Steven Adams has always been a bit of a wild card in his four years in Oklahoma City. He started his career as a bit of a cleanup guy on offense, putting back whatever Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant missed while doing very little offensive work of his own; at his peak in that role, he was hitting on 61.3 percent of his shots while grabbing 2.7 offensive rebounds a game.
Last year, he was the second-best player on a Thunder squad that was Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Blue Featuring Steven Adams.
This year? His role is the cleanup guy on offense, putting back whatever Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony miss. He is, in essence, Dennis Rodman 2.0, but with more scoring off of putbacks than the Worm ever did in Chicago.
But is he any good? After all, being the cleanup guy isn’t a bad thing to be in the NBA, but is that all Adams is? Or, put another way…
Does Steven Adams have merit as a basketball player beyond a tightly-defined role on a specific type of team?
In other words, if OKC traded him, would he just suck?
The Counting Stats
The first argument in Adams’ favor is his touch around the rim. A great cleanup guy has to have a nose for the basket in traffic in the restricted area; DeAndre Jordan is the best in the league at this, and Wilt Chamberlain is the best of all-time at it (granted, the restricted area didn’t exist in Wilt’s day, and they didn’t start counting offensive rebounds until two years after the Big Dipper retired, but watch the tape, especially of that ’72 Lakers team where Wilt finished his career.)
Adams currently leads the league in offensive rebounds, with an astounding 5.2 a game. He is hitting 63.4 percent of his shots and 69.2 percent inside three feet from the rim. He’s even managing to score a career-best 13.7 points per game as the Thunder are loaded up on bricklayers from long range; Westbrook, Anthony, and George are all terrible shooters who make up for their lack of accuracy in volume to put up gaudy counting stats (and in George’s case, he’s a good enough three-point shooter to overcome a low overall percentage with a great effective percentage.)
In other words, Adams is the absolute perfect fit according to the counting stats, having exactly the kind of season you want from a great cleanup guy. He is DeAndre-like. On his best day, he is Wilt-like.
And like Jordan and Chamberlain, he can’t hit a free throw to save his life (59.1 percent), but that just solidifies the comparison; he is a three-feet-and-in guy, full stop.
The Advanced Stats
Of course he leads the league in offensive rebounding percentage as well, on the only team left in basketball that still crashes the offensive glass. Adams is pulling in 17.7 percent of available offensive boards. There are rebounders in this league, good ones even, who don’t pull in that kind of volume on defensive rebounds.
Indeed, Adams himself only hauls in 13.7 percent of the available defensive boards, no big surprise considering he’s so often beaten back down the floor as the Thunder are infamous for giving up transition baskets.
But let’s stop for a minute and consider something else. Adams is putting up career-highs in PER (21.3), WS/48 (.206, shading into superstar territory), BPM (plus-3.4), and VORP (1,9 over the course of half a season; his full-season high was 2.1 in 80 games in 2016.)
In other words, the base advanced-stat numbers say the guy’s an All-Star!
He is for the third straight year posting a significant positive on-off Net Rating split (plus-6.0, helped no doubt by the fact that he’s playing most of his minutes alongside OKC’s Big Three), he’s posting a career-best 12.9 percent turnover rate, and paradoxically, his ability to avoid shooting too many free throws (a career-low .343 free throw rate) means that his poor free throw shooting isn’t dragging down his offensive efficiency; he is learning to kick the ball back out rather than go up unless he has a good chance of drawing an and-one rather than a missed shot and two free throws.
Better still, he is back on his 2016 form in terms of getting as many shots as possible up from in the restricted area; 73 percent of his shots are coming in close, another career high.
Any team that would sign Adams needs to bear in mind the player he is. If your team relies heavily on getting back and ditching the offensive glass, you’re wasting Adams’ talents. If your team relies on the big man creating offense in the post, Adams isn’t your guy; he thrives off being the safety valve for his teammates. He lacks the raw athleticism for “the-lob-the-jam” feats like Jordan pulls off.
He is Dennis Rodman 2.0, Chicago edition, in the nicest possible way that can be expressed. He’d be great in Phoenix (as the valve for Devin Booker) or Denver (for Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, and Will Barton.) Not so much in Golden State, Milwaukee, or Dallas, the three lowest offensive rebound count teams in basketball. Even cleaning up after Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson wouldn’t make sense the way the Dubs use centers; Adams would be an improvement on Zaza Pachulia, but that’s not going to make him a key contributor.
Which is both the best and the worst thing about Adams. Put him on a throwback of a team that relies on multiple shots at the rim on offense to score and sacrifice transition defense, like Oklahoma City does, and he’s great. He’ll put up superstar-level advanced stats just from having his strengths played to.
But this is the NBA in 2018. Sadly, that means Adams’ game is ill-suited to about 90 percent of the teams in the league.
But man, he is fantastic in Oklahoma City. It is with something of a heavy heart that I can’t list him as Confirmed; as recently as five or ten years ago, I’d have done so.
In 2018, “is Steven Adams good” must be settled as merely Plausible.