Kiwi Steve in the NBA: Lessons From OKC Media Day 2019

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THINGS DONE CHANGED

The state of the Oklahoma City Thunder has changed drastically over the last few months but all the words that are spoken and all the deals that get made and all the hypotheticals… nothing quite hits home like that first opportunity to see the team together in uniform ahead of a new season. An OKC media day without Russell Westbrook, with Chris Paul there instead. It was jarring.

Clearly the Thunder are going to look different. Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari have replaced Paul George and Russell Westbrook. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is going to play a prominent role after impressing for the Clippers as a rookie last season. At least Steven Adams has still got Andre Roberson, his old draft mate, who is sounding more and more optimistic about playing a significant role again after missing all of last season with injury, but those two are now the longest serving Thunder members and along with another 2013 Draftee in Dennis Schröder they’re the most experienced NBA players on the roster after CP3 (14 years) and Danny G (10 years) – Nerlens Noel was drafted in 2013 as well but was hurt his entire rookie season.

Whatever you think about the era that preceded this one and whatever your feelings, optimistic or not, about the upcoming season and the years beyond it, a chapter has been closed in the history of this franchise. That’s always something to stop and reflect upon. But then ask old mate here about it and he’ll tell you that the more things change, the more they stay the same too…

“Bit of a loaded question, mate. Yeah obviously we’ve got different players and whatnot. The feel itself, no. one thing this organisation does really well is you keep consistent with the values. It doesn’t, it doesn’t matter who the players are. We still represent Oklahoma. We still have a duty to the people that we have to fulfil. If that makes sense.”


RIGHTO SO WHAT’S IT GONNA LOOK LIKE?

For the last few years the Thunder have been defined by Westbrook Unleashed. It was Rusty Buckets who ran the show and it was upon his shoulders that they rose up or stumbled down. That was both a good and a bad thing, Westbrook sometimes willing them to victory with an indomitable spirit and other times costing them with his increasingly dodgy jump shot. The feeling had become that they’d indulged him as much as they should and it was time for both of them to move on, a feeling that Westbrook himself obviously accepted.

But even if the time was right, it’s still a scary thing to step out into the open when you’ve usually been sheltered in the shadows of a dominant leader. Billy Donovan is going to get to do some serious coaching now and what exactly that team will look like is a fascinating one. For starters they have three ball-dominant point guards in CP3, SGA, and Schröbags. Westbrook’s isolation plays and pick and roll preferences were a staple of the OKC offence in recent years but nowadays the chat is all about ball movement and balance between the playmakers. Which is definitely a new one. Dan Gallinari even said their budding ball movement would be the secret to their success.

When asked about offensive scheme, Adams suggested that it’s not so much that the Thunder are changing as the entire league is changing and that, sure, you can probably expect to see them trending more towards that league-wide tendency. Which means fewer pick and rolls and more handles, seeking to manipulate defenders more through speed and fluidity… and that’s possibly not the most ideal situation for Kiwi Steve. Stretch shooting is another of the trends he mentioned and here’s a guy who has never made a three in his NBA career (from seven attempts, most if not all of them late-quarter heaves). But he’s a skilled passer too and perhaps a more democratic offence is going to unleash him in a way that he’s never seen before. Adams in particular has always had his production and his role tethered to Westbrook and without him it’s either a crisis or an opportunity. Not really much of a choice then, is it?


TREBLES & BOARDS

While on the topic of stylistic alterations then… let’s go all in on Adams in particular. Sam Presti finished last year saying that the top thing he could do to improve his game would be to start making free throws. That sentiment still stands but it’s notable that Presti also went out of his way to express how excited he is about Adams this season and it’s a feeling that’s felt throughout Oklahoma City.

Adams and Westbrook had an incredible on-court bond yet the more Russ’ jump shot abandoned him, and he was absolutely abysmal in that aspect last season, the harder it was for Adams to find space for his post-ups and lobs and put-backs. But then he was also reliant on Russ to get him the ball in those situations anyway so it was a tricky balancing act. And then let’s also not ignore the fact that Westbrook legit stole rebounds from his big man. It was fine, they were on the same page, but that’s what was happening. How else can you explain one of the top offensive rebounders in the league having fewer defensive boards per game last season than Steph Curry?

So that’s one aspect that’s definitely going to rise with a more routinely efficient offence – and it’s not just Russ either because Paul George and Jerami Grant are gone too and each of them were reliable rebounders as well. Adams won’t be DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond on the boards all of a sudden simply because the stats mean nothing to him and he’ll probably continue to dominate his box outs as a priority over chasing the ball. But it’d be stunning if the numbers don’t rise.

Billy Donovan: “The way we played in terms of really trying to use Russell’s speed in the open floor and those kinds of things, we’re not going to be like that. His whole career, Steven’s played with Russell. So, it’s probably going to take some time for Chris and Steven to work in pick-and-roll, take some time for Gallinari and Chris to play off each other, or Dennis and Gallinari, just these different guys playing together.”

With Presti suggesting that Adams’ role will expand this season though, that implies more than just a few more shots a night. Hence the buzz is that we might finally be about to see Steven Adams knocking down a few triples in games. It’s a skill he’s always practised but it’s never been something he’s comfortable with having a pop at when it matters however if OKC are planning on a modern offensive scheme then it’d be a tad surprising if he didn’t let a few fly. It would have to be something that the coach encourages but if the potential is there then why not? Adams poured some cold water on the idea on media day but he didn’t flat out deny it.

“Ah, I dunno mate. We gotta still focus. Keep focussed on what the game plan is. I’m not gonna just come out and be like: maybe now’s a good time to jack up a couple threes. It’s gotta be calculated.”


STEVE + CP3 = ?

And, hey, when one point guard leaves another shows up. Chris Paul and Steven Adams’ combination will be one that takes some time to develop but both are instinctive players who should do quite well together. CP3 is a master in the midrange and a visionary passer. Which means more floor spacing and therefore more room for Adams to attack that rim. Oh and Chris Paul was kinda the dude pulling the strings of Lob City back in the Clipper days so yeah that bodes pretty well for Steve. Seems like the two are already hitting it off too, even if they do share pretty different diets (more on that later).

“He’s just like a real court general. He knows how to control pace really, really well which is a huge deal. Obviously there’s a long list of things, we’ll be here all day. It’ll be good to see what he does here, you know.”


THE TRADE DOOR AIN’T CLOSED YET

It’s no secret that the Thunder were open to trading Steven Adams at the end of last season. They were open to trading a lot of players, and ended up doing exactly that with their two best: Paul George and Russell Westbrook. At that point nobody on the roster was safe and while the Thunder did edge under the luxury tax they probably wouldn’t mind a little more room on top of that. As it stands Adams remains a key player but the fact is that this franchise has changed priorities as they rebuild. If value and assets come back in the other way in exchange for Adams then they’d pull the trigger in an instant.

The only issue with that is we saw in free agency just how slim the big man market has become. For a player with an old fashioned tool kit like Adams, there are very few teams who have both the salary cap wiggle room to acquire him, the payment that OKC are asking for, and the desire to pay a big man of his style the money that he’s earning. He’s got two years left on his contract and $53 million owed. Teams like the Mavericks, Kings, and Celtics had all expressed an interest in him prior to free agency but the Mavs have nothing to trade that they’re willing to part with (specifically they already traded picks to the Hawks and Knicks for Doncic and Porzingis) while the Kings signed Dewayne Dedmon to a much cheaper deal instead, and the Celtics signed old mate Enes Kanter plus they don’t have the cap space short of trading Gordon Hayward who simply doesn’t fit OKC’s timeline – he’s three years older than Adams for starters. But that market could change quickly as the season progresses.

“Yeah I mean it’s… look. It ain’t this thing where you just read about and, like, oh that’s unfortunate and then you’re surprised that it happened to you. If it’s happening to someone else then obviously there’s a chance it might happen to you. It’s common sense, mate. But yeah it still affects you in some way coz you’re human. If you care about something, obviously I care about the organisation here. But again, we’re here because we’re trying to support the organisation itself and the organisation needs to do well. So you have to keep that in mind. You’re just here to help. And if you can place your brick, whatever you wanna call it, on the history that it’s about to create then that’s a privilege. That’s just cool. So even if they did trade me it’s been a huge honour, and I know with every player that’s played here, it’s been a huge honour to just contribute to the history that Oklahoma City is making.”


BEEF

“I’m sticking by meat, mate. I’m a huge fan of meat. Quite impressive though, the stuff aye? The science behind it? Pretty impressive I will say that. Might be a little locker room debate.”

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