In his prime, Andre Roberson was one of the best defenders that I have seen play the game. His sixth sense for neutralising scoring opportunities meant that he defended in a different way to other Thunder players who have followed him. Paul George was an excellent defender, but his abilities came from his quick reactions and ability to cheat and recover, which made adept at picking off passes in the lane. Robes directed opposing players where the offence could be nullified, It has now been two years since Roberson went down with injury and I feel like it is right to look back on that night against Detroit. Andre likely played his last game on that night two years ago, which is sad and needs to be remembered.
I remember that game in 2018 quite vividly. At that point in time, I was only able to watch a few Thunder games because I did not have my league pass yet. Oklahoma City were rolling during that stretch of games as the ‘Big Three’ had finally seem to click. Russell Westbrook was getting downhill and attacking the rim with force, a different approach from the start of the season where Russell was determined to run the offence for the team instead of playing naturally. Paul George had fitted nicely into that ‘1b’ role where he could play-make, shoot from deep and defend with vigour.
Andre Roberson had also raised his game to another level compared to previous seasons. Roberson consistently took on the other team’s best player and forced them into inefficient shooting nights while setting up George to pick off easy steals. He was the stopper in a complex, unique defensive scheme which I have not seen before.
In the 2017-18 season, Oklahoma City played a defensive coverage in which Roberson was the primary defender who harassed the opposing players into making rash decisions. George would be the next line of defense, the ball thief when the opposition threw errant passes. The last line would be the burly Kiwi, Steven Adams. Adams’ role in the coverage was fairly simple but the rim protector role can go south quickly if the players in front of him do not blow up actions. This coverage is one of the reasons why the Thunder was such an efficient defensive team despite having Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony.
Before that game against Detroit, Andre Roberson was in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. His advanced stats put him in the top level of wing defenders in the league. Andre did not have the highlight plays of thunderous blocks and steals that silence opposing crowds; his form of defence is way more subtle. Roberson accumulated deflections and forces turnovers effortlessly — the athleticism is obviously useful for a player who earns their living on the defensive end — but Roberson’s intelligence enhanced his physical abilities. Roberson was a studious soul, he constantly analysed film and scouting reports to understand the tendencies of opposing players. That combination of physical skill, intelligence and determination meant that Andre was one of the league’s best defenders.
The injury looked innocuous at first sight — it simply looked like Andre had slipped on a wet spot and landed awkwardly. He was moving at full speed into a lob attempt off the pass from Russell Westbrook when his plant leg just went out from under him. I remember watching the action and thinking that Roberson would pick himself up and keep going.
But that never happened. Roberson has traditionally been a player who has played through ailments and injuries, he was rarely forced out of games due to injury. The stretcher came out to get Roberson off the court and it did feel like the Thunder’s chances at winning a title was hugely dented.
The importance of Roberson to the team cannot be overstated. Not only was he an elite defender, he was a glue guy on both ends of the floor which allowed the team to flourish. Losing that type of player, the connective tissue between players is difficult to replace and can determine a season in one single moment.
When the news came out that Roberson suffered a patellar injury, it did feel like the season was over. There would be no way that the Thunder could survive against the Warriors without having a premier defensive stopper who could switch onto Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant and make things difficult. The only hope was that Roberson would come back in a year or so and be even better. That hope has not been founded as it looks like Andre’s career has come to an inconclusive conclusion.
His career was cut short before he even entered his prime — tremendously sad because I genuinely believe that Andre could have been one of the greats. He would have been totally anachronistic to the modern NBA due to his lack of a jump shot, but his skill at stopping opposing teams is undeniable, and it would have surely carried over in the next act of his career.
There has been recent talk of waiving Roberson so that the Thunder can under the luxury tax and avoid incurring additional financial penalties. This might be the logical decision to make for the OKC front office, but it does not feel right. Andre gave the franchise everything during his time with the team, and his tenure with the Thunder should end at a natural conclusion.