James Harden upside, there was just the hope that he could be a third guard who kept the team afloat when Westbrook needed to rest. Schroder is 24, and still has the potential to do all of those things. In Oklahoma City in a decreased role, he can pick his spots better, he can dominate the pick-and-roll with Grant and Noel, he can play the Your-Turn-My-Turn game with Westbrook when necessary. He can be the kind of NBA player he was always meant to be -- a third guard on a contender that did a lot of things, but never did anything extremely well.

On a  team like Oklahoma City, that’s fine. The team has Westbrook, the team has Roberson, the team even has Abrines and Felton, and now they have Schroder. He isn’t the missing piece to dethrone the Warriors, no, but he does have all the makings of a guard who should thrive in a more limited, confined role in Oklahoma City. Presti continues adding intriguing pieces to surround George and Westbrook and Schroder is the most-intriguing piece yet.