Photo credit: Carlos Osorio/AP

Andre Roberson takes a lot of shit for being among the worst non-center shooters in the NBA, and for how that lack of shooting has, in the past, badly cramped the spacing for certain Oklahoma City Thunder lineups. Those inclined towards giving him shit will be relieved, then, to learn that he will be out for the remainder of the season after nuking his left knee Saturday night.

The injury happened on an extremely ugly and frightening fall near the baseline in Detroit. Roberson was down for a long time, and eventually had to be stretchered off the floor. 

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the unsung importance of Roberson’s contributions on this OKC team. For starters, he’s one of the very best defensive players in the entire NBA, capable of credibly defending four positions on most nights, and covering up for a lot of defensive lapses by his more prominent teammates:

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That five-man lineup—Westbrook, Roberson, George, Anthony, Adams—has a pristine 14.2 net rating on the season, and is by far OKC’s most-used lineup. For all of OKC’s game-to-game inconsistency this season, their struggles have largely been about figuring out what to do with their bench—Roberson is a poor shooter, yes, but he’s also a member of one of the most dominant starting lineups in the entire NBA. OKC’s starting group is the third-most-used lineup across the league, and also has by far the highest net rating of any lineup in the NBA’s top 11 most used. You get all the way down to Milwaukee’s post-Bledsoe-trade starting lineup before you finally find one in their class, and that Bucks group has played more than 200 fewer minutes.

Roberson’s poor shooting does create spacing problems, but it’s not like he doesn’t occasionally cash in on open looks. He’s had games where he’s banged in a couple corner threes, although he’d need to go on an extended run of hot shooting before anyone would guard him out at the arc, which means shot-creators like Russ and Melo and Paul George always have to account for an extra, unoccupied defender when Roberson is stationed around the perimeter. It’s a problem the Thunder have easily overcome this regular season, posting a 110 offensive rating with their starting lineup, a number that would rank fourth overall in the NBA this season. It’s less a regular season problem than it would be a playoffs problem, when teams more aggressively scheme to take away everything opposing offenses want to do. Still, Roberson’s limitations aren’t so severe that they can’t be overcome by OKC’s prolific trio of stars.

The gains in spacing of playing, say, Álex Abrines in Roberson’s place will be more than offset by the losses on defense. The Thunder are a team with championship aspirations, but that road will necessarily go through Golden State, or Houston, or San Antonio, or all of the above, and in each of those series Roberson would’ve been tasked with guarding the opposition’s best offensive player. The Thunder will proceed, starting today, without the player who gives them their defensive identity, and their secret defensive weapon against the juggernauts of their conference. Roberson is averaging five points a game on just nine percent usage; he’s also absolutely central to who the Thunder want to be. His loss is a huge one.