Andre Roberson enjoyed one of the most successful careers CU has ever seen. Depending on what position you declare Josh Scott -- he's a center to me -- Roberson may very well be the best power forward in Buffs basketball history. With monstrous rebounding, award-winning defense and all-world athleticism, Roberson was a force to be reckoned with. Everyone who had seen him knew he would make it to the NBA, it was just a matter of when, and for how long he would play.
Unlike the Buffs faithful, draft pundits were surprised when the San Antonio native was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves 26th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft. He was without a jump shot, had little offensive skills and didn't have the size or strength to stick at the power forward position. He was supposed to go in the second round of the draft, if at all, and it would be because whoever drafted him would have utilized his versatility on the defensive end while developing his offense.
When the Oklahoma City traded for Roberson (via Golden State), everything made more sense. The Thunder have a notorious reputation for their penny pinching ways and had an obvious desire to stash Roberson in the D-League, where he would hold a roster spot on the Thunder squad while making less in salary. (A year later, they spent their first round pick on Stanford's Josh Huestis and signed him to a D-League contract to much criticism.) With starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha's impending free agency, it was also seen that OKC planned to groom Roberson into the role the Swiss guard occupied, which was being a defensive specialist with just enough of a jump shot to be useful on offense.
After spending his rookie season shuffling between the NBA and the D-League, Roberson was primed to replace Sefolosha after he signed with the Atlanta Hawks. In the two years since, Roberson has averaged around 20 minutes per game and has started 135 of 137 games played. He's filled in nicely with excellent defense and just enough offense.
In the upcoming series against the offensive juggernaut Golden State Warriors, Roberson's defensive skill set will be in dire need. Golden State's offense is reliant upon the pick-and-roll and off-ball screens to generate looks for their many deadly shooters. Because of the transcendent play of Stephen Curry and the merely remarkable play of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the Warriors are nearly impossible to contain for 48 minutes.
The now-eliminated San Antonio Spurs showed that the most effective way to best the Warriors is to switch on nearly every screen. Of course, that is much easier said than done. Any slip up in communication or on the physical switch can result in an open three-pointer or an easy layup. The Warriors are simply too good at passing to not take advantage of a mistake. Moreover, a defense has to be careful not to switch into an unfavorable matchup. If a center is switched onto Curry or Thompson, a high percentage shot will be conceded almost every time. If a point guard switches onto Green, he will bully his way into the paint. Very few teams have the defensive versatility to match up with them, but Oklahoma City does, and Andre Roberson is a huge part of that.
Having played in the post in college, Roberson can defend Green and Marreese Speights. Having played on the perimeter all his NBA career, Roberson can defend Thompson (who he will be guarding primarily) and Andre Iguodala. No one in the world can defend Stephen Curry, but Roberson is better than most. Oklahoma City is lucky to have one of the only players in the world who can effectively defend every position. In the two games against the Warriors this season, Roberson has played 73 of 101 total minutes and it's because he's basically an anti-Warrior defensive weapon.
Aside from Roberson, Oklahoma City is also lucky to have a point guard in Russell Westbrook who is physical enough to switch onto wings, a small forward in Kevin Durant versatile enough to switch onto guards and big men alike, and a center in Steven Adams who is tenacious enough to battle anyone. With all those guys, OKC can stand their own defensively, but there's a major problem: Andre Roberson might not be good enough on offense to play.
This past season, Roberson had a minuscule 9% usage rate -- of all players who had 40 or more starts this season, only Luc Mbah a Moute and Tayshaun Prince were under 10% -- and his only shots are wide open threes from the corner or layups and dunks coming off cuts. Oklahoma City has never trusted Roberson to create any offense for himself or handle the ball whatsoever, nor should they.
Roberson's offensive game has always been what determines how much he will play, if at all. This is especially true in the playoffs, where defenses will completely ignore non-shooters. This is especially, especially true if that defense belongs to the Golden State Warriors. If you were unlucky enough to have seen the Memphis Grizzlies offense against the Warriors in last year's playoffs, you would be well aware of this. In that series, any Memphis lineup with noted bricklayer Tony Allen was essentially playing 4-on-5. Andrew Bogut would "defend" the Grindfather by planting himself in the paint, 20 feet away from his man. The legendary post duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph could do nothing with an extra 7'1 brute clogging their interior and their offense was devastated.
Though Roberson is a marginally better shooter than Allen, the Warriors will look to do the same. When Roberson is on the court, Warriors coach Steve Kerr will have either Andrew Bogut "defend" him the same way as he did Allen. If Roberson is rendered useless on offense, his defensive impact won't be enough to warrant playing time. However, the Thunder could counter this strategy a couple of ways.
First, the Thunder could trot of their dual-center lineup that features Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. This would require Bogut to actually defend one of the mustachioed giants instead of on Roberson. Because they could hide one of their weaker defenders like Stephen Curry or Leandro Barbosa on Roberson, the Warriors would still be able to go small and the Kanter-Adams lineup would hemorrhage points on the other end.
Oklahoma City could potentially try something with Serge Ibaka at center, but the Warriors would guard him with Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala or even Shaun Livingston while Bogut plays 20 feet away from Roberson. From there, the Warriors would switch yet another guard onto Ibaka on pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. Ibaka simply doesn't have the post game to capitalize on his size advantage should a smaller defender defend him.
Something else the Thunder could do would be to go small and play a lineup with Russell Westbrook at the 1, Dion Waiters at the 2, Kevin Durant at the 3, Roberson at the 4, and Adams at the 5. Assuming Waiters tries on defense, which is a huge assumption, this has potential to disrupt Golden State's infinite screens with switches galore without sacrificing points on the other end. Everyone in that lineup is capable of switching on screens and playing strong defense on whoever they're switched onto. If they can close out quickly without ceding dribble-drive penetration, they have more than enough length to challenge the Warriors' shots when they inevitably try to shoot over the switches.
If that lineup can contain Golden State's offense, the Thunder will have taken the first and toughest step towards victory. The next step is that lineup generating enough offense to enjoy that defense.
This lineup is different than the other Thunder lineups featuring Roberson in that he may not be death to their offense. Playing Roberson at the 4 instead of the 2 means he could float around the post looking for cuts without sacrificing much spacing. Furthermore, Waiters playing over Ibaka would mean there would be a dynamic wing playing in the corner instead of a limited big man stationed in mid-range territory.
Here, the Warriors would be forced to play either Bogut or Green on Roberson with the other guarding Adams. (Personally, I want Green to defend Adams because I want to see if Green's head will implode after Adams's lack of response to trash talk.) With Bogut on Roberson, he would move into the lane to stifle Westbrook and Durant's isolation plays and the Westbrook-Adams pick-and-rolls. If Bogut is drawn too far towards the action, Roberson will be in perfect weakside position for a dump-off layup. Roberson would then become an offensive weapon the Warriors, which give the Thunder a considerable upper hand.
Of course, there is another solution that could nullify everything I wrote about Roberson's impact on Oklahoma City's offense. It's definitely the most desirable solution: Roberson could make a bunch of open three-pointers. In Game 6 against the Spurs, Roberson was ignored in the corner and made three of five three-pointers on his way to a career-playoff-high 14 points. If he's able to shoot like that and defend as he usually does, he would be the key to the Thunder upsetting the historically great Warriors and advancing to the NBA Finals.