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Who said you need a jump shot to be valuable in the NBA?
Amid his embarrassing free-throw shooting and virtual ineffectiveness in every way on the offensive end, it becomes easy to forget that Oklahoma City Thunder guard Andre Roberson is arguably the best defensive player in the world. It’s plausible that name recognition plays a part in appreciation for one’s defensive prowess, which explains why there’s much chatter of Roberson’s superstar teammate Paul George‘s potential bid for Defensive Player of the Year. And he’s certainly earned the right to be in the conversation.
But let’s make something clear: Nobody on this Thunder squad can change the game defensively like Roberson. In fact, few can around the entire league.
With a healthy Roberson, the Thunder could compete defensively against the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets. But since he ruptured his patellar tendon late last month against the Detroit Pistons, it’s clear that a seven-game series with several below-average defenders likely won’t cut it.
The Thunder’s record with Roberson in the lineup this season is 25-15. A respectable win percentage of 62.5 that would help them sneak up a few spots in the standings. Without their stud defensive stopper they’re 7-11, and you have to begin questioning what kind of team can they be having to rely on extra minutes from a half broken Carmelo Anthony – who would struggle to slow down furniture at this stage of his career.
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Of the consistent rotation players in Oklahoma City, only one player has an elite defensive rating. Of the usual five starters for the Thunder – Roberson, Russell Westbrook, George, Anthony, and Steven Adams – only one is a plus on the defensive end. When Roberson is off the floor, the Thunder’s defensive rating goes from 96.4 to an abysmal 108.2.
The Thunder have a lot of issues. Many of those issues seemingly stem from lack of reliable depth. It’s difficult to rely on three guys to do all your scoring – especially if you’re forcing those guys to defend. That’s why it’s so important to have somebody on the floor that will completely shut down the opposing team’s top threat along with all the intangibles.
Before the injury, this was a top five defense. They’ve barely been in the top 20 over their last nine games. Ignoring the huge win against the Warriors, they’ve lost to the Boogie-less New Orleans Pelicans by 14 and dropped two games to the Los Angeles Lakers. They’ve struggled with other injuries as well, but attempting to knock off one these superteams is becoming less likely.
In a loss to the Denver Nuggets, the game was tied with 1.4 seconds to go. Westbrook, who was directing traffic prior to Nikola Jokic‘s inbound pass, decided to do his best mummy impression and stand frozen in the middle of the paint while Gary Harris casually backpedaled to the corner and shuffled to the wing. These are the types of possessions where Roberson’s court awareness is valuable. These are the sorts of games that Roberson brings home for you.
Roberson can defend almost anybody in the league. It takes elite footwork and ball handling to even give yourself enough space to breathe when he’s in front of you. He closes out on shooters better than anybody in the NBA and his 6-foot-11 wingspan won’t give you much space for drives. You can swear he can see into the future when he’s reading an offensive set.
This Thunder team simply isn’t equipped to survive without him. Tony Allen is the only realistic free agent that could realistically help the Thunder, but at 36 years old, it isn’t fair to expect him to become the high-level defender he was to save this broken defense.
It seems ridiculous to rely so heavily on somebody averaging five points per game. Roberson is a wing that shoots 22.2 percent from three and 31.6 percent from the free-throw line. There are likely no worse shooters in the NBA, yet what he gives you on the defensive end is almost unmatched. He’s a special kind of generational talent that won’t get his due because of his unmistakable struggles on the offensive end. But with the obvious difficulty Russ and friends have had without him, it’s time to change that narrative.
(Photo courtesy: Getty)