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Thunder center Steven Adams makes his All-Star case

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The 6th-year big man has always been willing to do the dirty work, but is it time for the league to recognize his massive footprint on OKC’s success?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As the clocked ticked towards triple zeroes at the Staples Center on Wednesday night in what ended as a 107-100 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, most of the accolades for the Oklahoma City Thunder were focused on the usual suspects. Russell Westbrook posted his eleventh triple-double of the season. Paul George poured in 37 points to continue an assault on the early-season MVP ranks.

Steven Adams tried to minimize his contributions in the postgame scrum, heaping praise onto his two All-Star teammates. But the 7-foot center was unable to pull off a Keyser Soze-esque escape from his own impact on the game — he simply played too big to get away with it.

The sixth-year veteran pulled down 15 rebounds — eight of them on the offensive glass — to go with 14 points for his 17th double-double of the season. These oversized stat lines are becoming the norm for the Pitt product, exemplified by a career-high 23 rebounds to go along with 20 points on Dec. 19 in a win over Sacramento. It was the first 20-20 game of his career and the third in Thunder history alongside Enes Kanter and Serge Ibaka. The performance from Adams was a masterpiece that epitomized his phenomenal first quarter of the season, one that has him on pace to set career highs in rebounds, assists, field goal attempts, and points.

The most obvious impact has been on the glass. In a modern NBA landscape that is transitioning towards stretch big men who spend more and more time roaming around outside of the paint, Adams remains a true traditional big, banging around in the low post and using his size and strength to get in the best position to pull down boards. The Aquaman lookalike patrols the paint with a grizzled intensity that is unmatched by most low post players this side of Marc Gasol.

The most fascinating aspect of Adams — aside from the jovial and friendly personality he outwardly displays (amid the occasional on-air cursing), a far cry from the Dothraki personality his appearance suggests — is his rebounding selflessness. Adams has always imposed his will on the offensive glass. His offensive rebounding percentage has never dipped below 12.2 percent, peaking at 16.6 percent last season. Yet it still feels like he has found another level altogether this year, where he currently sits seventh in the NBA with a 14.7 offensive rebound percentage. His 4.9 offensive rebounds per game is second behind only Pistons big man Andre Drummond, who has a legitimate claim to being the best pure rebounder in the league.

Adams has the ability to rebound at that same pace. His ability to track shots and understand where rebounds are headed has developed to near superhuman levels. Check out this play from last February against Golden State.

After Adams comes up to Westbrook to set the high pick and roll in motion — another aspect of his game that he has greatly developed — Klay Thompson and Javale McGee double-team the ball handler. Adams rolls off the screen for the entry pass from Russ before dishing the ball back out to Paul George. With this pass back, the big man has now planted himself in the paint. From there, he continuously changes his position based on where the ball is, always making sure that he has his man boxed out before a shot even goes up.

George drives into the paint? Adams is between Draymond Green and the hoop. George kicks back out to Russ at the shoulder? Adams sidesteps towards the baseline. And before Westbrook even starts to pass to Jerami Grant for an open corner three, Adams has already anticipated where the ball is headed, slips under Green, and saddles up in front of Kevin Durant. Once the ball goes up, he widens his stance to single-handedly take both Durant and McGee out of contention for the board.

The end result? A relatively simple offensive board that leads to a wide-open Westbrook three-pointer on the kick out.

His timing and understanding of his own misses in the paint have also enabled him to gobble up his own second chances, something he showed against Chicago.

Coming off another elbow screen, Adams rolls to the cup and takes the entry pass from Westbrook. Lauri Markanen’s help defense forces him to switch hands as he goes up, leading to an awkward right-handed mix between a floater and a layup. With three Bulls players around him, he recognizes the miss as it leaves his hand and is already back in the air before the ball leaves the cylinder, beating Markanen and two other players to the rebound before going right back up for two.

Let’s put things in perspective here. Adams’ torrid rebounding pace, combined with his stout defensive presence, has him in elite company. Since the NBA merger, there have been just five seasons where a player has posted an offensive rebound percentage of at least 14.7, a box plus/minus of at least 3.5, and a defensive rating of 102 or greater in 36 or more games, the numbers that Adams is currently producing.

Who posted those seasons? Elton Brand in 2002, Charles Barkley in 1987, Moses Malone in 1979, Moses Malone in 1981, and Moses Malone in 1982.

Brand finished 16th in MVP voting that season. Barkley placed sixth. Malone placed fourth in 1981 but won the award the other two times. Rarefied air indeed. And yet, I get this sinking feeling that Adams won’t garner the votes needed to even sniff an All-NBA nod. Such is life living in the shadow of flashier multi-tool front court players such as Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins.

Three seasons of peak Moses Malone is a fantastic enough comparison. But here’s the thing: Adams could be even better.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Russell Westbrook. He is one of the most explosive athletes the NBA has ever seen and, through 37 games this season, the fact that he is averaging yet another triple-double on his lowest career usage rate is grossly underreported. But love him or not, Russ hunts for rebounds. There is no denying it. And most of his damage is done on the defensive glass. Westbrook ranks tenth in the NBA in defensive rebound percentage with 28.9 percent, and is the only guard to appear in the top 20. Nobody else comes close to his ability to rebound from the guard position, but most of the 9.6 defensive rebounds per game he averages are because Adams does the dirty work for him.

I mean, have you seen anything more blatant? Adams is the cog that allows Westbrook to collect a large portion of the defensive boards that he does. Sure, the point guard can out-jump many big men, but Adams goes through the same motions on the defensive glass that he does on the offensive side of the ball. The difference, however, is that he doesn’t focus on bringing the ball in himself. He just boxes out to take as many opponents out of the play as he can so Westbrook and George (who is grabbing the most rebounds of his career this season) can snag the ball and run the break.

What allows this to work is the selflessness of Adams. He doesn’t care about competing with Drummond or DeAndre Jordan for the rebounding titles. As long as someone gets the rebound, it doesn’t matter. His words, not mine.

No big man is more puzzling with their rebounding stats. Most post players with offensive rebounding numbers similar to Adams also post a defensive rebound percentage around 25 percent or higher, with elite rebounders clocking in at the high 30s. Of the six players ahead of him in offensive rebound percentage: Ed Davis, Tristan Thompson, Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, Enes Kanter, and Clint Capela — every single one of them also leads their team in the defensive side of the stat.

Not Adams.

Among the Thunder’s primary 10-man rotation, Adams sits fourth at 16.3 percent, behind Westbrook, Paul George, and Nerlens Noel.

I don’t want Adams to change. He is a team-first player straight out of the Gregg Popovich School of Selflessness. But if he didn’t play on a team with Russell Westbrook, he could lead the NBA in rebounding by a healthy margin. If he went after rebounds with the same vigor Russ went after them in his 20-board performance against to secure a triple-double season last year, he would blow Drummond and the rest of the crowd out of the water. Instead, he chooses to defer to the rest of his team on the defensive glass and help them pad their stats instead.

But the very real possibility exists that we are seeing the best version of Steven Adams that there is. The pace he is on to start the season mirrors that of NBA greats, yet he seems to still be on the outside looking in at an All-Star nod. Sure, the Golden State Warriors can routinely score three or four spots on the Western Conference squad, but Adams has neither the statistical pedigree or the championship background for most voters to select him over his two higher-profile teammates.

Paul George might be the Thunder’s best MVP candidate, but Steven Adams is their most deserving All-Star. He also just might be the best wingman in the NBA, which explains why he has no interest in trumpeting his own All-Star candidacy. But that’s just his style, the same style that has endeared him to both fans and teammates in Oklahoma. And you know what? At 24-13, Billy Donovan and the Thunder shouldn’t have a problem with it.


I’m Dan McLoone, and I’m thrilled to be joining the WTLC team. I currently live in Belmont, Mass. and work on the sports desk at the Boston Globe, but still watch as much Thunder basketball as I can. I used to write about the Thunder for RantSports and am happy to be getting back into writing about the team on the side.