It’s not often that you see the blame for the collapse of a team’s season pinned on the loss of a role player, but that was exactly the case with last year’s Oklahoma City Thunder. Granted, Oklahoma City was just 29-20 when stalwart perimeter defender Andre Roberson went down for the year with a ruptured patellar tendon; but the team was 24-15 overall with Roberson in the lineup, and just 24-19 without him. That’s essentially the difference between being a 51-win team and a 46-win team over the course of a full season — a not insignificant difference. If the Thunder had been a 51-win team last year, for example, they would not have faced the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs and they thus might not have gone home quite so early.
And Roberson’s importance to the 2017-18 version of the Thunder cannot really be overstated. He was defending at not just an All-Defense level when he went down, but garnering Defensive Player of the Year buzz — an extreme rarity for a perimeter player. Roberson was handling the most difficult perimeter matchup every single night, allowing Paul George and Russell Westbrook to slide into easier matchups and save their energy for what they needed to do on the offensive end of the floor.
Roberson defended the opposing team’s leader in usage rate on 25 percent of his defensive possessions, by far the highest rate on the team, per an analysis of Second Spectrum matchup data conducted by Krishna Narsu and myself. He also defended the opposing team’s leader in Offensive Real Plus-Minus on nearly a quarter of his defensive possessions (24.67 percent), again the highest rate on the team by a long shot. The next-closest player on the team was George at 17.66 percent, and many of those possessions came during the second half of the season when Roberson was already out.
His ability to guard across multiple positions was also incredibly valuable. Roberson’s combination of size (6-foot-7, 210 pounds), length (6-foot-11 wingspan), and agility allowed him to seamlessly slide across the perimeter and defend primary ball-handlers, high-usage scorers, and off-ball marksmen alike. And because of his height and bulk, he could even shift onto the occasional big man and not get punished on the block.
It should come as no surprise that, throughout his career as a regular rotation player, Oklahoma City’s defense has been consistently better with Roberson on the floor. Last season was no exception, but the difference between Roberson being on and off the floor was more stark than ever before.
The Thunder defended like the best unit in the league with Roberson in the game and like a bottom-10 defense when he was on the bench. Unsurprisingly, their overall scoring differential (adjusted for pace) was far worse with Roberson out as well.
As is the case with the team’s defense, the Thunder’s net rating has been consistently much better when Roberson is in the game than when he’s out. Some of that is due to his playing a lot of minutes alongside Westbrook and other starters, but not all of it. Those guys played plenty of minutes without Roberson due to various injuries and lineup decisions, and those lineups were almost always worse off.
Roberson’s impact on the team’s performance coupled with his individual defensive prowess presumably played a large role in Sam Presti’s decision to hand him a three-year, $30 million contract last offseason. That’s a hefty sum for a one-way player — especially on a cap-strapped team that has limited ability to add impact talent on the free-agent market (due to financial constraints and market size) or in the draft (due to previous trades that have sent out future picks and consistent success that often leaves the team picking in the latter part of the first round). When you consider that Roberson often gets played off the floor at important moments because of his total lack of offensive capabilities, that type of commitment is a strong sign that the Thunder believe his defensive impact is absolutely vital to their fortunes in not just the regular season, but also the playoffs.
There are signs that said belief is not misplaced. Consider, for example, the defensive numbers posted by the Westbrook — Roberson — George — Steven Adams four-man unit last season. That group spent 583 minutes together on the floor, making it one of 84 four-man combinations league-wide to exceed 500 minutes played during the 2017-18 campaign. Among those 84 units, only one had a better defensive rating than the 94.9 points per 100 possessions mark allowed by Westbrook, Roberson, George, and Adams. (That’d be the Jazz’s Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, and Rudy Gobert.) Keep in mind, this is a league where the average team allowed 106.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, which means that four-man unit was a ridiculous 11.3 points per 100 possessions better than average. And again, Roberson was easily the best defender in that group, and handled the most difficult matchup more often than not. So, yeah, he was indeed as important as it seemed.
Consider the Thunder’s first-round loss to the Jazz. Utah scored 106.2 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, and 106.1 per 100 possessions against OKC during their six-game series win. The very next round, however, the Rockets were able to limit the Jazz to just 99.1 points per 100 possessions. Sure, Ricky Rubio was out for that second series, but the fact that Houston was able to throw several capable perimeter defenders at both Mitchell and Ingles played a huge role in short-circuiting the team’s offense — especially when they began aggressively switching pick-and-rolls to cut off driving lanes. The Thunder could not do the same in the first round and it resulted in Utah’s repeatedly targeting Carmelo Anthony, and Anthony being flambeed as a result.
If Roberson were out there, they could have put him on either Mitchell or Ingles and at least forced the Jazz to work a bit harder to get Anthony in their actions. If Roberson were out there, the Jazz would’ve found piercing the front line of the defense more difficult, resulting in fewer open threes. If Roberson were out there, Westbrook may not have felt the need to entirely disengage in any aspect of defense beyond individually shutting down Rubio. There’s no guarantee any of those changes would have flipped the result of the series, of course, but the Thunder certainly would’ve had a better chance to come away victorious.
Whether Roberson can achieve a similar impact moving forward is another question. A ruptured patellar tendon is a very serious injury, and we still don’t even know whether Roberson will be fully healthy for the beginning of the season. As of last week, he still hadn’t been cleared for contact just yet. For a player who derives almost all of his value through his lateral mobility, a knee injury that affects his movement skills is just about worst case scenario. Even a slight decline in his ability to guard would cause a massive hit to Roberson’s value as a player.
At his best, he is basically a taller, longer version of Peak Tony Allen, but without the occasional streaks of ultra-aggressiveness on offense. To be clear, that archetype is a heck of a player. And the additional size allows Roberson to do a few more things than even Allen could at his best — guard certain big men, act as a screener in pick-and-rolls, allow for his team to play him next to three perimeter players. But his pronounced lack of shooting ability is even more important now than Allen’s was then. It was Allen who was among the first defensive specialists to be completely removed from a playoff series when defenses just straight-up ignored him on the perimeter, and that strategy has been amplified ten-fold since the Warriors and Spurs punked him like that several years back. Roberson gets ignored by several orders of magnitude more than Allen once did, and plays on a team that is often similarly space-strapped due to the lack of range of its center (Adams) and point guard (Westbrook).
The Thunder have a paradox here. In order for them to be their most successful, they need Roberson on defense. But Roberson, for all his merits, can be played off the court by the smartest teams in the league. So in order for him to remain on the floor at important moments, he’s going to have to retain his defensive value, and the Thunder are going to have to be okay with the offensive sacrifice and simply find a way to will their way to points. But in order for Roberson to maintain his value to the defense, he’s going to have to return from injury with somewhere between little and no drop-off in athleticism. Roberson is still in his mid-20’s so he should not yet be due for any age-related drop-off, but the injury gods will have to smile down upon him in order for him to remain the same caliber player he was before.