- Andre Roberson was the linchpin of the Thunder's starting lineup until a knee injury sidelined him for the season. How does OKC go about filling his void? It's a position NBA teams dread.
How could a player averaging five points per game become so vital to a modern superteam? In the latest episode of the Breakaway podcast, Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson helps articulate the value of a first-rate defender—both with his presence and his absence.
Rob Mahoney: Every player in the league has a vision for the end of their season. If it’s not a trophy or a podium, then maybe it’s a hard-fought series with a noble end. It could be a new contract. Or even just some proof to the world that they belong. It’s a statement—about how they play and by extension, who they are.
It goes without saying that these visions don’t often come true. The vast majority of players will always fall short, even if it’s for reasons beyond their control. Failure is a part of the deal. You get the tears and the relief and the champagne when you win because the game is set up for you to lose. There are 29 teams and yours. There are over 400 qualified players … and then there’s you. It’s pretty clear that not everyone goes home happy. So most of the time, you make your peace by doing what you can. You play out the year, you take advantage of whatever opportunities come your way and you hope beyond hope for anything but this:
For Andre Roberson, that was it. One moment he was cutting down the baseline for what looked like a wide open dunk, and the next he was being carted off on a stretcher with his leg immobilized. Even if he didn’t know it just then, his season was over. It died that night in Detroit, with his team up 25 points, and his patellar tendon ruptured.
Roberson’s story takes him through the tunnel and to the hospital—and the worst of it is really yet to come. If you want to get a sense of what he’ll be going through over the next few months, check out an episode we did last season, entitled “Injury”, with Lakers forward Julius Randle. There’s really a lot to unpack, both mentally and physically, for a player coming back from a serious leg injury.
Randle: It was painful cause you can't really bend your knee. So you just feel jammed up. If you do bend your knee, it's like a, feels like your knee is about to burst.
Mahoney: But it’s at this point that Roberson and the Thunder effectively go their separate ways. Oklahoma City still has a lot to play for. And the first step in doing that is figuring out how the team functions without its best defender. They’ve got Russell Westbrook, they’ve got Paul George, they’ve got Steven Adams and Carmelo Anthony—and then there’s this void. This is the first time in years that the Thunder won’t have the luxury of throwing Roberson at whatever scorer is giving them problems. And because of that, they’re forced to confront the fact that this guy that was averaging five points a game has become a sort of lynchpin for their team.
Westbrook said it himself.
Westbrook: I think people outside our building, people across the world always complained about different things Andre didn’t do instead of embracing all the great things he did do. I’ve always embraced Andre and I was always very, very happy he was on my team because of things he did on both sides of the ball. Setting screens, cutting, running the floor. A lot of things that you can’t teach. He’s definitely—that’s a big part of our team and our success.
Mahoney: This crucial piece is missing. And the only way to understand how to replace it is to first grapple with what exactly the Thunder have lost.
I’m Rob Mahoney and you’re listening to Breakaway.
Mahoney: Before Roberson became one of the NBA’s best individual defenders, he was a rookie on a stacked Thunder team who couldn’t really get into the game.
Roberson: I came into the league, eyes open just trying to be a sponge. Trying to soak up as much stuff as possible. I didn't really play that much my first year, so that's why I just did a lot of off-the-court stuff, looking at film, studying certain guys, offensively and defensively.
Mahoney: Roberson watched Tony Allen, whose ferocity made 6-4 seem like 6-8. He honed in on Kawhi Leonard, who in his third season gave LeBron James all he could handle. His subjects on film were the kind of defenders who never stopped.
Roberson: Y’know, defenders like that that are just tenacious and always constantly in pursuit—that I kinda watched and just kinda learned techniques from. I just kinda put it toward my game a little bit.
Mahoney: These were Roberson’s role models, and a pair of superstars his training partners. Roberson cut his teeth checking some of the league’s most unguardable players in practice. One day it would be Kevin Durant, whose height requires a perfect contest for a defender to have any influence at all. The next it would be Russell Westbrook, whose speed demands perfect footwork and positioning at all times. Between the film curriculum and the on-court practical, this was a perfect environment for grooming an elite defender. But it only really worked to the extent that it did because Roberson had ...
Roberson: God-given abilities. Athleticism, length. Pursuit, relentlessness, stuff like that.
Mahoney: You know, the makeup. The best-schooled, hardest-working defender can’t do what Roberson does because they probably don’t have a 6-11 wingspan. And they definitely don’t have his instincts. Roberson’s raw materials, both physically and mentally, are perfectly suited for locked-in defense. So he became a stopper—the latest in a long line of specialists whose primary job is to terrorize top scorers. It’s difficult, it’s thankless and it’s the difference between winning and losing games that matter. This is how Billy Donovan, the coach of the Thunder, spoke of Roberson when he was asked about his defense last season:
Donovan: I don't know if people understand or realize how hard his job is and how hard he has to work to do what he does. Y'know, it's every night it's a different guy. Tonight it was LeBron James. But it could be Harden. It's just every night there's somebody that he's facing. Damian Lillard, McCollum. The list goes on and on. And I've said this: When you're playing against really, really good offensive players, great offense always beats great defense. But you're not gonna find a guy in this league, in my opinion, that works any harder to make things as difficult as he possibly can. And a guy that doesn't get discouraged when the shot-making ability of a LeBron James or a Damian Lillard or a McCollum—whoever it may be, when the ball goes in the basket. Like, he can live with it and move on and know he's done his best. But he, every possession, gives his heart and soul to playing defense. I mean, getting over screens, fighting pick-and-roll coverage, bodying in the low post, trying to keep guys off the backboard.
Donovan: I'm not gonna sit there and say that he just shuts everybody down. What I'm saying is: I don't know if there's a player in the NBA that makes it more difficult on high-octane scorers than he does.
Mahoney: And Donovan was right. If the other team has an All-NBA-caliber player on the perimeter, Roberson is the guy you want guarding them. It doesn’t really matter what position they play or even what style. Roberson makes it work. He takes this inherently futile enterprise and he completely dedicates himself to it. Stars will get theirs. But Roberson challenges every angle along the way, inserting himself into the action where other players can’t.
Think for a moment about what a perfect defensive play looks like. For you, maybe it’s shutting down a series of one-on-one moves. Or a well-timed rotation to block a shot. Those are great, but in the modern NBA, the real battleground of every possession comes at the point of the screen. Whether the offense is running pick-and-roll or more motion-ey, off-ball stuff, how a defender navigates around a screen dictates everything.
That’s not gonna make SportsCenter. It’s really not even great for NBA die-hards who are putting clips on YouTube or churning out animated gifs. But it’s the kind of thing your coach tends to notice when they see it time and time again.
Donovan: There’s a lot of great defenders in this league. I think he’s certainly right up there with the best of them—if not THE best. I’m biased. I work with him every day. I know his commitment. I see what he does on film. I study it. I watch it. I see the impact he makes. I see things that are not—and don’t go in the stat sheet that he does that are really, really impactful. Like, you can’t—there’s no stat at the end of a game of how many pick-and-rolls this guy was in and how many screens he actually got over with being able to get Steven Adams out of coverage so he can get back to his man on a roll. Or how many times he’s running along the baseline, he’s chasing shooters off screens.
Mahoney: And this is where Roberson is an absolute star. Any player good enough for Roberson to be guarding them is usually a dangerous shooter—the kind that can’t be given daylight on the far side of a screen. So it’s Roberson’s job to wedge himself in there, somehow preventing his man from turning the corner without reaching so much that he fouls. Even that little thing seems kind of impossible. And it all goes down within a fraction of a second, in the tiny space between an expert foul-drawing creator and a screener resolved to hit Roberson with a brick wall. Things can get tricky.
Roberson: Being one of the, y’know, top premier defenders in the league, y'know, when you're on their guy and you're riding them tough, y'know, bigs like to go in there and try to lay some wood on you. You've gotta constantly fight through that. It gets chippy at times, but it's fun. Just battling through nicks and bruises and stuff like that, but it's the price you pay.
Mahoney: It comes with defending in the trenches. NBA refs are better at officiating screens now than they were five years ago, but screeners still wisely do everything they can to toe the line of what’s technically allowed.
Roberson: But y'know, as you can kinda see, they'll set it and then they'll kinda use their hips a little bit to make you go wider. Or they use their hands to kind of push off and kinda use momentum as well as you going that way and kinda basically a two-on-one. Or, y'know, they kinda make double screens with certain guys. Sometimes they put a guard in it with a big, just kinda switch it up and making things different or trying to make us miscommunicate with guard-and-guard switching. Stuff like that. It's just a lot of tricks and trades in the game that you've gotta battle with and be locked in.
Mahoney: It’s important to remember that Roberson never really prepared for this. When he was growing up, the NBA was playing an entirely different game—one that was driven by isolation play and with much less extreme spacing. The idea that you might need to chase a guard over a screen 25 feet from the basket would have seemed insane. Now, that’s just Wednesday.
And because of that, this kind of defensive role has never been more difficult. The iso NBA of the 90s and early 2000s set up basketball as a duel. It was Kobe Bryant and Bruce Bowen, locked in a staredown. Every jab step was like the twitch of a trigger finger. Each player got the measure of his opponent, bided his time and made his move.
That must be nice. Because if you’re guarding a premiere scorer today, odds are that you’ve been run through two or three screens before your man ever touches the ball, and when he finally does, he has the momentum of the entire possession carrying him. Most defenders are a step or two behind before the action even really starts. But not Roberson. This is one of the most unscreenable players in the league—someone who not only can slink his way through tight spaces, but has the length to shade a play from behind.
Roberson: I mean, it's definitely a game within a game—fighting through screens and kinda wedging yourself in there. Definitely, back in the day, it was kinda more my, more my game is, y'know, hand-check a guy all the way down the court. Putting in your hand and kinda controlling a player a little bit. But now, today, you can't really touch 'em. You've gotta use more of your feet and your smarts to kinda get around stuff.
Roberson: It's a lot of going over nowadays, but at the same time, you've still gotta switch it up. The way they set screens, it kinda forces you to go underneath. And most of the time they'll probably re-pick with a step-up. But most of the time I can kinda make it look like I'm going over to where they try to shed the screen a little bit more that way, and at the last second go underneath. Or just in reading it, sometimes they're just flying off of it so hard, it's hard to get it—it's hard to stop and shoot the ball like that. And then me being able to still kinda contest late at the end.
Mahoney: When a ball handler does manage to get past Roberson, there’s this flash of relief. Finally, they can read the floor without this guy jamming up their dribble. There’s actually a lane to drive or to pass—this golden opportunity that Roberson would otherwise take away. So they make their reads, they shimmy around whatever big man has rotated in front of them, and when they finally commit to shoot, they see Roberson leaping into view, swatting at the ball from behind. And once Roberson does that, the defender always knows he’s there. Even when he’s not right in front of them, he’s in the back of their heads.
That mind game can be just as powerful as the blocks and deflections themselves.
Roberson: Usually it's a pump fake. When they start throwing a lot of pump fakes trying to get you up off your feet, that's when I know I got 'em. Cause usually I can, I can stay down and, y'know, contest easily using my length on the shot. Or when they're talking to the refs. That's a big sign. Talking to the refs, calling for fouls. They're worried about the wrong things instead of worrying about the team and staying in the moment. When I see those two things, that's for sure a sign that I got 'em.
Mahoney: And now, that’s gone. Most of Roberson’s assignments will go to Paul George or Terrance Ferguson. Maybe Josh Huestis. But none of those options work in the same way. Ferguson and Huestis are definitely committed, but they’re not reading the game at the same level Roberson did. A huge part of Roberson’s work involves identifying plays while they’re still developing, and finding ways to undermine them. Like, just as a hypothetical, a crosscourt inbound pass to Gary Harris for a buzzer-beating three. I mean, this is how Roberson experiences an average defensive possession:
Roberson: You can just kind of sense what's gonna happen, depending on the team you play.
Roberson: I kinda see how the floor is spaced out. See if a big's high, my man's in the corner, stuff like that. Most of the time, it's kinda like a floppy action, or a down screen to my man in the corner. It just depends. You've gotta read how the floor is set up, to be honest, and know who you're guarding. Most of the time the ball's gonna come to them, so you've just basically gotta recognize who's on the spot, who on the floor, as well as staying in our team defense. So you've gotta kind sniff it out before it happens. But I kinda learn the actions now throughout the years to where I know what plays are for who and what actions certain players like. So I kinda, like, see what's coming before it happens. Yeah, it just comes with time.
Roberson: Just figuring the ins and outs. I watch film every day. Guys here do a great job of putting scouting reports together, and you gotta sit down and lock in and look at tendencies. What guy does this, what guy does that, and which way he likes to go. Certain plays, certain actions for them, so it's just a lot that goes into it. You're constantly thinking and constantly on the run. So it’s fun.
Mahoney: George has that kind of awareness, but he’s not as relentless as Roberson, which completely changes the personality of his coverage. To the extent that we talk about defense at all, we tend to generalize. We lump guys into groups based on a kind of global understanding of how effective they are. Here are the elite defenders, here are the pretty good ones and here are the guys everyone makes fun of on Twitter.
But within defense—and even within perimeter defense—is an entire skill set. The same way you could break down a player’s offensive game into pull-up shooting and off-hand dribbling and pick-and-roll passing applies to defense just the same. Instead, it’s closeouts, and positioning and staying down on pump fakes. Some defenders love to gamble, while others prefer to stay home. Some play up in their opponent’s jersey, while others know how to close the gap. That specificity matters, because in most cases, the outcome of a possession is decided on that kind of granular level. All of which makes the idea of replacing Roberson even more complex.
Mahoney: What made the Thunder one of the best defensive teams in the NBA this season was the way their talents compounded. It’s great to have Roberson and it’s great to have George. But it’s an incredible luxury to have both—to have two versatile defenders not only operating at that level, but complementing one another. Roberson could stifle action on the ball, forcing opponents into their second or third options. And George would wreak havoc in space, denying lanes and turning every deflection into a fast break. If their matchups didn’t work, they could swap without surrendering much at all. Everything from the assignments to their approach was completely adaptable.
Roberson: And that's one thing I learned: Every night you've gotta play a different style. Certain guys you can be more aggressive, certain guys you've gotta back off and be a little more finesse. So that's definitely art, just switching it up every night.
And by that same logic, no one defender is going to be ideal for every occasion. Some are better at the aggressive, some are better at the finesse. So having both Roberson and George worked as a double safeguard. It made a strong front seem impenetrable.
Circumventing that front took real effort for Thunder opponents. Before even really getting into their offense, teams would throw targeted screens at Roberson, hoping to trigger certain switches.
Roberson: They're kinda manipulating our defense. Like I said, all five guys gotta work together. And usually, how they wanna get me off a guy is see who I'm switching with out there on the floor. So usually it's like 1 through 4 or 1 through 3, we switch. And they bring a guy into a pick-and-roll knowing we're gonna switch, and then they run the play from there.
Mahoney: And if Roberson could avoid a screen or two, an offense could easily run six or seven seconds off the shot clock without accomplishing anything at all. His impact was cumulative. With a stall here and a disruption there, Roberson could throw off the timing of the offense and spoil their scoring attempt. You can’t just replicate that kind of thing piecemeal now that he’s out of the lineup.
All this might seem like a bit much for a role player—especially one whose poor shooting from both three-point range and from the free throw line have created real problems. But it all makes sense when you’ve seen what happens to the Thunder when Roberson isn’t on the floor. Put him in the mix and Oklahoma City blows out its opponents. We’re talking about a double-digit margin after you adjust for pace. Take him out, and everything is a coin toss—the Thunder become a break-even team that really needs their more difficult shots to fall.
And that’s how a guy who can’t shoot and won’t score winds up with the highest net rating on a star-laden team—and one of the highest net ratings in the NBA, period. Plugging Ferguson or Abrines into the starting lineup just hasn’t worked; a group that should be a huge advantage for the Thunder folds under its inability to get stops.
Think about it this way: The difference between the best defense in the league and the worst defense in the league is about 10 points per 100 possessions. But plug any of Ferguson, Abrines or Huestis in place of Roberson, and the Thunder defense drops by about 15 or 20 points right there.
There was really an artful balance to the Thunder starters when Roberson was healthy. With him taking the toughest defensive assignments and Russell Westbrook doing a lot of the heavy lifting offensively, Paul George fell into this comfortable flex role. Carmelo Anthony was saved from himself by having teammates who could create and bailed out defensively in the fact that George could slide between both forward spots. On top of that, the combination of George and Roberson simplified things for Steven Adams, who could trust in the reliability of their coverage. It’s much easier to help when the guys on the ball are actually containing the play. And in return, Adams helped set the scene for Roberson by communicating exactly what was going on.
Roberson: They gotta be my eyes in the back of my head. I’m locked in, most of the time, top of the key. Y’know, locked into the guy. Don't know whether I'm on an isolation or a pick-and-roll, so you've gotta constantly be locked in. But coverages switch up from game to game, and with certain people as well.
Mahoney: Hence why the communication was so important. Roberson needed to know what was coming so he knew how to react. That’s where Adams came in.
Roberson: With Steve, most of the time it's pick-and-roll. If it's a smaller guy, you're "red," which is a switch. Which kind of changes your feet and how you kinda play defense. If it's big, you kinda want to angle them down toward them and kind of press into them. In the game, it just happens so fast. Split second, mess your feet up, and it's downhill. It's just that split second they get a whip pass for a three.
Mahoney: That technique can be the difference between a stop and a breakdown. Or in a broader sense: the difference between starting a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and a 19-year-old rookie.
It’s worth noting, too, that the defense with Roberson wasn’t just stingier overall, it created significantly more turnovers, which then fed back into the Thunder offense. That’s a big deal for a team that tends to underwhelm in the halfcourt.
Roberson’s lack of shooting is an issue there and would be an even bigger one in the playoffs. But there’s something to be said about the fact that he doesn’t really want the ball, and what that leaves on the table for Westbrook, George and Anthony. The harmony between those three scorers is made possible by the fact that Roberson is really only focused on defense. That disposition is a gift.
Last season on Breakaway, we spoke with Warriors assistant coach and resident philosopher Ron Adams, who had this to say about the psychology of dedicating yourself to defense:
Adams So, defensively, obviously we're all connected. What one person does, everyone else has to adjust to. When one person moves, in the best of worlds everyone moves. It doesn't always happen. It's what we strive for. I think defensively, through this, this aspect of connectedness, this concept of connectedness, it's very altruistic. We do something for someone else that's not glamorous. Offense is glamorous. Offense is—except to the purists—offense is notable, to the public. Defense is kind of what all of us have to do in life to not only live good lives, but to make other people's lives better. I think it's a giving thing.
Mahoney: Roberson misses threes and airballs free throws, but he also gives and gives and gives. His game is so completely unassuming. On one end of the court, he digs into a role where failure is inevitable, only to take his lumps and try again next time. On the other, he quietly looks for ways to contribute without getting in the way. It’s cruel that Roberson blew out his knee doing just that—cutting backdoor for a lob to take advantage of the defense’s inattention. Of all the ways his lack of shooting could have hurt the Thunder, this has to be the absolute worst.
Mahoney: Here’s the cold truth: The Thunder were always going to have to learn to win without Andre Roberson. Some playoff opponent was going to push its coverage to the point that his lack of shooting became untenable. Or if not, they might start hacking Roberson intentionally, reducing the entire Thunder offense to the work of a 32% foul shooter. The incentives to marginalize Roberson were too high. He was so good defensively that almost any workaround was worth pursuing. Any means of getting him out of a play or off the floor could change the momentum of a game.
So what Oklahoma City is really missing here is choice. Even when opponents tried to pressure the Thunder into taking Roberson out, Donovan and his staff could have weighed those tradeoffs carefully. In some situations, they might have obliged. In others, they might have decided to live with costs, particularly in the case of the most dangerous superstar matchups. When you’re lined up against, say, James Harden, you want someone on the front lines who completely understands the ins and outs of that assignment. Roberson had it down pat—at least as much as a player could.
Roberson: It’s tough, but try not to let him get downhill. Blow-by, at the top of the key. That definitely puts the defense in a bind. Secondly, when the pick-and-roll comes—most of the time he uses pick-and-roll, he's a great, great, great pick-and-roll maestro—you've gotta kinda like fight over the screen, but not be too aggressive cause he's great at drawing fouls with the reaches. Or if you give him too much bump over the screen, he can kinda flop out of it, which he does a real good job at.
Roberson: It's just a fine art to it. It's a balance. You've gotta, like I said, be aggressive, be finesse. He's just so great at manipulating the pick-and-roll so if you put two on the ball, he's got spot-up shooters. Trevor Ariza. Eric Gordon. Clint Capela and Nene putting pressure at the rim with the lobs, so you've gotta balance everything.
Roberson: The things you've gotta worry about is: Is he taking contested shots or is he taking wide open shots? And that's what you've gotta worry about. We're living with contested shots. If we're doing the right things in the coverage and we got a hand up in his face and he still makes it? Pat him on the butt, go down the other way.
Mahoney: You’re not gonna find a defender with that kind of rigor just anywhere. They’ll be hard to trade for. They’re not buyout candidates, and they’re not just sitting around, unsigned, either. Roberson, for all his flaws, inked a three-year, $30 million contract with the Thunder last summer—and you could argue it was a relative bargain. So your options for replacing Roberson are actually quite slim. That’s part of why his injury was so unfortunate. He might be the fifth-most important player on the Thunder, but what he brings to the team is too unique to be easily replicated.
Keep in mind that in this realm of play, Roberson is top-notch, one of the very best in the league to do what he does. An average defender is replaceable. An above-average defender, still pretty replaceable. But when you reach a certain level, you’re talking about the equivalent of replacing a prime scorer. It’s just on the other side of the ball.
So without many alternatives, it probably makes the most sense for the Thunder to fine-tune the lineups they already have. Every team has some kind of guiding structure to its defense. But what makes personnel so important and so specific is that every player fails in their own way. The best team defenses anticipate those failures. They know which teammates tend to get caught on screens. They know which actions tend to trip them up as a unit. They know which guards can handle themselves in the post and won’t need the help of a double team. It’s the kind of thing that’s only possible with a deep familiarity. To get to that point, the Thunder need to shuffle their responsibilities around a little bit and then execute in the hopes of more reliable coverage.
It’s not easy. But it’s really the best option they’ve got. Because what a defense really needs—even beyond defenders like Roberson—is trust.
Roberson: You've gotta trust everybody out there on the court, that they're gonna be in the right spots, right positions. Y’know, if one guy messes up, the whole defense fails. So you've just gotta rely on our defensive schemes and have each other's back in rotations.
Mahoney: This is where Roberson started diagramming those rotations on the table. So the noises you hear are his lo-fi telestration.
Roberson: Two guys on the ball, pick-and-roll, this other guy gotta pull over, somebody gotta have a second bottom pull-over, most of the time there's a guy in the corner. We don't like to give up corner threes, the way our defense is, so basically those two guys on the back side are guarding three people: so the guy rolling, the guy on the back side, and the guy in the corner. You've gotta be locked in, and always constantly thinking and scrambling rotations.
Mahoney: A guy like Ferguson, he’s not going to magically transform into all-league defender. But maybe with more reps, he won’t look like quite so much like a rookie out there. Maybe the rest of the team can better understand how he plays and where he’s likely to stumble. So far, his biggest mistakes have mostly been products of inexperience. This was Billy Donovan’s diagnosis of Ferguson’s defense back in January:
Donovan: He has great defensive ability and talent, but I think he's gotta get a lot more disciplined. Y'know, I am encouraged with him because of that, because I think of the way he plays. He cares. He's a hard worker. And he's a really quick learner. I think the more opportunities he's playing against some of these guys, the more he's gonna get the experience. I think the biggest thing for him is just getting out of position, jumping around too much, lunging around. He's so energetic and hyped up, he's all over the place. And if we can get him to funnel that energy, y'know, in a way that would allow him to really utilize his length and his athleticism, that would really help us defensively.
Mahoney: Coaching a rookie—and especially one as green as Ferguson—means trying to see the future. Obviously, rookies make a ton of mistakes. They don’t know the calls, they don’t know the league. They get lost in rotations, they don’t get the timing. The quality of play is so much higher than anything they’ve ever experienced before. And so they’re really starting out from a place of liability. The goal is to work that liability into something manageable. And to do that, coaches and executives don’t just watch the player, they look for the bones of who that player might become. That’s where Ferguson’s play is at least a little encouraging.
Donovan: Well, I think for me, the defensive part comes to two things. One is you have great feet. And two, will he physically put his body in plays. Because when you become a great defender, you're gonna have to fight over pick-and-roll, you're gonna have to fight over screening actions, and you're probably gonna have to fight in the post. So, if you have great feet but you don't have the physical part, it's really hard to become a great defender. If you have the physical part but not great feet, it's still hard. He's got both. He's not afraid to put his body in plays and he's got really, really good feet—and he's physical. As he learns the league, that gives me the confidence that he's gonna be a really, really good defender, 'cause I can see him getting over screens, through screens. I can see him battling in the post—to Brett's point about him being physical against Blake Griffin. He just lacks maybe a wealth of experience that a guy like Andre has. Andre's the same way. Andre's got great feet and he's really physical. And it's hard to be a great defender in the league without having both of those two qualities.
Mahoney: Roberson was a rookie once, too. Remember, he …
Roberson: …came into the league, eyes open just trying to be a sponge.
Mahoney: And it took time to hone his game, but there were a hundred gradual steps between then and now. That’s what the Thunder need from Ferguson. It would be great to have Roberson back—no series against the Rockets or the Warriors will feel the same without him. But under these circumstances, they’ll roll the dice with Ferguson. He obviously won’t be as good, but he has some of the basic qualities necessary to be a sort of proto-Roberson. Again, you start with the …
Roberson: God-given abilities. Athleticism, length. Pursuit, relentlessness, stuff like that.
Mahoney: You take all that, and you play it out. Because it’s really all that’s left to do.
Roberson, because of who he guards, is almost a patron saint of bad beats. He’s been hit with desperate fadeaways, out-of-control runners, flings in the last second of the shot clock—just the works. He’s sapped entire possessions only to have his work undone by terrible luck. So even if Ferguson isn’t a perfect answer—even if he still looks like a rookie months down the line, when the Thunder are playing for their season—it would be fitting to see Roberson’s team and his surrogate working their asses off.
Because an injury like this is a bad beat, a brutal result for a player who was doing all the right things. But as you might remember, Roberson knew just what to do when the basketball gods dealt him a blow:
Roberson: If we're doing the right things in the coverage and we got a hand up in his face and he still makes it? Pat him on the butt, go down the other way.