The Case for André Roberson as Defensive Player of the Year

The Thunder's André Roberson is so good defensively that it doesn't matter that he's a below average offensive player.

by Michael Pina
Mar 13 2017, 8:15pm

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City Thunder forward/guard André Roberson's weaknesses are magnified in today's NBA. Efficient, high-powered offense is the game's most sought-after and marketable currency, and players who don't fall in line tend to stumble down depth charts or fall out of the league entirely. Specialists are nice, but all-around competence is even better.

Roberson is an outlier. He can't create space for himself, go off the dribble to score, or draw help, and he doesn't stretch the floor or widen driving lanes for his teammates (that last one draws the most ire from critics). Successful conversions aren't the norm even when he's wide open; in the half-court he's a wallflower more often than not, either camped out in the corner, setting a screen, or crashing the glass.

These flaws definitely matter, especially in the playoffs when teams have ample time and opportunity to exploit them. But what Roberson can do deserves an avalanche of admiration. With long arms, quick feet, and the reflexes of a mongoose, he's currently the very best at the very hardest job in the NBA. Each night he's asked to guard one of the best players in the universe: LeBron James, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant—the best of the best of the best.

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He glues himself to guards like C.J. McCollum as they skitter through a complicated web of screens, and goes to war on the wing against physical scorers who were born to abuse players like him. But in most games, Roberson—the most oppressive and effective perimeter defender in basketball—makes slowing down stars look easy.

"I definitely think he should be in the [Defensive Player of the Year] conversation," Thunder head coach Billy Donovan told VICE Sports. "It's not like I see every player, every single game, but just being with him for 60-plus games here, and what he did last year, there's no question he should be in the conversation. He is an incredible defender in a lot of different ways."

The Oklahoma City Thunder allow 5.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when Roberson is on the court. That's impressive, considering a majority of his minutes are purposefully aligned against the other team's top scoring threats.

Only four players average at least 30 minutes per game and shoot below 30 percent behind the three-point line (minimum 100 attempts): Roberson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ricky Rubio, and Marcus Smart. All carry water on defense, but Roberson is the only one whose usage rate is below 10.

"[Roberson] doesn't ask for the ball, doesn't get plays run for him," Chicago Bulls guard Anthony Morrow, Roberson's former teammate, told VICE Sports. "He's kinda just like an old-school, tough, blue-collar kind of player, man. You don't really see that in a lot of young guys."

It'd be convenient if Roberson shot better than 25 percent from the corners and 50 percent from the free-throw line, but how much worse would he be on the defensive side of the ball if his offensive responsibilities increased?

The physical toll of what he does is obvious. Roberson treats every possession like a football snap: he plays through the whistle with more energy than anyone else can, or should. He swoops in to tag rolling bigs, then sprints out to the perimeter with his hand high and his legs positioned to contest a shot or cut off a drive.

Roberson is too slippery for screens, too disciplined for pump fakes, and too determined to give up even in the rare instance where his man skates ahead by half a step.

"One thing for sure: he never gives up on a play," former teammate Cameron Payne told VICE Sports. "If he's beat, he still tries his best to try to contest or try to get back in front of the other guy. He's the only guy I know who doesn't care about offense, man. He just cares about defense. It's crazy to put your mind around it, but that's all he worries about."

If offense and defense were well-balanced commitments, Roberson might not be able to prepare as thoroughly as he does. Even though OKC's game plan is to stick Roberson on the opponent's top threat, he knows there will be moments where he's matched up on a different weapon with a different set of skills, be it due to a switch or the burdensome and complicated reality of transition defense.

So before each game he carefully examines scouting reports prepared by Oklahoma City's staff that outline what he's up against: opponents' tendencies, go-to moves, what they lean on during certain points of the game and on certain areas of the floor. As he crams analysis like he's studying for a quiz, Roberson refreshes his memory with some last-minute video in the locker room.

Take a recent win against the San Antonio Spurs. "My matchup with Kawhi: when he goes left, he likes to do his little fadeaway or a jump shot," Roberson told VICE Sports. "When he goes right, he tries to get to the rim all the way. So it's just little stuff like that."

Little stuff like that.

It's a testament to his otherworldly engagement that Roberson is not only able to stay on the floor but actually help the Thunder succeed, even in subtle ways, when they do have the ball.

"He let us run," Payne told VICE Sports. "It was easier to get out on the break because, I mean, eight times out of ten they're missing shots and we get to push. It's kind of hard to push after a made basket."

The numbers back that up. Oklahoma City averages 13.6 fastbreak points per 100 possessions when Roberson isn't on the floor and 18.8 when he is. A lot of that is because he often shares the court with a demon in mesh shorts. But this team—and its best player—is indeed at their best in the open floor; in that vein Roberson is an above-average complementary piece, even though he has the lowest True Shooting percentage in the league among players with 2,000 minutes.

Roberson was drafted out of the University of Colorado as one of the nation's top rebounders, but in order to carve out a lengthy professional career he needed to morph from a raw athlete with intriguing physical tools (like a 6'11" wingspan) to a remorseless bloodhound with technical proficiency.

According to Synergy Sports, Roberson allows .789 points per possession, which ranks in the 91st percentile. He's graded as "excellent" or "very good" when defending the following play types: pick-and-roll ball-handlers, pick-and-roll roll men, spot-ups, off-screens, hand-offs, and post-ups.

Yes. Post-ups:

He ranks in the 61st percentile in isolation situations, a phenomenal ranking when you consider who he goes up against every night. So much of Roberson's overall work happens long before his man touches the ball, be it a battle for position or him denying a swing pass on the wing. He disrupts so much that can't be measured (yet) with a metric.

But he's also one of the best at contesting shots. Even when he's out of position and ostensibly out of the frame, Roberson will throw up an arm to try and disrupt the shooter's concentration or line of sight.

"Coaches have taught me whichever way you're sliding you throw the hand that's closest to them," Roberson said. "Because every second matters, every little contest matters, every percentage matters when it comes to winning games. It can always come down to a point or two."

You can probably make the case that the Thunder would be worse off with a 40 percent three-point shooter who's about average on defense than they are with Roberson.

Roberson is the rare wing who impacts every one of his team's defensive possessions. The sequences are almost boring at this point: an All-Star will catch a pass, size Roberson up, map out a plan of attack, then either pass out or settle for an inefficient pull-up jumper.

"I've been in the league, this is my ninth year, so I've seen Tony Allen. I've seen Ron Artest," Morrow said. "André is right up there with the best I've ever seen in nine years."

Great players like to say they aren't worried about the first line of defense. Instead, they focus on how the other four opponents will rotate and react to what they do. Roberson is certainly aided by quality pieces at his back—big men Steven Adams and now Taj Gibson are cinderblocks blessed with Olympic athleticism.

Enes Kanter, forever cast as a weak link, is also on this team. On the whole, Oklahoma City allows 108 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, but when he shares the floor with Roberson, the Thunder cough up an incredible 101.6, a number that trails only the San Antonio Spurs in defensive rating. When Kanter is on the floor without Roberson, the Thunder allow 113.2 points per 100 possessions. If there were 40 teams in the NBA, that'd probably rank 40th.

Roberson can't eliminate the best scorers in the league from the equation, but he can sour their experience in ways that make life easier for bigs behind him.

"When you're dealing with great offensive players, like the best in this league, you're not necessarily just gonna shut guys out and prevent them from ever making a shot," Donovan said. "Because I've seen enough great offensive players get really hot and the defense can't do anything about it. But I would say, in my opinion, there's not a guy in the league that does as good of a job from a consistency standpoint, a discipline standpoint, of trying to make it as difficult as he possibly can for who he's guarding."

LeBron James is a worse offensive player when Roberson guards him. Photo by Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Let's contrast how some of the best players in the league have performed against the Thunder when Roberson is on and off the floor:

Kawhi Leonard

Roberson on: 44.8 effective field goal percentage
Roberson off: 54.2

James Harden

On: 27.7
Off: 68.8

LeBron James

On: 43.1
Off: 62.5

DeMar DeRozan

On: 50
Off: 70

Gordon Hayward

On: 40.4
Off: 70

Growing up, Roberson admired Scottie Pippen and Tony Allen for all the ways they made life miserable for whomever they checked. He's quietly entering their company in all the different ways he influences the game, and might be the only player in the entire league whose positive value on the defensive end outweighs his inability to directly threaten opponents on offense.

Nobody approaches his craft with more verve and versatility than Roberson, whose undeniable success and rising confidence still won't allow him to stump for a Defensive Player of the Year campaign.

"I think I deserve to be in the conversation," Roberson told VICE Sports. "But at the same time just let my game do the talking. I just go out there, try to play my game the best I can, do my job for my team, and go out there and get the win. So I feel like winning takes care of itself and everything else will fall into place."

Given how he's played all year, being in the conversation isn't enough.

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