The Impact of Andre Roberson’s Injury
On an average NBA Saturday last January, the Thunder were looking to wrap up an Eastern Conference road trip on a high note. OKC found itself at Little Caesar’s Arena (still feels weird not saying the Palace of Auburn Hills) in Detroit, Michigan. Already riding a six-game hot streak entering the game, OKC made easy work of the Pistons most of the night.
Late in the third quarter, with the game was already out of hand, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook dribbled up the court and looked as if he would connect with Andre Roberson on one of their typical back cut alley-oop plays. This time, however, the outcome was not two points, but instead a dark cloud over the rest of the season.
As Roberson went up for the lob, he slipped and came down awkwardly. He’d injured himself attempting to plant to receive Westbrook’s pass. When the diagnosis came back, Thunder fans worst fear came true as he was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a ruptured left patellar tendon. Though Roberson’s impact was not always seen on the stat sheet, his play made OKC a much more complete team.
Roberson, a 6”7” shooting guard, is one of the hardest players to score on in the entire NBA. With a 6”11” wingspan, Roberson is fantastic at using his length to bother most opposing offensive player. He is also deceptively quick, which he uses to his advantage when guarding some of the best point guards in the NBA.
Oklahoma City’s goal for the 2017-18 season was to compete for a championship, and the team truly believed that it had the capabilities behind the firepower of the Westbrook-Paul George-Carmelo Anthony combined with the defensive prowess of Roberson and Steven Adams. When Roberson went down with his injury, the Thunder were never the same.
Before losing Roberson to injury, the Thunder’s defensive efficiency was ranked fifth in the NBA and its field goal percentage allowed was tenth. After Roberson’s injury, OKC’s rankings dropped to 23rd and 24th in field respectively in these categories. Even beyond the analytics, it was evident the Thunder missed Roberson as fans watched the team get picked apart by scorer after scorer after the injury.
As the Thunder hobbled into the playoffs as four seed, many fans attempted to block out the fact that Roberson was out for season, and thus gained a false hope that this Thunder team could compete for a championship.
Game one of the Western Conference first-round matchup with the Utah Jazz propelled that false hope even more, as the Thunder blew out Utah to take a 1-0 lead. After this point, however, it became that the Thunder had no answer for Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell did whatever he wanted all series long and left Thunder fans wondering “Why can’t we guard this guy? He’s just a rookie.”
The answer was actually quite simple. For one thing, at 21 and entering his second season, Mitchell is already one of the best two guards in the league. And for another, Thunder fans forgot about they were missing a top five defender in the league who impacted the game with hustle and heart.
If not for a slippery court Detroit last winter, I guarantee Mitchell would not score 38 points to close out the Thunder in six games. When he first went down, people argued about how big of a deal it would be, simply because they see Roberson airball a free throw or miss all his three-point attempts in a game.
But watching the Thunder hit the self-destruct button after Roberson’s injury taught me one thing about the NBA: offense gets viewers, but defense wins championships.
Even in this current era where it seems offense has overtaken defense on the level of importance, the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors prove that is not the case. The Warriors, celebrated for their prolific offense, also ranked in the top five in almost every major defensive category last season on their way to three titles in four years.
If Roberson returns next season fully recovered, look for the Thunder to make a major splash in the West. Golden State is still the favorite, but Oklahoma City is definitely ready to take a step to the Conference Finals, especially if the defense improves.
Oklahoma City will trot out a projected lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Grant, and Adams. If this lineup has the potential to be one of the best defensive units in the NBA. The acquisition of Dennis Schröder from the Atlanta Hawks also adds a nice element to the defense.
The Thunder missed Roberson even more than anyone expected last year. With their superstar stopper back in lineup, look for Oklahoma City to take huge strides forward in the Western Conference.