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2015-16 Thunder Player Grades: Steven Adams was ready for his close-up

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Steven Adams was the breakout star of the NBA playoffs, finally earning a deserved reputation of a highly-skilled, bruising enforcer. Now the Thunder's third best player, we know what the floor is for Steven Adams. Does stardom await?

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Full Name: Steven Funaki Adams

Nickname: "Funaki," "Kid Kiwi" (now seems outdated – this is not a child), "Lord Adams" (I may or may not have made this one up – it’s the one I’ve used and assumed everyone else did, too, until I couldn’t find any record of anyone else using it).

Contract Status: Adams made $2,279,040 in 2015-16, will make $3,140,517 in 2016-17, and has a qualifying offer of $4,321,352 in 2017-18 that I hope he never receives. As I wrote during the season, Lord Adams is on a max contract trajectory, and I hope he is paid accordingly as soon as possible.

Notable Factoid: What was previously the stuff of legend has now rightfully crossed over into the mainstream. You’ve heard it all by now: his sister is an Olympic gold medalist and he used to hang out with members of a gang called the Mongrel Mob. Just read the Brian Windhorst article.

Player History

The Thunder selected Adams with the 12th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, a pick they acquired from the Houston Rockets for the price of a backup shooting guard. After playing only a single season at the University of Pittsburgh, Adams was viewed as an athletic but extremely raw prospect, with the general expectation being that he would spend much of his rookie season in the D-League. Instead, Adams immediately looked more seasoned than anyone could have expected, playing highly-effective minutes as the Thunder won the 2013 Orlando Summer League championship. He averaged 9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, and shot 60% from the field. With that, all the D-League talk dried up quickly.

Adams received steady minutes almost immediately, and his official coming out party came in only his fifth regular season NBA game:

Adams played 81 games his rookie season, starting 20 and putting up quietly impressive numbers of 8 points, 10 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, 1.3 assists, and 1.2 steals per 36 minutes – good enough for a spot on the All Rookie 2nd team for the 2013-14 season.

Year 2 featured continued growth from Steven Adams. Not only did he replace Kendrick Perkins in the starting lineup on a permanent basis, he also began to show off the full breadth of his offensive arsenal. A soft touch around the basket began to emerge, making him an ideal fit as the roll man alongside Russell Westbrook. He also shook off the growing pains inherent with a rookie screen setter, committing only 1 more offensive foul than he had in his rookie season despite playing nearly 600 more minutes.

2014-15 was a lost year for the Thunder, with two exceptions. One was, of course, Westbrook’s incredible second half of the season, of which much has been written. The other was Steven Adams. Going into the summer, not everyone was certain how Kevin Durant would bounce back the following year. But what if he came back strong? What if he looked healthy? The full-strength Thunder had still not lost a playoff series since the 2012 Finals, and now they added equally dynamic and diabolical scoring off the bench, and they had a young, athletic center playing the role once held down by Kendrick Perkins.

Going into 2015-16, everyone was rightfully talking about Durant’s health, but it was clear that if KD came back as the same MVP-caliber player, pieces like Steven Adams had the potential to take the Oklahoma City to a new level.

Pre-Season/Early Season Expectations

Before the season, I wrote about what year three might look like for Steven Adams, and must admit that some of the statistical outputs seemed a bit lofty. I purposefully compared him to the elite centers of the league because I believed that he had shown talent and modern NBA-friendly athleticism that might eventually lead him to those ranks, albeit perhaps more slowly than the others had gotten there. I thought that using advanced stats like Defensive Rebounding and Block Percentages might better indicate the performance of a bruising enforcer than the traditional points, rebounds, and blocked shots.

More than anything, however, I wanted to see the full-strength Thunder offense function better over long stretches than it had with Kendrick Perkins. Basically, I wanted Steven Adams to be able to do things like "catch" and "hand the ball to an uncovered teammate" more effectively than Perk had. Adams was going to have to work the boards for many of his points, but I also wanted to see how Westbrook would incorporate him into the high pick and roll with Kevin Durant on the weakside. The Thunder roster has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to big men who can move and finish in tight quarters, and I was hoping Steven Adams would add his name to that list. Spoiler alert: he did.

Regular Season Grade: B+

This is how Adams performed relative to the projections from my pre-season preview:

Projected Actual
PER 13.76 15.5
True Shooting % 0.5602 0.621
Defensive Rebound % 19.98 16.1
Block % 4.1 3.3
Defensive Box +/- 3.1 1.3
Usage % 12.88 12.6
Turnover % 17.06 14.1

Obviously, he blew past some of the numbers and fell short of others. His PER and true shooting percentage were way up and the turnovers were way down, but his Defensive Box Plus/Minus and Defensive Rebounding Percentage failed to live up to projected, highly-unscientific expectations.

Of greater importance to the Thunder was the fact that Steven Adams continued his growth on offense and excelled as one of Westbrook’s primary pick and roll targets. Per NBA.com, Adams shot 63% as the roll man, scoring an average of 1.12 points per play when he got the ball after setting the screen. This was crucial for the development of the Thunder offense, and helped Russell Westbrook average a career high in assists with 10.4 per game.

Adams logged only 6 double doubles, but was a nightly lock for 8 points and 7 rebounds, and a block. His offensive rating (had been 108 in both first and second seasons) skyrocketed to 123. Kevin Durant’s offensive rating was 122. A player’s Offensive Rating is a measure of how many points he produces per every 100 possessions. In 2015-16, Steven Adams produced more points per 100 possessions than Kevin Durant.

His finishing around the rim improved greatly, as his field goal percentage from 0-3 feet out jumped from 54% to 61%. This can be attributed to the fact that Adams threw down 102 dunks during the regular season, more than his first two seasons combined. And those dunks – they were awesome:

The Westbrook-to-Adams alley oop is featured prominently in the above video, and with good reason: it was a prominent part of what made the offense click. Steven Adams provided an entirely new wrinkle for opposing defenses, as the opponent’s center could no longer blindly help on the driving Russell Westbrook. At his best, Adams seemingly fell from the clouds to finish towering lobs. At his worst, he kept the defense honest. When you play for the Thunder and your last name isn’t Durant or Westbrook, simply keeping the defense honest is far from insignificant.

Adams’ regular season was good enough to earn a B+, and nearly an A-. His continued growth continued the trend of OKC’s stars, who somehow get better every year. Nothing, however, could have prepared us for how Adams would perform in the playoffs.

Post Season Grade: A+++

I was going to add more pluses, but I think you catch my drift.

Before we talk about the mega lineup against the Spurs, the Draymond Green thing, and the reverse dunks, let’s revisit those preseason projects, this time including the playoff numbers. Before you look at the chart, remember the players I used to compile the projections: Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, and DeMarcus Cousins. Or, better yet, let’s just say a combined 5 Defensive Player of the Year awards, 7 All NBA First Team appearances, and 13 All Star appearances.

Projected Actual Playoffs
PER 13.76 15.5 16.8
True Shooting % 0.5602 0.621 0.636
Defensive Rebound % 19.98 16.1 21.6
Block % 4.1 3.3 2.0
Defensive Box +/- 3.1 1.3 3.0
Usage % 12.88 12.6 12.6
Turnover % 17.06 14.1 10.6

The numbers not only indicate series-changing performances from Adams. They also extend well past projections set by previous performances from the league’s elite centers. These projections, were, of course, relative to previous performance and not total impact, but still – if you’re unsatisfied with Steven Adams improving at the same rate as players like DeMarcus Cousins and Dwight Howard (and at a time when the stakes are highest), you’re either watching 2011 James Harden highlights on your phone as you read this, or you’re actually James Harden.

Throughout the playoffs, but mainly during the Spurs series, Adams anchored a massive Thunder lineup that bucked every Warriors-induced trend. The Westbrook/Waiters/Durant/Kanter/Adams lineup was on the floor for many of the tense fourth quarter minutes against San Antonio. The numbers below are actually real:

Lineup MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% eFG% FT FTA FT% PTS ORB ORB% DRB DRB% TRB TRB% AST STL BLK TOV PF
S. Adams | K. Durant | E. Kanter | D. Waiters | R. Westbrook 33:01:00 11.5 -4.6 0.169 -3.9 -10 -0.02 0.148 6.5 14.8 -0.113 25.7 5.1 33.3 22.5 33.3 13.3 37.8 21.7 -0.6 1.9 1.8 -3.1

I had to export the above data instead of manually enter it, because some of the numbers didn’t feel real enough to actually type. Per 100 possessions, this lineup scored 11.5 more field goals than the opponent. It scored 25.7 more points than the opponent. It grabbed basically every rebound.

This lineup clearly was not as good of a fit against the Warriors, but gave them issues at times nonetheless. One of the major storylines going into 2016-17, assuming the team’s roster is similarly constructed, will be how often Donovan goes big – and how often he goes huge.

It’s sad that most non-Thunder fans will remember Steven Adams 2015-16 playoff performance not for something he did, but for something he may no longer be able to do (procreate). Draymond Green showering Adams with praise in his Game 7 postgame interview serves as little consolation for the various incidents that took place throughout the series. Adams doesn’t always get the benefit of the doubt because of his past reputation as a sneaky instigator, but the kicks, the takedowns , and the general Draymond Green-ing render his words somewhat hollow.  At least we got this:

I’ll finish by pointing out that two of my favorite plays from this year’s playoffs were Adams dunks:

Most Notable Game/Moment

This is a play you might have seen:

Without a hint of doubt, this was the play that saved the Thunder’s season, and every positive element of it was produced by Steven Adams. I understand how the rest of the series played out, but none of that is happening if the Thunder leave San Antonio down 0-2. Even if OKC would have won game 3, giving them the same 1-2 deficit, the Thunder’s game 2 victory felt like the start of something. We didn’t quite know it at the time, but it was the start of the Thunder defense taking control. It was the start of a fearless demeanor that allowed them to grab multiple road wins in impossible environments. Because of Russell Westbrook, the Thunder have always kind of looked like they were playing with a chip on their shoulder, but this play was the start of everyone else falling into line and not letting up. Galvanizing isn’t even the word: the once-beloved Thunder – the young media darlings – were suddenly the villain. Everyone was piling on, essentially stating that the only possible justice would come in the form of a series win for the Spurs. But beginning with one play, the Thunder suddenly refused to bow to the pressure. At the heart of it all was Steven Adams.

When you strip this play of the emotion, of Chris Webber’s call, and of the sheer stakes, you realize that Adams prevents no fewer than 4 game-winning baskets in a mere 10 seconds:

  1. He blocks Danny Green from getting to the basket and forces an awkward pass.
  2. He prevents Patty Mills from taking what would have been an uncontested layup.
  3. He helps on Manu to force the kick out.
  4. He closes on Mills in the corner – covering approximately 20 feet with three steps and possibly getting his fingertips on a ball that fell well short.

FOUR huge plays in 10 seconds. For the statheads out there, that is 864 season-saving defensive plays per-36 minutes. The play itself is All-Defensive Team-level stuff, the kind of thing usually reserved for only the Lebrons, Kawhis, and Draymonds of the league, and it was a much-deserved turning point for Steven Adams’ reputation in the national media. Previously, he was the James Harden trade guy with a mustache who baited opponents into punching him in the face and getting ejected. Now? He’s the athletic, high basketball IQ, All Star-caliber center who at 22 years old is only scratching the surface of his potential.

Future Expectations

It’s difficult to project the play of Steven Adams without referencing OKC’s past player development success. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, and Reggie Jackson all improved every summer while with the Thunder. Even Dion Waiters developed into something passable.

Is it fair to lump Adams in with this group? Yes and no. The Thunder organization has consistently developed All Star caliber players, though the actual method behind it is tough to pinpoint. Is it coaching? Is it the culture? Is it just a matter of drafting players with the disposition to get better? No matter the true cause, OKC and its fans have every reason to believe that Steven Adams will come back as a better player in year 4 and year 5 (and hopefully many beyond that).

That said, look at that list of players and ask yourself, what they have in common? They aren’t dominant big men. I know that Serge has always blocked a lot of shots and has occupied traditional "big man" positions, but the Thunder have not developed him as a post player. Instead (and depending on who you ask), Serge has either evolved or regressed to the point of playing the way-too-stretched-4 at times, often taking himself away from the rim – and out of the game – while establishing himself as one of the league’s streakiest shooters. When he’s on, he doesn’t miss, and when he’s off, he’d rather be anywhere than on the court and holding anything other than a basketball.

How the franchise develops and incorporates Steven Adams going forward is now  unarguably the third biggest question mark in OKC, behind the respective free agency decisions of Durant and Westbrook. The good news is that Adams has come so far in such a short period of time that expectations are now sky high. The bad news is that if they aren’t met, it’s going to feel an awful lot like a kick from Draymond Green.

All statistics, unless otherwise stated, from Basketball-Reference.com.