Nov. 11, 2016
Steven Adams Isn't Worth $100 Million...Yet
4 years and 138 days ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were defeated by the Miami Heat in game five of the 2012 NBA Finals and subsequently, had their fairy tale season ended by a superior side. Regardless, no Thunder fan should have fretted at the disappointing exit, this team was still way ahead of schedule, with their core foursome of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka all under the age of 23. Yet, despite their young core nowhere near their respective primes, they were able to unseat the dynastic San Antonio Spurs with ease, breeze through the rest of the daunting Western Conference and even go toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the first four games of the Finals. This squad was ready to own the next decade of Larry O'Brien trophies.
4 years and 138 days later, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have just Russell Westbrook to show from that exciting, athletic, lethal foursome that scared the living crap out of every other franchise. We all know what happened, Harden was dealt to Houston because Clayton Bennett didn't want to pay the luxury tax, Ibaka was traded to Orlando and Durant ditched to Oakland like a coward. OKC have gone from the next great NBA dynasty, to a team that might not make the playoffs, in just 4 years and 138 days.
All they have to show for losing Durant, Harden and Ibaka are four young players, all of whom are yet to prove anything in their careers. Those four pieces being Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Jerami Grant. That group is OKC's last hope of salvaging anything from the shipwreck of their lost dynasty. However, if you look at it a little more cynically, Adams is the only real chance at recovering something even remotely comparable to Durant, Harden and Ibaka.
Victor Oladipo is a good basketball player, but until he adds a somewhat consistent jump shot, he will never be compatible with a ball-dominant point guard like Russ. Scouts around the league love Sabonis, but a below the rim big, with zero lateral quickness is never going to be a star in the modern day NBA. Jerami Grant is ferocious, fun and entertaining, but is yet to show me that he can play in a meaningful basketball game for more than 2 minutes at a time.
Adams on the other hand, is an ideal 21st century big man. He has the instincts, timing, quick feet and athleticism to be a nightmare on defense and a developing offensive side that includes dynamic rim-rolling, strangely accurate passing ability and half of a low post game. Everyone already loves his personality and now, people are starting to adore his game, in fact, some experts are already calling him a top five center in the league. I'm not of that opinion, but regardless of where you stand on that debate topic, the Thunder are paying him like he is. In the waning hours of extension deadline day, OKC and Adams agreed to a 4 year, $100 million deal, a contract that doesn't look ginormous in the current cap climate, but one that certainly doesn't look minuscule by any means.
By giving their 'stached Kiwi 9 figures over the next four seasons, the Thunder are taking a risk. They are making a big bet that Adams is the star Westbrook needs in order to be able to compete. With a huge chunk of OKC's salary cap dedicated towards Adams, Westbrook, Enes Kanter (whose contract is sneakily terrible) and Oladipo (who also got handed a shiny new extension), the Thunder barely have any cap space to chase after big names in free agency over the next few seasons to partner Westbrook. Blake Griffin has been rumored recently, but without max cap room available, that's no more than a pipe dream.
Westbrook needs that second star to fire the Thunder back into the realms of NBA contention. If the first six games of this season have taught us anything, it's going to be a struggle for Russ to do that by himself. With their cap space diminished, Adams has to be the right hand man Russ needs. If the Adams gamble doesn't work out, Westbrook will know that his chance at getting a partner in crime in Oklahoma City is tiny and that any chance of competing in a league dominated by superteams is as close to zero as you can get. If this happens, it's hard to see that even Russell Westbrook, a man that is as loyal as anyone, would stick around in OKC when he knows he should be competing for championships, especially when Westbrook can opt out of his current deal and become a free agent in 2018. If Presti's $100 million roll of the dice fails, he could lose the last remaining member of the core that was supposed to rule the NBA.
Simply put, Steven Adams is Oklahoma City's last hope. So can Steven Adams be that star? Let's break it down.
Adams' numbers don't really jump out at you. 11 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 2 steals and a block, while shooting 52.8% from the field isn't great. It's about what you'd expect from a normal starting center. But as you delve deeper into his stats, his value becomes clearer. He ranks ninth in the league in defensive win shares and thirteenth in defensive box plus/minus, all while making his Thunder an extraordinary 29.7 points per 100 possessions better when he steps out on to the floor. When Adams is out on the court, the Thunder rank 13th in offensive efficiency and 4th in defensive efficiency, compared to 30th and 25th, respectively, when he's off. He's of vital importance to this Thunder team on both sides of the ball.
While Adams is a two-way threat, his real value comes defensively. As mentioned earlier, Adams' huge body, instincts and athleticism give him the perfect tools to be a great defensive big man. He can switch out on to guards when asked to and do a pretty decent job, while backing that ability up with his rim protection skills. Through six games, on shots taken inside six feet, Adams' assignments shoot 3.8% lower than their average.
The rebounding aspect to his game is also impressive. While 8.3 rebounds per game isn't amazing, it doesn't tell the full story. Adams diligently boxes out on every possession without fail, so either he can swoop in for a board, or one of the rebound-leaching guards on his team like Westbrook, Andre Roberson and Oladipo can fly in and steal one. Adams has such a delightfully positive impact on his team's rebounding, that when he's on the court, the Thunder's total rebounding percentage is 16.6% higher than when he's off.
On offense, Adams finds almost all of his offense around the rim, somewhere he has been effective throughout his entire career, as he has shot at a 64.1% clip from within 2 feet. With his strength and athleticism, he has also proven to be an excellent pick and roll big. He can set a bruising screen on his ball-handler's defender and explode towards the basket, ready to throw down a ferocious dunk in the paint. As a pick and roll big, Adams has been incredibly ineffective this year however, largely due to the lack of spacing on the Thunder squad. He's scoring just 0.9 points per possession on these plays, compared to the 1.12 he was achieving last season on each play.
At this point in his career, what I have just described is all Adams can do as an NBA center. But with Adams, the Thunder aren't giving him $100 million for what he is able to do now, but are instead making a bet on his potential. He has all the physical tools and work ethic in the world to reach that potential, but he still has a number of long strides to make before he can get there.
Even if his defensive game already compares to some of the best in the league, he still has a lot of work to do in that aspect of his game. Even with his Tarzan-esque strength, he gets beat far too regularly down on the low block. The likes of Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns have all had Adams' head spinning in the post with some of their silky smooth moves early this season. With more experience, Adams should become more adapt at defending crafty post scorers, but at present throwback big men have their way with Adams:
On offense, Adams has been given more opportunities in the post this season. According to NBA.com, he has already gotten 19 post-up possessions through six games. Although Adams has worked to add this dimension to his game, he struggles with it. On these play calls, Adams is only scoring at a rate of 0.79 points per possession. One reason for this is that Adams doesn't really have many moves to go to down low.
Adams only really has two moves on the block. He likes to spin baseline a lot, but his opposite numbers already know this and have begun to cut-off that option for him. He also likes to throw up a wildly inconsistent one-handed floater/hook that he defers to every chance he gets. Sometimes it looks like a thing of beauty:
Other times, it looks like he spilled hot soup on himself:
Outside of his scoring offense, Adams needs to do a better job of looking after the ball. He can toss fastballs on demand and throw sweet no-look passes, but he struggles to react to pressure. A double team on Adams will usually result in an instant turnover, something that he desperately needs to fix and is the reason why Adams is the second most turnover-prone big man in the league, trailing only DeMarcus Cousins.
Should Steven Adams improve these areas of his game, to go on top of the already impressive product he has established, he will undoubtedly be worth the $100 million the Thunder have invested in to him. Should this be the case, OKC will be on the fast track back to success, with a second star in place to complement Russell Westbrook. If it isn't, Sam Presti's $100 million gamble may have just landed Oklahoma City in a hole they can't get out of, especially with a potential Russell Westbrook free agency problem on their hands.
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