“It was yesterday, it was a phone.” Thus responded Steven Adams when asked to reveal his first major purchase pusuant to finalizing a mammoth $100 million extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Why the new cell? The newly remunerated enforcer explained, “Because I dropped my phone in the cold tub and it didn’t work for, like, the past three days, and stuff was going on. My agent was trying to contact me and stuff, and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I just don’t have a phone.'”
It’s the kind of story that could only come from a character as colorful as Steven Adams. The man who ran with a street gang in his youth, didn’t discover basketball until his teens, and has seventeen (yes, seventeen!) siblings now proudly earns near-maximum NBA money.
How much burden does a contract that substantial place on a guy? Even for an apparently nonchalant personality such as Adams’, it must present something of an encumbrance. “Am I worth that much money?” has to flit through said player’s mind amid a rough outing.
Doubts are natural. Despite even supreme confidence — or the perception of it — players are not robots. Former NBA player Larry Sanders, stand as a perfect example:
As for Adams’ vacillating confidence, this season, “The Kiwi Warrior” has performed like a man who is at once inspired by last spring’s breakout playoff ascension, yet still struggling to discover his fit in OKC’s post-Durant and Ibaka offense.
The departed stars averaged slightly above 30 combined shots per game last season. Overall, the Thunder averaged 86.4 attempts. Even with new arrivals such as Victor Oladipo, Adams’ offensive role was expected to grow. Unfortunately, through eight games, this hasn’t been the case.
There was hearty offseason debate concerning exactly who would be Russell Westbrook’s number two option.
Whilst $84 million-man Victor Oladipo is finding how he and Westbrook best blend as a pairing, Billy Donovan is searching for ways to include his third-year-standout as more than a stationary perimeter shooter. After all, to do any less would be a waste. This experimental process has meant running time with Thunder reserves for the former number-two pick. And like last year, Donovan has liberally experimented with his on court groupings.
This is precisely what makes Adams’ lack of offensive touches all the more surprising. His numbers are solid, and are certainly an improvement on previous seasons:
Adams’ mpg total is a slight misnomer, as he has sat fourth quarters on occasion this year. Per 36 minutes, Adams’ numbers are more or less the same through the last three seasons. Surprisingly, he is actually getting less touches per game in a situation where he should be getting his hands on the ball more than ever. Keep in mind, this is less touches in more minutes, which makes it all the more striking:
Adams is holding the ball longer however, and this is due to Donovan empowering the Kiwi to initiate and create offense through his ever improving passing. His athleticism and movement means a variety of things. He can run the break:
STACHE BRO BREAK. https://t.co/MxCNVhxRdS— Adam Joseph (@AdamJosephSport) November 5, 2016
Adams can post up, and has the vision to move the ball to backdoor cutters:
Adams no-look passes are a joy. Roberson this time. https://t.co/UNhEiivUmF— Adam Joseph (@AdamJosephSport) November 5, 2016
Or the awareness to make drop off’s to his high flying leader:
fun pass by Adams, even more fun dunk by Russ. https://t.co/Jg8rpBYL67— Adam Joseph (@AdamJosephSport) October 30, 2016
The reason Adams can now showcase such skill is due to his coach trusting him to get the ball and make plays. Coaches often punish their players for mistakes, but excellent coaches such as Gregg Popovich know that giving players a chance to fail actually helps them succeed in later scenarios. Donovan clearly practices the same techniques with all his players.
With this increased freedom to create, Adams’ turnovers have naturally risen (1.1 to 2.5 per game) as his once unfaltering hands haven’t always served as the usual safe haven.
In the midst of these successes and struggles, Adams is still learning how to become the player he is envisioned to be. Whilst already a defensive force, it must be remembered how far he has come from the guy who got lost in pick and roll coverage during his rookie year. Now he’s exemplary at it.
In reference to Adams’ defense, he’s not a huge shot blocker, but his athleticism allows him to cover his assignment and become a help defender without sacrificing man coverage. In fact, he did this twice to former Thunder player Dion Waiters this week when the Miami Heat visited:
TAKE YOUR SHOT BACK TO WAITERS ISLAND. https://t.co/hyRSviwps7— Adam Joseph (@AdamJosephSport) November 8, 2016
"Welcome back, bro." https://t.co/RwuTTpXq2x— Adam Joseph (@AdamJosephSport) November 8, 2016
It’s exactly why the defense has fallen in a hole when Adams steps off the floor. Andre Roberson’s defense has been superb no doubt, but it is Adams who is key to it all. His absence induces a 16.9 point per 100 possessions drop off — from 91.0 with him on the floor, compared to 107.9 when he sits.
Offensively it is no different. As a whole, the Thunder is 29.8 points per-100-possessions better with Adams on the floor. Few players can have that sort of impact at such a young age, and it is easy to forget Adams is only twenty-three-years old. There is a lot of room for improvement still to come in all facets of his game.
This is what exactly what Donovan is trying to develop. It is reassuring that his coach allows him to make plays with the ball in his hands, rather than simply using him as both a screener and roll man.
The Thunder are a work in progress, and contain ten players twenty-five-years-old or younger. In some parts, it is a raw team led by a superstar unlike any other. With his former running mate now wearing rival colors, the Thunder have been forced to rediscover their identity; particularly offensively.
Adams can be a key part of that. Getting him more involved in the offense is the best thing the Thunder can do moving towards the future.