(Please welcome guest contributor Jeff Linka! He's got some great statistical insights to share. -Marina M.)
When the Thunder took Steven Adams with the 12th pick of the 2013 NBA Draft, even the most optimistic fans assumed his rookie year would be spent cycling in an out of an actual Thunder uniform. Much of his time, the thinking went, would be focused on honing his still (very) raw game in the D-League, or wearing a suit at the end of the Thunder bench.
Fast forward two seasons, and Adams has far surpassed early expectations. He is already a solid, playoff-tested defensive presence with a surprisingly soft touch in the lane, and has established himself as truly elite in two advanced statistical categories: getting punched in the face ("GPIF/48"), and having a moustache ("HMPM"). Insufficient data exists to determine a possible correlation between the two stats, but then again Adams seems to have always had a knack for forging new ground. He was already the first Pittsburgh Panther to be selected in the first round since 1999; if he stays true to his word, he will soon be the first Pittsburgh Panther to be selected in the first round and also go on to wear his hair in a mullet during a regular season NBA game.
The expectations for Adams’ third NBA season will be higher than ever. The addition of Enes Kanter at the 2014-15 trade deadline gave Scott Brooks an actual non-Kendrick Perkins option that could ultimately replace Steven Adams in a full-strength starting lineup. With Kanter now definitely returning, new coach Billy Donovan will be tasked with dolling out minutes and building rotations that not only highlight the strengths of both young centers, but more importantly hide their flaws. Kanter’s strengths and weaknesses are apparent; he is one of the best offensive centers in the game with the potential to be the very best, and he is one of the worst defensive centers in the game – seemingly, at times, with the potential to be the very worst. It isn’t hard to envision Kanter’s role being that of mostly the second team center, teaming up with Dion Waiters and eventually Cameron Payne to give opposing defenses nightmares and opposing offenses wide open mid-range jumpers.
Adams, on the other hand, seems poised to do the opposite. He is expected to be the starting center called upon for defense, rebounding, and toughness, while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook handle much of the offensive output. This is likely to work very well. If Durant can find the form he flashed in limited appearances in 2014-15, and if Westbrook can pretty much do the same things he has always done, the Thunder will again be a devastating offensive force. Serge Ibaka will, as always, be lurking as the sneaky third option who will have multiple 20 point nights next season. It simply cannot be overstated: the Oklahoma City Thunder, when healthy, can outscore everyone.
There are two great wildcards, however, that will greatly affect the Thunder’s fortunes in the coming year. One is obviously how Billy Donovan chooses to allocate his embarrassment of offensive riches. Anyone who isn’t Billy Donovan or a member of his staff is merely guessing at this point if they tell you what to expect rotation-wise. Westbrook will start. Durant will start. Maybe D.J. Augustin will start when Russ gets his 16th technical sometime between early November and late April. There are a lot of questions after that.
The other great variable in 2015-16 is Adams himself. For many NBA players, Year 3 officially kicks off their prime. While Adams came into the league a bit rougher around the edges than most, the upcoming season should see his game start to settle in and flash at least glimpses of exactly what kind of NBA player he will end being. Adams is in a unique position to provide a legitimate veteran presence so early in his career, and it couldn’t come at a more crucial time or position for the Thunder. The team has so many constants, and if one of its few variables can become truly stable this year, the Thunder will be in a position to finally explode through their (still, no matter what anyone tells you) wide-open window.
However, it’s important for Thunder fans to set their expectations accordingly. In 2014-15, Adams’ Player Efficiency Rating (PER) – a stat that measures overall on-court effectiveness and is adjusted so that the average NBA player scores a 15 – was 14.1. Even worse news? A somewhat random sample of five top-tier NBA centers indicates that a Year 3 jump in PER for Adams would buck the overall trend.
If Adams holds true to this, Thunder fans can expect a PER of 13.76 in 2015-16.
It shouldn’t all trend downward, though. These same five players averaged an overall increase in four other advanced statistical categories that are of high importance for a player like Adams:
- True Shooting Percentage. A measure of shooting accuracy that takes into account 2-point shots, 3-point shots, and free throws. For a player like Adams who should shoot a high percentage on 2-point shots but struggles from the line, True Shooting Percentage provides an important look at his shooting efficiency and the offensive threat he provides.
- Defensive Rebound Percentage. This is an estimate of the percentage of total available defensive rebounds that a player actually ends up with while he is on the court. Especially for a center, this statistic gives a good idea of overall defensive rebounding prowess.
- Block Percentage. The percentage of total 2-point field goal attempts by the opponent that are blocked by the player while he is on the floor. Like the rebounding statistic, this is a good demonstration of how much of a shot blocking threat a player is while he is on the floor.
- Defensive Box Plus/Minus. A box score estimate of the defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team - in other words, how many actual points, defensively, a given player prevented compared to an average NBA player on an average team during those possessions.
For Adams, the numbers on the left indicate his 2014-15 statistics, while the highlighted numbers on the right are projections calculated by simply applying the average differences in each category from the five players and applying them to Adams’ 2014-15 numbers.
What do these advanced statistics actually equate to for Adams? Well, for one, even a minute increase in True Shooting Percentage could add a point or two to his scoring average. His Defensive Rebound Percentage numbers are solid, but somewhat skewed by playing with Westbrook. DeAndre Jordan led the NBA in Defensive Rebound Percentage last year with 32.4%. His starting point guard, Chris Paul, pulled down 12.5% of available defensive rebounds for the Clippers. While this is a respectable number for a point guard, consider that Russell Westbrook grabbed a staggering 16.7% of available defensive rebounds for the Thunder. Serge Ibaka plays a similar role in providing a constant ceiling for Adams’ Block Percentage numbers.
Adams was clearly a fairly advanced defensive center for his age last year, considering that his Defensive Box Plus/Minus was already at 1.8 – a number that compares favorably to the Year 2 statistic for all of the centers studied except Marc Gasol. The average increase in this column from Year 2 to Year 3 is 1.3 points. If Adams can match that, it will put his Year 3 on par with that of Dwight Howard - as in that Dwight Howard . The one who is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. While Adams is unlikely to ever put up the sheer rebounding and shot blocking numbers to garner any real attention for that award, the fact that he has an opportunity to match Dwight Howard in an important advanced defensive statistical category is enough to bring Thunder fans to a fever pitch. "An elite defensive center…and an elite offensive center…on the same team?" (Note: don’t get me started on the potential Westbrook/Durant/Ibaka/Kanter/Adams lineup). Furthermore, if Adams can follow the others' lead and increase his block percentage by 0.3% in his third season, he would seemingly be on a similar trajectory as these All Defensive First Team stalwarts in that category as well.
It’s important to again note that Adams will not be called upon to stuff the stat sheet. He simply needs to be solid and efficient. An improvement in his True Shooting Percentage, while simply maintaining his scoring and rebounding numbers, would be a huge boost for the Thunder even if they wouldn’t look great on a line graph of his career arc.
Adams has also now inherited torch-bearer status for a select group known as "Thunder Centers Who Need to Cut Down on Turnovers." While Adams is unlikely to match the prolific turnover production of Kendrick Perkins, recent history shows that premier NBA centers have struggled with turnovers in their third season based on Turnover Percentage statistics (how many times per 100 possessions the player turns the ball over). Unfortunately, this downturn cannot even be attributed to growing pains due to a higher usage rate.
Again, the numbers highlighted in yellow are projections for Adams’ third season. Decreased usage and more turnovers would be hugely frustrating for a Thunder fan base ready to move on to happier days when opposing defenses have to actually guard all five guys.
But forget about happier days of the future, and consider that they might happen sooner than you think. Let’s now compare the noted Adams Year 3 projections to numbers of the starting Thunder center from the 2011-12 season, the most successful campaign in franchise history, and one that saw the team fall only three wins short of an NBA title.
Kendrick Perkins, 2011-12 vs. Steven Adams Year 3 Projections
That is how far we have come. If Adams can reach even these modest projections, he might just become the first Pittsburgh Panther to be selected in the first round and also go on to wear his hair in a mullet during an NBA finals game.