Understanding the anomaly that is Steven Adams

Steven Adams has become a crucial component of the Oklahoma City Thunder's playoff push. Does his improvement as a player offset the decline of Carmelo Anthony?

Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams has established himself as an elite, yet underappreciated talent in today's NBA. In the public eye, Adams takes a backseat to the forefront of the center-position renaissance, as he doesn't have the same name recognition as Rudy Gobert or Andre Drummond. Even to those who have the Thunder under their microscope, it's still a challenge to figure out how the team could optimally use Adams in the modern NBA. Adams has proven to be, at worst, far above average on both sides of the ball, whereas other key players may have regressed more than expected.

On offense, Adams has been shockingly efficient while scoring in the paint. Per basketball-reference, his 126. offensive rating is third in the NBA. He sits just behind Chris Paul's 127 rating and just ahead of Karl-Anthony Towns' 126.7 On top of that, Adams has been the league's best offensive rebounder, as his 16.7 percent ties him with Andre Drummond, who is having a historic rebounding season of his own over in Detroit. The strange thing, though, is despite his proficiency in this category, Adams does not rank within the top 20 of defensive rebounders (while Westbrook does), nor is he in the top 20 of total rebounding percentage. Still, it gets weirder. Per Synergy, Adams is worse at scoring following an offensive rebound than in any other situation, despite it being the most common type of play he looks to score on. 

Play type % of time Points per possession
Offensive rebound 26.2 1.01
P&R Roll Man 24.7 1.217
Cut 21.3 1.301

Adams has developed into a great defensive player as well. Not All-NBA levels, but well above average. Per Synergy, his 0.827 points per possession puts him in the 86th percentile, which is probably inflated a bit by his teammate, Russell Westbrook, stepping up on defense while Paul George has been as good as advertised. Adams certainly deserves his share of credit, but I think it's important to recognize when a player's improvement is a product of the change that happens around them. While Adams can hold his own against any center in the paint, you can't deny that his job is made easier by players like Paul George cutting off drives before they even become Adams' problem. Case in point: Carmelo Anthony yelling "Where the [bleep] is my help?!" at Adams after getting cooked by James Harden in the Thunder's Tuesday night loss to Houston. 

(We could argue about whether or not Adams and/or Westbrook should have collapsed on the play, but you won't convince me that leaving more players open on a Harden drive was the better option.)

It turns out that Adams is an extremely niche player, and that's what makes him hard to evaluate. He's an efficient scorer, but only in the paint, which will only take you so far in today's NBA. He's a fantastic rebounder, but mostly on the offensive glass, and he struggles to score on putback attempts. I mean, it is truly bizarre that a player who averages more than five offensive boards per game also averages less than 10 total rebounds each game. 

Most research I do on the Thunder is fueled by one question: Why isn't this team better? It was admittedly a hasty prediction to label them as contenders, but now the team is at risk of missing the playoffs altogether. Two perennial All-Stars plus Adams and whatever Carmelo is should be more than enough to make the playoffs given that you also have two, maybe three, competent role players to help them. The Thunder have exactly that, so what's the deal?

Well, when you break down what each player does, just in a general sense, I think it's reasonable to say that the Thunder roster just doesn't make sense. They're a bit like the pre-deadline Cavaliers, save all the locker room drama. There are no complementing skill sets to pair with Westbrook, which nobody could have really known until getting a chance to see him play without Kevin Durant by his side. So the instinct, as a viewer, is to suggest that the team make changes according to what seems to work well, which, in this case, could point your attention to the somewhat untapped source of production that is Steven Adams. But in reality, it might not make sense to use him more, since so much of his improvement has come as a result of the changes around him. 

It'll take a while to re-tool the Thunder. As we take inventory, it's worth to look at players like Adams closely to know what the team is working with. It'll be interesting to see if Sam Presti looks for more frontcourt help when his current bigs are statistically losing out on rebounds to an aggressive point guard.

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