Pistons Thunder Basketball

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Andre Roberson, left, passes around Detroit Pistons forward Stanley Johnson, right, in the third quarter of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. Detroit won 99-98. 

Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo

OKLAHOMA CITY — It’s shocking, but there are more than just three players on the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Thunder remain in the early stages of making Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony work. And they're not the only ones adjusting. There's also starting shooting guard Andre Roberson.

The reigning All-Defensive Second Team member has maintained his free-throw and 3-point shooting from last season. More importantly, defenses don’t venture out to the arc to defend him. It’s left the Thunder in an awkward offensive position, having to move Roberson in more creative ways to keep him contributing offensively.

They’ve tried using him as a screener on and off the ball – though it’s not something they’ve carried out as a consistent plan from game to game. Sometimes, he’ll be more active as a pick-setter than at other times. His activity as a cutter has varied similarly. 

The Thunder are still better when Roberson plays — though there’s noise in those numbers since he’s played mostly with the starters. The defense is far improved, 11.6 points per 100 possession better, with him on the floor. However, the offense, which is 7.8 points per 100 worse when he’s playing, takes a notable dip. 

It’s left the Thunder in a precarious position trying to balance elite defense with disparate shooting, a situation that’s even more glaring in the starting lineup, where OKC also plays Steven Adams, a center who has to be around the basket. And in today’s NBA, playing two non-shooters together can be one too many.

It's part of why the Thunder rarely get to the free-throw line with Roberson tucked away in the corner. It's far too easy for teams to clog the lane without repercussions.

“You have to manipulate the game to put him in situations where he can be effective,” Anthony said. “Offensive rebounding, hustle plays give him the confidence where sometimes he does be wide open and he has to take those shots. The sacrifice is taking those shots when he’s open. If he passes up those open shots it can put us in a tough position when you don’t take those shots.”

Roberson has played the vast majority of his minutes with the starters, though coach Billy Donovan has staggered him in rare times to play him in lineups of mostly reserves.

Still, the way Donovan has distributed playing time has a clear correlation with the defensive numbers propping so high. Roberson has played 90 percent of his minutes alongside at least one of Adams or Paul George. Of course, both Adams and George are elite defenders on their own.

However, the defense still holds when it's just Roberson out there, allowing only 84.9 points per 100 possessions, an elite figure by any measure, during the small, 48-minute sample. 

So, maybe other ways to use Roberson are on the horizon. Could Donovan make him the first starter to get subbed out of games and then splice him into second-unit lineups as a pseudo center on offense and a defensive difference maker on the other end? Could that be a way to support a reserve defense which has struggled while also injecting some more shooting into the starting lineup?

“Andre’s always been a team guy. He’s always about winning. He’s always about fitting in,” Donovan said. “I think he takes it very, very personal how he plays and what he wants to do in terms of the performance of helping our team.”

Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.

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