In a typical 12 months, the NBA’s All-Star break presents the league’s most dysfunctional contenders an opportunity to reset, take stock and proper what ails them heading into the ultimate stretch earlier than the playoffs. This season, due to Cleveland’s moves at the trade deadline, the post-All-Star watch doubtless will fall to the Oklahoma Metropolis Thunder and the way it weathers the loss of Andre Roberson, the beating coronary heart of its protection.

After an offseason that included acquiring Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to mix with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, the Thunder anticipated to compete on the highest ranges. It hasn’t labored out that method. The staff is 33-26 on the break and has misplaced six of its final 9 video games. There are all method of causes for this, from the apparent difficulties of integrating three high-usage stars to the decline of key gamers on an already-thin squad. (Offseason acquisition Patrick Patterson, who was a dependable stretch four for years in Toronto, has disenchanted and tanked the offense whereas he’s been on the courtroom.) Regardless of all that, the staff appeared to have figured one thing out by January, when it ran off eight straight wins on the energy of its protection and a newly thriving offense. However late in that stretch, Roberson went down with a ruptured patellar tendon. He was misplaced for the season, and the Thunder had a complete new form of disaster.

Roberson is a singular participant within the NBA. He is without doubt one of the finest perimeter defenders within the league, and at 6-foot-7, he has the dimensions and quickness to protect 4 positions. Roberson’s impact on the Thunder protection is super. He can swap virtually any matchup, cowl opposing stars and never solely problem their pictures but additionally dissuade them from even trying them. His defensive Real Plus-Minus — a stat that closely favors huge males — ranks fourth within the league. General, the protection was 12.5 factors worse per 100 possessions when he left the ground. His impact doesn’t grade out at fairly the identical degree of Golden State’s Draymond Inexperienced or Utah’s Rudy Gobert, however he nearly maximizes the influence a fringe defender can have on a recreation.

Or as Westbrook put it: “I feel individuals outdoors our constructing, individuals internationally all the time complained about various things Andre didn’t do as a substitute of embracing all the nice issues he did do. I’ve all the time embraced Andre and I used to be all the time very, very completely satisfied he was on my staff due to issues he did on each side of the ball. Setting screens, chopping, working the ground. Quite a lot of issues which you could’t educate.”

These “issues Andre didn’t do,” after all, confer with Roberson being one of many worst common offensive gamers within the league. Roberson is a notoriously inept and unwilling shooter. He’s capturing 22 % from the Three-point line this season on a food regimen of wide-open pictures the opposing protection is thrilled to see him take. And but, his total impact on the offense doesn’t appear to have been as dire as marketed.

Since Roberson went out, Oklahoma Metropolis’s defensive ranking has been 112.3, which might rank 27th within the league, forward of solely the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. That’s excessive although not surprising with Roberson not there to cowl for weaker defenders like Westbrook or Anthony. However right here’s the kick within the head: The staff’s offensive rankings has barely budged regardless of dropping one of many worst offensive gamers within the league, going from 110.9 earlier than Roberson’s harm to 111.eight after it. That is a lot tougher to elucidate.

Roberson didn’t merely deprive his offense of a participant who may do a greater job of capturing, passing or dribbling. He shrank the courtroom, permitting defenders to roam guilt-free, to harass ballhandlers and make life tough for anybody establishing submit place or working round off-ball screens.

So clearly the staff can be anticipated to indicate extra enchancment than it has in his absence. However whereas the general offense has been flat, the person stars have thrived with Roberson out. With Roberson on the ground, the Thunder decide and roll barely labored in any respect, producing simply 87 factors per 100 probabilities, in accordance with information from Second Spectrum. It didn’t a lot matter if it was Westbrook dealing with the ball (90 factors per 100 probabilities), George (73), Raymond Felton (91) or Carmelo Anthony (94). With out Roberson there, the staff’s pick-and-roll factors leap to 95. Westbrook and George see particularly giant jumps with out Roberson, touchdown at 100 and 91 factors per 100 probabilities created on the decide and roll, respectively.

It will get stranger: George produced solely 77 factors per 100 probabilities on drives with Roberson on the ground; with out him, that shot as much as 96 — on a big variety of pictures. Westbrook, too, goes from 98 factors per 100 probabilities to 105, or the distinction between Ish Smith and Victor Oladipo this season. And whereas Roberson didn’t truly have an effect on the staff’s efficient discipline purpose proportion total, each Westbrook and George suffered giant drop-offs of their capturing numbers after they shared the courtroom with him.

However the Thunder have but to capitalize on the extra area obtainable with Roberson out. Westbrook has performed nicely in some methods, creating at James Harden/Chris Paul ranges on the decide and roll, and poorly in others, capturing simply 43 % from the sector and 18 % from the three within the video games since Roberson’s harm. George has been scorching from the three — he’s hit at the least 5 Three-pointers in 4 consecutive video games — and has averaged 29.6 factors on a 62 efficient discipline purpose proportion by means of these 10 video games. However Anthony has gone completely dormant, and each he and Westbrook missed two video games to harm.

There’s lots to be inspired by over these previous few video games. George appears to be like like a unique participant with out Roberson, and all could also be proper if he and Westbrook are each firing at near optimum ranges by the playoffs. Additional, second-year shooter Alex Abrines, seeing elevated minutes with Roberson out, has run cold and warm, capturing 35 % on threes total because the harm. That ought to enhance over time.

Besides, the offense taking a dip regardless of subtracting a man who will be the single worst offensive participant who’s truly allowed to play s troubling, and Oklahoma Metropolis doesn’t have an apparent supply of these unteachable qualities Westbrook talked about — the chopping, the working, the screens. The Thunder’s stars might lastly have the room to function as stars, however its issues at the moment are ones not solved simply by star energy.

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