The Roberson Project

A lack of shooting is a deadly sin in today’s NBA. With the modified defensive rules and enhanced coach think, non-shooters shrink the space an offense has to operate with their teammates seeing their drives and shot attempts thwarted by oncoming help defenders. Traditional plodding bigs without a jumper have become the coal of the NBA, an outdated form of fueling operations. Playing a pair of bigs with shaky jumpers is taxing for the coaching staff and a team’s perimeter players, but having a non-shooting wing on the floor as well is the near equivalent of a death sentence in the modern NBA where coaches have become more daring and innovative in their defensive game planning.

The cramped floor has manifested with the Oklahoma City Thunder and its starting lineup that trots out two bigs in Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka, accompanied by perhaps the worst wing shooter in the league in Andre Roberson. Add in Russell Westbrook’s rickety jumper and suddenly the Thunder have just one starter with a respectable 3-point shot. As if the lack of shooting didn’t already cause enough spacing problems, OKC’s reliance on standard pick-and-rolls and isolation offense doesn’t alleviate any congestion. Ditto for the smartest and longest defense in the NBA in the Warriors, which feasts on opposing team’s weaknesses like a pack of wolves.

Roberson’s absent jumpshot has seen Golden State forward Draymond Green display his defensive talents as if he’s in the NFL, roaming around as a “free safety” to jut into passing lane and seal up fissures in a rotating defense. The strategy has left Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook overseeing an obstacle course of defenders if either dares a drive to the rim in the half court.

KDcongestion

Roberson’s offensive impact, or lack thereof, has been futile in the Thunder’s attempt at a Finals berth with the Thunder posting an 89.9 offensive rating when he’s on the court, the worst mark of anyone on the team by a considerable margin. Even with a star duo of basketball deities in Durant and Westbrook, OKC’s offense has been reduced to a slog with Roberson on the court, but has transformed into a scorching flame with him off of it. Per ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton’s research on nbawowy, OKC has an offensive rating of 87.7 with Roberson accompanying Westbrook and Durant on the floor, but a blistering 124.6 rating when the star pairing isn’t sharing the court with Roberson. Roberson’s presence has warped the team’s spacing and forced Durant and Westbrook to operate in tight spaces with additional bodies and hands obstructing their paths. Their efficiency in terms of shooting and playmaking has severely waned per further nbawowy research.

Durant eFG% Westbrook eFG% Durant turnover rate Westbrook turnover rate
W/ Roberson on the court 41.2 27.8 9.6 5.5
W/o Roberson on the court 50 42.3 4.9 1.6

The offensive issues created by Roberson are obvious. This isn’t some revelation in the often-criticized mind of head coach Billy Donovan. Donovan has gained respect with his adjustments in the playoffs, slaying the immortal Gregg Popovich and stealing Game 1 in Oracle, and he’s tried altering Roberson’s role in the offense to force Golden State to acknowledge the Thunder are actually playing with five guys. Mostly the attempts have stalled as Steve Kerr and the Warriors won’t budge from their strategy of ignorance until not defending Roberson seriously costs them.

Roberson has cut into the paint for easy scores and flown inside to keep an offensive rebound alive at times when his defender is off doing something else, like gumming up the OKC offense, joking with a teammate on the bench or making a turkey sandwich. But Roberson hasn’t burned the Warriors nearly enough times to get them to notice him.

Roberson could amp up his off-ball cuts, particularly when Westbrook or Durant dribble into the lane drawing the attention of four defenders, but cutting is tricky; not everyone is a savant in the department a la Dwyane Wade. An uptick in Roberson’s cutting frequency, risks crowding Durant or Westbrook after they masterfully evade a defender or clogging up a secondary action if OKC reverses the ball quickly. There is also the issue of Roberson’s cuts leaving OKC’s transition defense vulnerable if he’s hanging around the basket when Golden State grabs a rebound instead of getting back on defense. Off-ball cutting is detail-orientated and there are layers of timing, spacing and communication to account for. However, Roberson should dart to the rim more often as the series heads to Oklahoma City as its more distracting and potentially damaging to the Warriors than him chilling in the corner with the gravity of a lawn chair.

In fact, OKC could move Roberson into the dunker role on offense with him lingering on the baseline awaiting close-range dump offs from Westbrook and Durant for easy layups. With two bigs on the court already, these spots are naturally filled, but the Thunder could be better served by flipping the roles of Roberson and Ibaka with the starting unit as Ibaka is a more threatening perimeter shooter.

Donovan had Roberson act more as a screener in Game 2 in hopes it would force the Warriors to defend him as the roll man in pick-and-rolls and hug closer to him when he set pindown screens for Durant. Golden State can’t risk Durant bursting off a pindown or charging downhill in pick-and-rolls unfettered. However, even when Golden State was caught off guard by Roberson’s screening, they possess the speed, length and communication to recover, knowing they can overplay Durant and Westbrook without conceding a possible pick-and-pop 3 or rolling dunk as a result.

Despite limited success, expect Donovan to continue the strategy moving forward with a few potential tweaks to increase its effectiveness.

Among those tweaks, may be having Westbrook or Durant initiate an attack before whipping the ball around with a quick reversal to the other as Roberson sets a fade screen, pindown or becomes the screener in a traditional pick-and-roll against a scrambling the defense. This would force the Warriors to execute rotations on the move, a tough assignment for any defense. Golden State may still snuff out OKC’s scoring chances with Roberson again proving to be a liability, but it pushes the Warriors’ defense closer to its breaking point.

Another possible avenue toward forcing Golden State to play Roberson is having him setup the offense or be the ballhandler in the primary action. In Game 2, the Warriors gave Roberson plenty of space to oversee his options in the few instances he initiated offense; of course, the problem was those options were draped in an additional layer of help defense.

Robersonpoint

However, what if Roberson acted as a ballhandler and actual scoring threat in these situations to occupy the defense. Roberson could engage in a pick-and-roll with Westbrook bolting off a curl screen and Durant spacing the floor as a catch and shoot threat. Or perhaps an off-ball screening action involving Westbrook and Durant together. It’s something worth exploring and experimenting with for Donovan, and it would be interesting if Golden State would mostly let Roberson operate in space or blitz a novice ballhandler, swiping at the ball and gambling in passing lanes in an effort to create easy fast break scores. For Donovan, it may not seem ideal to take the ball out of his stars’ hands and invest it in Roberson’s, but the entire situation with Roberson isn’t ideal. If it’s a failure, you’re back to square one; if it works, you’ve discovered something that could flummox Golden State just long enough to get a few more buckets and possibly steal another game.

Of course, there is a very real possibility Donovan is going crazy working the gymnastics in his mind of inverting his offense to account for Roberson’s poor shooting and simply benches him or at least has him play with the second unit against less potent Golden State lineups. Having Roberson defend Steph Curry or Klay Thompson when they share the court with bench lineups would be a way to still maximize what Roberson provides on defense without his lackluster offense putting OKC in a hole. Lineups with Barnes, Livingston, Ezeli, Speights, etc. aren’t as likely to light up the scoreboard as ones that consist of the Curry/Thompson/Green trio, allowing the Thunder to dip some as well on the offensive end.

Roberson provides value with his defense. He plays hard and possesses nice athleticism, and against an offense like the Warriors, a team needs all the effective defenders it can get. But if Donovan can’t find a way to make Roberson enough of an offensive threat to the point where Golden State has to actually somewhat guard him, it may be time to turn to Dion Waiters or one of OKC’s other failed wing experiments.

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