OKLAHOMA CITY — Andre Roberson should save these last few games for his résumé.
Of course, he hasn’t played. But that's the point.
The Oklahoma City Thunder defensive stopper has missed the team’s previous four games because of left patellar tendinitis. The Thunder expect him to miss at least the next two, a back-to-back starting Tuesday vs. the Portland Trail Blazers and at the Minnesota Timberwolves. The team is yet to pinpoint an exact return date.
But that day can’t come soon enough. The defense has fallen off without its arguable best player. And it’s no coincidence.
The Thunder have allowed 11.4 more points per 100 possessions in the four games since Roberson, who made All-Defensive Second Team a year ago, last played. Provided he compiles enough minutes this season, he could have a case for more impressive accolades come the spring.
Oklahoma City is fresh off a Sunday performance during which it showed sores against the hapless Phoenix Suns, who dropped 17 3-pointers in a 114-100 victory. The Thunder are now allowing 108.5 points per 100 possessions when Roberson is off the floor this season. They allow a stingy 96.5 points per 100 when Roberson is playing.
For reference, a 96.5 defensive efficiency would be easily the NBA’s best if it belonged to a team. In fact, it would be the league’s most impressive since 2011-12, a lockout-shortened season when offense was down around the NBA. If you consider that season an outlier, the last time a team posted a defensive efficiency so low was in 2007-08, when the eventual champion Boston Celtics peeved opponents to a 96.2.
On the other side, a 108.5 defensive efficiency is that of this season's 27th-ranked Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks.
“Dre brings a lot defensively,” Paul George said. “We got young guys that are trying to fill his role defensively. We miss Dre on that defensive end, but we also got guys that have stepped up and have played well.”
George has received much of the talk regarding Defensive Player of the Year this season. Not much has angled toward Roberson.
Yet, it’s Roberson who often defends the opposing team’s toughest ball-handler most nights. There are reasons beyond pure hierarchy for that. George can better impose his length and Troy Polamalu-like abilities in passing lanes while playing off the ball. There are few around the NBA who can make an impact in a similar fashion.
But Roberson helps put him in those positions.
Coach Billy Donovan gives a consistent reason for the Thunder’s high takeaway numbers: they funnel ball-handlers to uncomfortable areas of the floor as well as any other defense. Specifically, they drive dribblers away from the middle and into awkward spots which allow other defenders to get their hands on passes without having to gamble. Being able to force steals out of rotations, not out of riskily jumping passingly lanes, is rare. George masters it. So do the Thunder.
It’s how OKC has run to the league lead in deflections, steals and loose balls recovered.
But it hasn’t kept those numbers high without Roberson
“The ball [is] going wherever it wants to go,” Donovan said. “That’s where you start getting in trouble and you start to see those numbers of steals come down. We’ve got to do a better job there.”
The Thunder force far fewer steals with Roberson off the floor. The deflections are down. The loose balls recovered plummet.
The Thunder couldn’t play the type of switchy defense they deploy if Roberson weren’t there to begin. Steven Adams lauds the way he reacts as soon as someone communicates a coverage to him.
“We 100 percent need the guy because of that reason. And it’s just the small things that just start snowballing,” Adams said. “He makes that extra one step that’ll stop that player and that possession. He’ll just cut off that whole play. Stuff like that that really kind of pays off and makes everyone else’s job easier.”
It’s Adams’ favorite part about Roberson.
“That’s the only reason Dre is great for me, personally,” he joked. “Because Dre, he just listens to me a lot. Any call I make, he’s just like, ‘Bam! Bam!”
The Thunder couldn’t switch as happily without Roberson’s length, feet or versatility. They couldn’t use George off the ball nearly as often or comfortably. After all, they tried sticking rookie Terrance Ferguson on the Suns’ big-time scorer, Devin Booker, Sunday night. It didn’t work. Booker got hot, George moved onto him later and the soon-to-be star never cooled.
If Roberson’s there, that process is different. So is much else. And it’s not like the shooting or free-throw woes have hurt the Thunder enough to off-set what he does in preventing opponents from scoring. The Thunder are a notable 8.3 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor compared to off it.
Regardless of the offensive flaws, the Thunder certainly can’t wait for his return.
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.