When the last NBA season ended, Steven Adams and the Oklahoma City Thunder were left in an interesting little nook between a rock and a hard place. The rock being the playoffs, the hard place being the second round of the playoffs. Led by the MVP Russell Westbrook, they were easily good enough to stroll on into the postseason but nowhere near good enough to challenge the Houston Rockets – who then lost to the Spurs who then lost to the Warriors who then won the title.
Might it be said, the Houston Rockets have significantly strengthened since then too – adding some bloke called Chris Paul. And the damage done to fellow Western not-quite-contenders like the LA Clippers and Utah Jazz has probably been made irrelevant by the expected improvements of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and a couple others. The West will still be ruthless next season. The Golden State Warriors will still be incredible. Nothing will come easy.
But instead of fading out of the race, the Thunder have retooled in the most dramatic way – trading for Paul George and getting Patrick Patterson on the cheap. They drafted Terrance Ferguson and they also signed Ray Felton. Andre Roberson re-signed to stay with the team. Obviously one name stands out above the rest there and that’s Paul George. A tandem-superstar pairing with him and Westbrook is already enticing, bringing flashbacks of the old Kevin Durant days (it was only a year ago…). He might only be in town for one season but it’s one season in which the Thunder will remain a scary/fascinating prospect.
So much credit goes to GM Sam Presti here. His quick pivot trades last season ensured that OKC didn’t fall off nearly as far as they should have after losing Durant for absolutely nothing in return and yet he still performed the right juggling act of prospects to be able to trade for PG this soon after. That’s straight up magical, that is.
Although not magical enough to put the Thunder in the top tier or anything. Their horrible bench has been weakened even further and Patty Patterson has already had knee surgery since signing. Their three-point shooting should improve but maybe not by enough. There are plenty of flaws. But it should be fun, one way or another.
Also when the last NBA season ended, Steven Adams was getting some pushback after a less than stellar playoffs campaign. By the end of the Houston series he was doing dominant things but it took him too long to get going and by then the series was already gone. Problem was he was so good against the Spurs and Warriors the year before that he’d gone from being underrated straight into being overrated. The thing with Adams is that he’s not ever gonna be a go-to player… he’s instead gonna be the best damn role player you can ask for. Hence why bringing in Paul George arguably benefits Kiwi Steve almost as much as it does Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook has been doing too much on his own. All those triple-doubles were great but if that’s what it takes to win a game of basketball then you aren’t really making your teammates better. Harsh on Russ, it’s not his fault Domantas Sabonis went from shooting 44.4% from deep before Christmas and only 21.8% after Xmas. Well, Sabonis is gone now and George is there instead – a 39.3% three point shooter in 16-17 amongst the many other skills he brings. George is an established All-Star who Westbrook obviously respects. Russ won’t defer to him… but he will trust him without hesitation. Which, frankly, is more than you could say (for good reason) about most of their shooters last time.
So you have two genuine scorers in that starting line-up. That helps hide Andre Roberson’s sinkhole offence but it also helps stretch the floor for Steven Adams. When he and Russ were linking up two years ago with those killer pick and rolls, those lobs up over the rim and the thunderous dunks, OKC had an easy route to points. Yeah… there weren’t a lot of those hoops in 16-17 and the absence of a floor stretching forward like Kevin Durant (you know, one of the two purest shooters in the entire NBA) is almost completely to blame – 72.1% of Adams’ shots two terms ago came from within three yards and only 55.7% of them were from that range last time and that’s not only down to Adams flexing some touch from further out. He went from three quarters of his shots being assisted to only two-thirds.
In other words, expect that Russ/Steve combination to come roaring back now that Paul George is in town to draw in defenders and that puts Adams back in the place he’d rather be. He’s the third or fourth best player on that roster. Last time he was potentially the second and he’s not the kind of player that should be carrying that load. Let him take care of his own business without that pressure and you’ll see a return of the dude we saw in the 2016 playoffs.
In Patrick Patterson he potentially has a guy who can do what Serge Ibaka used to, bringing a bit of help on both ends of the court. Although… Patty has his issues. That contract looks great yet you’ve gotta remember there’s a reason the Raptors let him walk. Patterson was borderline unplayable towards the end of last season. Injuries will have been a factor but he played himself out of an extension and there’s every reason to think the Thunder aren’t getting the player they think they are. No Raptors fans are shedding tears over him leaving, put it that way.
Then again if the change of cities goes well for Patty and he regathers his old abilities then they’ll have a very productive power forward who won’t feel like he needs to dominate the ball – which is nice because there’s only one of those to go around and Russ + PG takes care of most touches. Thus having Patterson, Adams and Roberson as three unselfish guys around them makes total sense.
Ray Felton is an improvement at backup point guard so long as he stays fit and they still have young, developing guys like Alex Abrines, Jerami Grant and Semaj Christon. Doug McDermott should be more effective with an offseason under his belt and there’s always Enes Kanter as well. As always with Presti and the Thunder, don’t discount another move or two either.
So it’s pretty likely that Steven Adams takes a step back in the offence next season. A few less post-ups, maybe. He went from around five shots a night to eight shots a night in 16-17 without dropping off in his percentages too much (61.3% in 15-16 vs 57.2% in 16-17 from the field) – this upcoming campaign won’t see the same jump in touches but they should come easier if only because of the added spacing. Adams isn’t always the most sure-footed played in a crowd, you know. He doesn’t give half a damn about his averages but around 11-12 points a night again sound right and that could be a little higher if that free throw percentage takes a leap.
Also, if Russ isn’t glory hounding TDs then that might mean a rebound or two more, just as his superb offensive regathers should rise with more room to get to work in. Plus a very slept on part of his game is his ability as a passer, not only the execution of his passes but also his vision to spot one. Mate, you give him shooters to work with and he can pick up two or three dimes in every contest… though chances are he won’t get the touches to make it happen quite that often.
Does this all put the Thunder in line for a return to the Western Conference Finals? Probably not… but it keeps Russell Westbrook happy and does good by Kiwi Steve as well. That’s enough for now.
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