From his Dothrakian look to his ever-growing sleeve of tattoos, Steven Adams has one of the most unique styles in the NBA. His inability to hold anything back also provides beat writers with endless material, as he is ready and willing to provide a quote upon a moment’s notice.
After this summer’s events — which not only included Kevin Durant signing elsewhere, but trading the team’s best rim protector without receiving one in return — Adams will be asked to do more than just be a character off the court, as he will have to be a major contributor on the court in order for the Oklahoma City Thunder to sustain their recent level of success.
Before last year’s playoffs, Adams was probably best known as being the major return for the Thunder in the infamous James Harden trade (along with Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and picks that became Alex Abrines and Mitch McGary). The selection of Adams was scoffed by many (myself included), as he didn’t show much in his lone year at Pittsburgh to warrant being the No. 12 pick.
But after the 2016 playoffs, Adams appears to be the franchise cornerstone at center, reminding the rest of the league that Oklahoma City’s front office is one of the best at drafting.
Adams’ progression over his first three years is evident in both volume and efficiency. He’s increased his points per 36 minutes (from 10.9 to 11.4) and efficiency (from 54.9 percent true shooting percentage to 62.1 percent), while increasing his minutes played in every season (he did average more minutes per game in the 2014-2015 season, but an injury forced him to play in 10 fewer games than he did during the 2015-2016 season).
Adams will never be the type of center who can be relied upon to isolate in the post for an easy score, but he did score a respectable 0.89 points per possession (PPP) last season on a limited number of attempts, per NBA.com. An area where Adams excels on offense is finishing in the pick-and-roll, especially with Russell Westbrook feeding him the ball.
Adams finished in the 76th percentile among pick-and-roll finishers, including countless highlights from him receiving high-arching lobs from Westbrook and finishing them with ferocity. Adams combination of athleticism and length makes life difficult on the opposition when choosing between stopping him from rolling to the basket or stopping Westbrook from having an easy shot at the rim.
Draymond Green, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Joakim Noah are just a few of many big men that have entered the league in recent years as good passers, and passing out of the front court is something that Oklahoma City has never had. The only passing big man the Thunder have ever had is Nick Collison, but at age 36 when the season starts, Collison will probably have a more reduced role than ever before. Adams hasn’t shown that he’s an elite passer, but he has given glimpses of that ability, such as this one from last year’s playoffs.
The reason most are optimistic of Adams’ long-term success is because of his defense, and it’s difficult to find a statistic that points to Adams being anything less than good last season. While that could be because Adams mainly played with the starters (the starters finished with a point differential of about +15 per 100 possessions last season, per NBAWowy.com), there is little doubt that Adams had something to do with the success.
Like Ibaka before him, Adams showed the ability to switch out on smaller players in the pick-and-roll, forcing them into long, contested shots. Switching the pick-and-roll best fits the Thunder, as Westbrook has a tendency to stop moving when screened, and the majority of the Thunder roster isn’t susceptible to being backed down in the post (yes, even Enes Kanter who, while he has many faults on defense, does just fine when isolated in the post on defense).
The reason players like Adams are rare is not just because they can switch on the perimeter, but their ability to both switch on the perimeter and protect the rim at an adequate rate is coveted now more than ever. While Adams still has room to improve in both areas, he allowed opponents to shoot just under 49 percent at the rim last season on 6.3 attempts per game, per NBA.com’s player tracking data. Adams relentless effort on defense forces opponents to alter shots that they wouldn’t have to otherwise.
Unfortunately for Thunder fans, everything about Adams’ game isn’t perfect. That same relentless effort that makes life difficult for other teams is the reason Adams averages 4.7 fouls per 36 minutes for his career, per basketball-reference.com. While that number has dropped since averaging 6.1 per 36 in his rookie season, he found himself in foul trouble more often than not in the past. With the recent roster reconfiguration, the Thunder need him to average more than his previous career high of 25.3 minutes per game, and the only way he’ll be able to stay on the court is if he avoids the careless fouls.
Another reason for concern is the lack of history that Adams can lead a top defense. While he had an impressive third season, only about 26% of his minutes came with Ibaka off the floor. During those 500 minutes, the Thunder defense allowed 105.5 points per 100 possessions, a number right in line with their defensive rating last season. None of this is to say Adams couldn’t lead a defense to a top-10 rating, just that he hasn’t done it in the past.
While Adams certainly has his faults on the court, it’s important to remember that he’ll be 23 for all of next season, a full year younger than Mitch McGary, despite being drafted a year before him. For whatever mistakes Adams makes this season (and there will probably be many given the new situation he’s in), he still has plenty of time to mature and develop into a complete player.
Adams has been one of the most entertaining players in the league throughout his first three seasons. We’ve admired everything from the way he looks, to the quotes he gives, to the way he shows no reaction to very painful-looking injuries. For the first time, however, his team needs him to be more than just an amusing person; it needs a player to who leaves an impression on the court.
And probably for his quotes, too.