Long Absence Will Show Andre Roberson’s Importance to OKC

Jan 12, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Andre Roberson (21) against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Thunder defeated the Timberwolves 101-96. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 12, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Andre Roberson (21) against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Thunder defeated the Timberwolves 101-96. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports /

There was a play early in Sunday’s unexpected loss to the Brooklyn Nets that perfectly indicates Andre Roberson‘s impact for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook had made a typical offensive gamble – rising up for a lobbed pass that he couldn’t quite reach – and was left out of position to guard his opponent, Donald Sloan. It didn’t matter, as Roberson quickly picked up the smaller, quicker guard, sliding his feet to defend Sloan as he began to dribble toward the basket, staying perfectly in sync. Roberson kept his hands up the whole time and Sloan, locked into trying to score rather than pass to a teammate, rushed into a contested shot near the rim.

At this point, Serge Ibaka was able to slack off his opponent, leaped and swatted Sloan’s misguided shot attempt. Westbrook, finally back on defense, was able to collect the ball and begin the next offensive possession for the Thunder. The final record indicates one block for Ibaka, a missed field goal for Sloan and neither Roberson nor Westbrook are acknowledged for the their outstanding or terrible defensive tendencies, respectively.

Roberson Nets
Roberson Nets /

The much-maligned Roberson is expected to miss about three weeks of action due to a knee sprain that forced him out midway through the Nets game. Oklahoma City will undoubtedly suffer as a result, a claim that many Roberson critics will scoff at. These critics will look at the wing’s paltry per game numbers – 4.9 points, 3.3 rebounds. 0.8 assists – and assume that lack of production can’t possibly have an impact.

The reality is, as been often said before, that Roberson’s impact isn’t one measured in the box score, as clichéd an assessment of a player as “gritty”. But expressions become cliché through overuse, and in Roberson’s case it’s certainly applicable.

Have you noticed how he chases down the opening tip of every game? Sometimes it leads to a score, making it easy to quantify. On other occasions, it’s simply an extra possession for Oklahoma City, one more or less which might mean nothing over the course of a blowout win, or be the crucial difference in a tightly contested game. Roberson’s constant effort leaves nothing to chance.

In the play above, Ibaka will get credit for the blocked shot (and deservedly so) but that defensive play doesn’t happen if not for Roberson’s ability to contain a player so completely. And it’s just one of several that happen over the course of every game.

All of this doesn’t dismiss that you can measure Roberson’s impact. His on/off court numbers suggest that his presence is certainly felt, as the Thunder give up 103.2 points per possession with him on the bench and just 97.5 while he’s on the floor. But even those numbers don’t tell the whole story as Roberson usually shares the floor with starters that, by and large, are better defenders than their reserve counterparts.

Still, Roberson clearly has his faults, particularly on the offensive end. His 27.4 percent rate from three-point range is anemic yet still represents an improvement from last season’s 24.7 percent. He sometimes catches the ball and looks as if a grenade has suddenly been passed to him. On defense, he’s still liable to give up a big game to an opponent, the occasional 30- or 40-point outburst. But that’s life in the NBA as defensive-minded wing that often defends an opposing team’s best scorer and when some nights are simply better than others.

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Those nights are more likely to occur over the next three weeks, during which Oklahoma City plays eight games against, including the Houston Rockets (Jan. 29) and the much-anticipated first matchup of the season against the Golden State Warriors (Feb. 6). The Thunder will line up either Kyle Singler or Anthony Morrow as Roberson’s replacement and you can guarantee that his absence will be particularly felt on these two nights.

For all the criticism that Roberson receives from many of OKC’s fans, he has a role to play and it’s one that he plays to perfection. While Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Enes Kanter fill the stat sheet, Roberson is expected to do the little things that rarely get noticed but have an undeniable impact on the game, the Thunder’s record and their chances at postseason success.

Perhaps the next three weeks will make that more obvious as he watches these games from the bench, unable to chase down a loose ball or force an opponent into a turnover.