When you put together one of the most brilliant off-seasons in recent memory, you tend to look fondly on the newly acquired pieces as the “key” to your improvement for the upcoming season.
It’s even easier to take that viewpoint when the pieces you have added are Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. However, for all their skill and brilliance, the internal improvement and development from Steven Adams looms as the most important sub-story of the season.
A number of people scratched their heads when the Oklahoma City Thunder invested so heavily in the New Zealander’s latest contract, and Adams’ struggles as opposing defenses clogged the lane and limited his impact last season did not pass without notice. However after just four games with the “new” Thunder, perceptions are changing quicker than Russell Westbrook goes from baseline to baseline.
The Funaki started the season against his former teammate and Stache Brother Enes Kanter and delivered 12 points (on 5/5 shooting), 5 rebounds, 3 blocks and 5 steals in a 21 point victory. After a down game against Utah (a down game for the Thunder in general really) he has delivered back to back 17 point games against Minnesota and Indiana respectively, to go along with double-digit rebounds in both games as well. It’s not just the numbers in the box score though, it is the effort, the intensity and the “fit” that makes Adams even more valuable.
Thunder GM Sam Presti brought in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to make life easier for Russell Westbrook – and they have. Teams can no longer wantonly throw multiple defenders at the MVP as they have to stay with George and Anthony who are both terrific scorers in their own right. The new Thunder All-Stars are spacing the floor and making the lane easier for Westbrook to penetrate. Russ, who has had little trouble finding his teammates with the basketball, is exploiting these gaps and leads the league with 12.8 asst/gm.
Adams though, has been brilliant in his own right. His positioning and timing has complemented Russ and co, while his soft hands, sweet footwork and "Game of Thrones" strength at the rim has turned him into a lethal weapon and a crucial fourth member of OKC’s “core four”. Seemingly the "magic" number of star guys necessary to make a splash in the post-season.
Last season, Adams posted 16 double-doubles. He already has two this season (in the past two games). As always, Adams continues his hard work in the trenches and remains a constant rebounding threat, but as his floating hooks improve combined with the added pick-n-roll opportunities the spacing George and Anthony provide, he gives the Thunder yet another effective avenue to the basket – and you can’t have too many of those.
Equally important is Adam’s defensive versatility. Alongside George and Roberson, the Funaki is making life very difficult for opposing teams – especially on the pick and roll. And when the playoffs roll around, the Thunder’s defense should be locked in.
Yes it’s a smallish sample size, and the Thunder are certainly still yet to find their feet and fire on all cylinders yet, but Adams, thus far, is somewhat of a chameleon (if you can use that analogy on a hulking seven footer with an arm full of ink, dark flowing locks and a menacing game) and fitting in seamlessly with whatever the Thunder are doing at any given time. Should this continue, OKC is heading in a very exciting direction.
Could a Western Conference Finals matchup against the Golden State Warriors loom? While the Thunder have certainly retooled and gotten better and deeper this time season (adding Raymond Felton, Patrick Patterson as well), it might be Steven Adams and an “inside job” that steals the Larry O’Brien trophy away from the Bay Area.