The NBA’s Biggest Badass Is Now One of the Best
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The NBA’s most intimidating big man gets better every year.
By Matt Foley and Sean Culligan
The most familiar sight inside Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena these days is that of Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook — the Tasmanian Devil incarnate 2017 NBA MVP — snatching a rebound and slicing down the court, severing any line of defense in seconds before scoring at the other end. But while Westbrook is the much-deserved star of a Thunder team in hot contention for the Western Conference crown, there’s almost always one man clearing the way and starting the play: Steven Adams.
Between blocks, rebounds and tip-outs, outlet passes and putback slams, Adams is the oversized spark plug that every NBA team needs. Only Adams is a dying breed in today’s offense-obsessed NBA. With long, flowing hair, a thick, black beard and arms covered in tribal tattoos, the 7-foot New Zealand native appears more Dothraki warrior than NBA baller. In eras past, when enforcers like Charles Oakley, Bill Laimbeer and Anthony Mason ruled the league, Adams’ aptitude in rim protection, rebounding and putting an opponent on his ass would have made him a perfect fit. These days though, with NBA front offices valuing outside shooting and offensive efficiency above all else, the modern big man is all but a glorified forward. Rim protection remains paramount, but the physicality that Adams brings to a court is very rarely matched.
So, since he debuted with the Thunder in 2013, there’s Adams, crashing the boards on every shot for a putback dunk, or a tip to Westbrook to start the fast break. Westbrook and Paul George, the NBA’s second-leading scorer, get the lion’s share of the points and attention in Oklahoma City. But on an emerging Western Conference contender, it’s this big man who makes the Thunder rumble — as the sixth-year center’s steady improvement in the stat line shows, at a time many players plateau.
For the third straight season, Adams is averaging career highs in points (14.7 per game), rebounds (9.5) and assists (1.7).
Adams is far from an elite scorer — as evidenced by his scoring average being roughly half of that of the league leaders — but the 25-year-old Kiwi is now reaching All-Star contention thanks to an improved comfort with the ball in his hands. His passing has improved, giving the Thunder options for how to run their offense, and Adams’ interior scoring is among the most efficient in the league. Why? Because his best trait, which separates him from most other big men in the league, is the invaluable gift of attacking the offensive glass. Adams ranks third in the NBA with 4.5 offensive rebounds per game. (All stats calculated as of the All-Star break.)
“The game has clearly shifted toward more offense and shooting,” says Turner analyst and Hall of Famer Reggie Miller. “Most offenses don’t run through big men. But championship teams still need toughness. Old-school bigs who can create opportunities without the ball can still have success.”
Adams’ influence is felt even when he doesn’t grab the rebound. The Thunder rank third in the league in second-chance points (14.6 per game), which comes as no surprise considering that Adams ranks second in the NBA in box outs (9.5) and team rebounds on those box outs (4.8) per game. In layman’s terms, this means that even when Adams doesn’t snatch an offensive rebound himself, he clears the way for his teammates to do so, leading to new scoring opportunities. With two high-volume but inefficient shooters — Westbrook and George — taking most of the shots, Adams is the exact type of center that Oklahoma City needs to succeed.
“He does all the dirty work for us,” backup point guard Dennis Schroder told reporters after a Jan. 2 win against the Lakers. “Rebounds, second chances, putbacks. He’s been huge for us.”
When they drafted Adams, the Thunder knew that, at a minimum, they were getting a high-energy player who could change the game defensively on the glass. Now, their hopes for the big man to develop into a legitimate offensive threat are finally coming to fruition. With Adams, Westbrook and George, the Thunder boasts a versatile “Big Three” that rivals just about anyone in the league outside the Bay Area. This season, coach Billy Donovan is experimenting with how to use Adams offensively, a gauge of how much better he can become. “We’re throwing the ball into him at the elbows and letting him initiate offense,” Donovan told The Oklahoman in October.
Adams — ever the contrarian — seems to prefer time to heal his bruises to the exhibition.
Given that their 7-foot lottery pick is making roughly $25 million per year, the Thunder certainly hopes to see Adams achieve All-Star level production. Adams may never shoot as well as Milwaukee center Brook Lopez or possess the inherent court vision of Denver’s Nikola Jokic, but that’s OK. With most of his damage done around the rim, Adams ranks fifth in the league in field goal percentage, 17th in rebounds and 16th in steals. In three seasons, he’s gone from a player averaging 8 points and 6 rebounds to the fringe of All-Star selection.
Adams narrowly missed the All-Star Game this season, finishing seventh of all Western Conference frontcourt players. Still, his rise is a clear sign that the festivities are in his future, and that his efforts are increasingly appreciated. For his part, Adams — ever the contrarian — seems to prefer time to heal his bruises to the exhibition.
“I do like my All-Star break,” he told ESPN in January. “It’s a tough season but I think a lot of people would like to see me there and I think it would be really big for the country in New Zealand but, if I’m being selfish, I would probably like a break.”
Whatever gets you ready to rub elbows with Draymond Green in May, Steven.