Dennis Schroder boosting Thunder with career year, making strong case for Sixth Man award

There are a couple of surprising things that have happened in Oklahoma City this season. There’s the fact that Chris Paul looks more like the 10-time All-Star he is rather than the injury-riddled point guard we witnessed in Houston for the past two seasons. There’s the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as one of the most promising young players in the league. Oh, and then there’s the bit about how if the season ended today, the Thunder would be the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, a place no one thought they’d be after trading away both Russell Westbrook and Paul George. 

However, one of the more overlooked aspects about this team is the production it’s getting off the bench, specifically from Dennis Schroder. In his second season with OKC, the veteran guard is looking like he could be the first Thunder player to win Sixth Man of the Year since James Harden did it in 2012. Schroder is averaging 19.1 points off OKC’s bench, which is second in the league among all reserves. He’s shooting career marks from the field (47.3 percent) and 3-point range (38.6 percent), and in crunch-time situations he’s on the floor alongside Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander to close out games. 

In a tight game against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night, Schroder hit a huge 3 in the third quarter to end a 13-2 run by the Bulls that allowed them to get back in the game and take the lead. Later in the fourth, with the Thunder down by one point and two minutes to play, Schroder knocked down a mid-range jumper to give the Thunder the lead. A couple of plays later, he took a charge on Zach LaVine driving to try to put the Bulls in the lead again. It’s this type of play that makes Thunder coach Billy Donovan trust Schroder in those situations.

“The one thing with Dennis is he’s a fierce competitor,” Donovan said after the win. “When things get hard he steps up. He made a big 3 to stop a run. He tied the game and put us up by one. He had a couple of drives and made some plays. But Dennis, again, has been like that all year long for us. When it gets harder he gets more competitive.”

Schroder has always been someone who isn’t afraid to get under your skin and make life uncomfortable for you on offense, but this season has been different for him in a number of ways. Off the court, his son, who his wife gave birth to last year, just turned one and baby No. 2 is “on the way,” Schroder said. On the court, he’s trying to put himself on the map with the way he plays on a nightly basis. Not to mention the adjustment that comes with playing in a rotation that features two other point guards who work best with the ball in their hands. As difficult as it might seem to operate with three point guards, though, Schroder has been thriving in this system. 

“We’re sacrificing a lot. Three point guards who make plays for our teammates,” Schroder told CBS Sports. “It’s hard but we really came on the same page and everybody was sacrificing. That’s the reason why we’re so successful with this team because everyone is sacrificing and everyone wants to win games. I think it’s pretty big that we’re doing it, but we have to keep improving and get better every game.”

Schroder accounts for nearly half of the Thunder’s 39.4 bench points on a nightly basis, and while guys like Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell get most of the attention for Sixth Man of the Year, his resume this season is evidence that he should be mentioned right alongside those two. For an eight-game stretch from late January to early February, Schroder averaged 25 points and 6.3 assists, helping the Thunder go 8-1 during that span. He’s reached 30 points off the bench four times already, and he has the second-best box score plus-minus on the team (4.5) behind only Chris Paul.

The sixth-year guard isn’t just getting it done on offense, either. His defensive rating (102.9) ranks higher than both Williams and Harrell, and he has the highest defensive win shares (0.145) of any bench player in the league. He’s a reliable defender who can hold his own against bigger players in the post, and when teams try to isolate him, they quickly learn his footwork and penchant for getting in opposing players’ airspace will result in poor shot selection or a turnover.

Schroder’s not one to tout his individual success, but he does think that his performance this season warrants some recognition in the form of some hardware.

“I think this year I deserve [Sixth Man of the Year],” Schroder told CBS Sports. “I don’t like to talk about myself a lot, but at the end of the day I just try to come out and help my team win. They’re going to make the decision, but I think it’s hard for them to not give it to me.”

It’s always difficult to unseat Williams as the definitive Sixth Man of the Year, but this year Schroder may have the best case at winning the award. He’s been more efficient than Williams, he provides more on the defensive side of the ball and his scoring is level with the reigning Sixth Man as they’re both averaging 19 points. Williams is still playing at a level worthy of the award, but this may be the year that someone else edges him out for it, and Schroder could be first in line.  

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