After all, the Thunder added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to a team featuring last year’s MVP, Russell Westbrook. Stars, as it turns out, don’t always merge easily — especially when one of them (ahem, Melo), at this point in his career, is a superstar in name only. The fit isn’t perfect. With Westbrook and Melo at the helm, it never could be.
Still, the Thunder possessed enough of a talent cushion, along with a devastating defense, that they shouldn’t have been clawing at a .500 mark while they figured how things pieced together on the offensive end. The answer to their struggles, in that context, didn’t lie with Westbrook or Anthony, as much as it did with Andre Roberson, who might be the biggest offensive liability in the NBA. When Roberson takes the floor, the offense must operate on a higher plane in order to be effective. You can’t rest on talent when teams play four-on-five.
None of this is to say the Thunder should look elsewhere for their fifth starter. Quite the opposite. Roberson is Oklahoma’s peskiest defender, a conundrum only because of how effective he is on that end. For the Thunder, whose playoff hopes will rest on overpowering opponents with their elite athleticism, defense, and size, Roberson is a key to the formula. When the offense grinds to a halt, and Roberson gets hacked and sent to the line, it may feel like the Thunder can’t live with him. There’s no getting around this: It’s frustrating to watch. But in the grand scheme, they can’t live without him either.
Yes, without Roberson, life would be easier for the Thunder. They would also have a lower ceiling.
The heart of the matter is this: Even in an age of educated sports fans armed with sophisticated player tracking data and advanced stats that have flattened the importance of one-on-one offense and shone a light on vital role players, defense still isn’t valued as much as offense. If Roberson’s offensive equivalent was the worst defender in the NBA, nobody would dream of sending him to the bench. He’d be a superstar.
Maybe it’s because individual defense remains difficult to quantify. But here’s a snapshot of what happens in his absence. The starters, with Roberson, have an 11.3 net rating, with a defense that allows just 96.3 points per 100 possessions. With Alex Abrines — who is admittedly far below replacement level as a defender — starting in his place, the Thunder allow a maddening 116 points per 100 possessions. That 20-point swing morphs Oklahoma City’s defense from the NBA’s best to its worst. Despite the fact that Paul George is playing stifling, career-high level defense, Roberson has the best defensive rating of the starters.
Unless Roberson invests in a world-class hypnotist, there’s a good chance he’ll never improve on offense. I am hard-pressed to believe, given his relentless effort on the court, that he hasn’t tried. Poor free throw shooting, for the most part, can be chalked up to a career-long case of the yips, something that has happened to plenty of players, almost all of whom can’t find their way out of it. Andre Drummond is one of the only players to ever get out from under the bug.
But what the Thunder can do is continue to build a better offense, and employ sets that mitigate Roberson’s deficiencies.
Offensively, despite the fact that Abrines is a 38.3 percent 3-point shooter, the Thunder’s starting lineup performs about the same with Roberson in the lineup. They grab more rebounds, defensively and offensively, with him on the floor, allowing them a couple of extra possessions. And when the Thunder get a stop defensively, their eFG% shoots up from 51 percent to 55. Intuitively, it makes sense. A team that employs Westbrook is going to perform a lot better on the break, and Roberson creates those opportunities with his defense. OKC can continue to use him as a screener, although opponents with good perimeter defenders can easily phase that out with switches in the playoffs. And even though he can occasionally fling the ball indiscriminately at the rim in the face of any pressure down low, the closer the Thunder situate Roberson to the paint, the more the defense is forced to pay attention to him.
In December, OKC’s offense underwent some vital anatomical changes. It started with Carmelo Anthony, who has been relegated to a spot-up shooter with killer countermoves. Prior to December, he was touching the ball 62.2 times a game. Since Dec. 1, that figure has dropped to 55.6, with most of the sacrifices coming from the elbow and in the post. He’s also seen decreases in his dribbles per touch and the amount of time he holds the ball.
In the meantime, Westbrook’s touches have skyrocketed from 92.7 to 99.7 per game, as he has slid back to controlling the game at MVP-season levels. To his credit, he is shooting fewer threes, turning the ball over less, and creating more assists.
Although sustainability isn’t a question that applies much to Westbrook, that’s a heavy load to carry for a team with higher aspirations than last year’s squad. George is beginning to shoot the lights out, and the next step for OKC’s offense will be to integrate him in a more structured, consistent manner. Historically, sharing the ball and adjusting their games for others has been a problem for both Westbrook and Melo, so who knows how much more they can bend, or if this can hold. It’ll be strained, and hard to sustain, and it might give them a ceiling. But it’s the best way forward for them.
Again, Roberson can’t shoot. But his value comes from the fact that neither can any of the players he defends. On Christmas Day, he pushed James Harden around like he was a taller Lou Williams.
And come playoff time, the Thunder will need him on the floor. When the Thunder blew their 3-1 lead against the Warriors during the 2015-2016 season, Roberson spent most of Game 6 in foul trouble, allowing Klay Thompson to erupt for 41 points.
Hypothetically, the addition of Paul George should offset Roberson’s importance, but in the age of superteams, every opponent that can give the Thunder trouble will field at least two stars who need to be smothered at all times. Roberson is among the few defenders in the NBA who can legitimately stifle superstars. That’s an invaluable postseason asset.
On the other hand, Roberson undoubtedly shortened the Thunder’s playoff lifespan last season when Houston turned to hack-a-Roberson and he delivered a 3-21 performance for the series. Playing Roberson late, at its core, will always be a gamble.
But you know what? That’s life for every single team in the NBA that’s trying to contend with the Warriors. Their talent advantage makes risk-taking necessary. For Houston, it’s ratcheting up the pace and seeing if they can outscore the true kings of running and gunning. When Cleveland beat them, they turned the game into a slog, and hoped Curry couldn’t punish their big men. An entire city’s hopes came down to Kevin Love’s ability to stop Curry one-on-one for one possession. You play to your strengths, and pray the odds work out. For the Thunder, Roberson is vital to that calculus.