These uncertain times for the Oklahoma City Thunder are also an opportunity for so many players. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gets to come out and dominate opponents in his second season in the league, given a prominent role to express himself. Chris Paul gets to run the show in an open audition for a trade to a contender, whether that happens midseason or after the season or not at all. Young fellas like Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo and Darius Bazley all are going to get significant minutes to show what they can do. A franchise for so long so defined by the excessive usage rate of Russell Westbrook (both willingly and correctly) suddenly has this immense freedom to reinvent itself. Hell, even Billy Donovan gets to do some proper coaching now!
Nobody should be more unleashed by this new freedom than Steven Adams. A guy who had fewer defensive rebounds per game than Steph Curry last season now gets to play like a proper centre and, therefore, be judged like one by the wider public. Not something that Steve-o cares about at all but like it or not the general public do have certain touchstones when it comes to how players are recognised and filling out the box score is one of the main ones.
More important than plain old stat stuffing though is that the Thunder just objectively have less talent these days as they enter a rebuild. Less talent means the guys they do have are required to step up and contribute even more towards the team. Steven Adams has always done the little things that help a guy like Russell Westbrook thrive. Now he has to do the thriving, which is a very exciting prospect – and one we got a delicious taste of in preseason when he was one of the most effective dudes out there across the whole NBA.
Except that exciting hasn’t quite been the word for it since the real stuff tipped off. This first season dispatch was supposed to be about his rebound numbers and that one will still happen soon enough. But there was a more immediate problem on the cards as OKC dropped four of their first five games because while Gilgeous-Alexander has looked fantastic so far, averaging 21.6 points and 7.0 rebounds on 44.3% shooting, Steven Adams has been the opposite.
The rebounds tallies are doing fine. He bagged at least nine of them in each of his first four games and he’s getting the bulk of them at the defensive end... which is a new experience. But the currency that matters most in basketball is points and that’s where Adams has been strangely off. It began with about the toughest matchup he could ask for with Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, the single most elite rim protector in the league, against a player like Kiwi Steve who last season shot 94% of his field goal attempts from within ten feet of the basket and 63.6% of them at the rim. Dutifully he shot a mere 1/8 from the field in that game for just 3 total points.
His first shot of the season came from a Chris Paul feed inside, running down the lane in transition and missing up against contact from small forward Royce O’Neal (before Gobert caught up with him and snagged the rebound). Gobert then contested a missed hook shot and a roll to the rim but Adams cocked up a tip back before regathering it again and posting up on Gobert... who basically forced him back and into a bad hook shot that also missed. Recap of that one: 0/5 shooting for the first quarter of the new season. He also took an offensive charge call trying to drive to the basket and was then subbed out uncharacteristically early with five minutes remaining in the quarter after getting his second personal foul and he’d only play a little over two minutes in the 2Q before being bench again with a third foul.
So, yeah, rhythm and foul troubles were an issue, as was being defended by The French Rejection - who is notoriously sensitive about his reputation having been demonstrably upset at missing All Stars last season, which he definitely deserved to make to be fair, and his low draft stock has always been a chip on his shoulder (and guess who was one of the seven centres picked ahead of Gobert at 27? Steven Adams (12), of course – the others being Alex Len (5), Nerlens Noel (6), Kelly Olynyck (13), Lucas Nogueira (16), Gorgui Deng (21), and Mason Plumlee (22)... good lord no wonder he’s pissed).
However Adams then shot just 3/9 against the Washington Wizards, whose starting big fella is third year Thomas Bryant... a pretty useful dude who stretches the floor a little (he top scored for Washington in this game with 21 points and shot 3/7 from deep) but still not exactly as daunting as Rudy Gobert, to put it lightly. First chance he got, Adams backed Bryant up in the paint and dunked on him for the opening points of the game. But again that game saw some uncharacteristic misses.
He was better in a blowout win over the ailing Golden State Warriors next time up, shooting 4/8... yet up against Marquese Chriss he should have had a field day. One of his made field goals was a putback layup after his own miss so and he also missed one in similar situations after being blocked initially... so safe to say his touches were limited. Then again OKC were up double digits barely three minutes into the game and never trailed – so perhaps understandable if he didn’t get a plethora of touches.
Sometimes you just have bad games. Sometimes you have a few in a row. It doesn’t help that Steve’s coming off such a telepathic understanding with the instinctive Russell Westbrook and is now working with the far more studious and considered Chris Paul... who himself hasn’t settled in ideally. His mid-range shooting game is off (although he’s hitting threes at 45% in these early days) and his assist count is suspiciously low at only 3.6 per game which is fewer than Dennis Schröder is averaging off the bench. Adams has cost that dude a couple assists. He’s also provided him with a couple too. It’s a relationship that might take a little while to settle – and a paint-dominant centre like Steven Adams is pretty reliant on his point guard to get him these opportunities so if CP3 is unsettled then it makes sense that Adams might be too. Adams has also mentioned that Billy Donovan has been prioritising defence in these early days.
Of course that doesn’t excuse his disastrous free throw shooting. Thunder GM Sam Presti said after last season that free throw percentage was the number one improvement that Adams needed to get to the next level. Well, after those first three games he had made 2 of 10. Eight missed free throws from ten attempts. That... that’s not good. And coupled with being a career 55% shooter making them at just 31% through the first few games here there was reason for concern. Even more so as the Thunder travelled to Houston to meet an old friend and this happened...
That and also missing another couple free throws and shooting 2/7 from the field.
But right about the time when panic stations were about to be manned... it turned out that he had a valid excuse. Steve, as it happens, had been dealing with a bruised knee (he didn’t remember when he aggravated it). After battling through the pain for most of the game he eventually had to take a seat in the fourth quarter. He also then missed the following game, a defeat against Portland (in a rematch of last season’s playoff exit... even if Damian Lillard was probably wondering where the ‘re-’ was in all that).
The Oklahoman: “Steven Adams left the Thunder’s 116-112 loss at Houston Monday with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter, and he did not return. The OKC center suffered a left knee contusion, per the Thunder. He disappeared into the tunnel several times during the game, which is not uncommon for Adams. He periodically rides the stationary bike when he isn’t playing, to stay sharp. But halfway through the fourth quarter, Adams left the court and headed to the tunnel, where he talked with Donnie Strack, Thunder vice president of human and player performance. “He had been talking to me throughout the game,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Adams. “And obviously he was trying to go, and then he basically came to me and he said, ‘You’ve got to take me out.’””
For a guy as tough as Kiwi Steve to have to admit he needs to sit it out, that’s gotta be some significant pain. And if it was an injury that had been lingering for a few games then that would explain a whole lot about what we’ve been seeing. That kind of sustained struggle in different situations, that’s way out of character. The initial suggestion was that it was an injury he suffered during the Rockets game but his coach has since hinted otherwise which backs up that theory.
Billy Donovan: “I think the contusion has probably affected his lift a little bit, and his moving and cutting. Steven’s never been a guy who likes to make a bunch of excuses, but clearly... he’s not moving or jumping like maybe he was in the preseason.”
Stevie has always had a clunky missed layup in his game (dunno why he doesn’t ride the contact and try dunk more often) but getting blocked seven times from 32 field goal attempts is a new one. And forget about all that chat about him making three pointers... he still hasn’t even made a bucket from further than three feet let alone the three point line.
To be fair to Adams, it’s only really that one aspect that’s been lagging drastically though. His defensive work has been really good. He has one of the best defensive ratings on the team and this is an OKC side that’s top five in that stat (and bottom five in offensive rating). Despite everything else this remains a strong defensive Thunder side and Adams is a leader in that regard. And even with all his shooting issues the Thunder are still 6.6 points better off per 100 possession when Adams is on the court (that bench, bruh). This for a team that’s 1-4 right now, remember.
Also... he did this...
[star eyes emoji]
So keep them fingers crossed that when his leg’s been rested up he’ll be back to his usual self. At least a contusion isn’t one that’ll take too long to heal. He’s already back doing non-contact stuff at training so just gotta see how it all holds up. One thing we know for sure about this guy is that he’s a meticulous trainer so if he’s not knocking them down like he should be then you probably know where you’re gonna find him and what he’s gonna be working on...
at UTAH JAZZ (L 100-95):
28 MIN | 3 PTS (1/8 FG, 1/6 FT) | 11 REB (3 OFF) | 2 AST | 1 STL | 2 TO | 4 PF
vs WASHINGTON WIZARDS (L 97-85):
29 MIN | 7 PTS (3/9 FG, 1/2 FT) | 14 REB (4 OFF) | 1 STL | 1 BLK | 1 TO | 1 PF
vs GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (W 120-92):
25 MIN | 8 PTS (4/8 FG, 0/2 FT) | 9 REB (5 OFF) | 1 TO | 2 PF
at HOUSTON ROCKETS (L 116-112):
27 MIN | 6 PTS (2/7 FG, 2/4 FT) | 12 REB (2 OFF) | 1 AST | 2 BLK | 1 TO | 3 PF
vs PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (L 102-99):
DNP - ‘Left Knee Contusion’
vs NEW ORLEANS PELICANS, Sunday at 10am
vs ORLANDO MAGIC, Wednesday at 2.00pm
at SAN ANTONIO SPURS, Friday at 2.30pm
vs GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS, Sunday at 2.00pm
The Oklahoman: “Russell Westbrook emerged from the training room calling, “Steve-O.”
He had entered the visiting locker room through the front door minutes earlier, his black patent leather pants shimmering under the harsh light, and taken a sharp left for a preliminary round of greetings. But if any of the players, or dozens of media members huddled together waiting for Chris Paul, had missed Westbrook then, it was impossible not to notice him as he bee-lined from the training room to Steven Adams’ locker.
“Hey, hey, wrong locker room,” joked Andre Roberson, who sat next to Adams.
Sure, Oklahoma City traded Westbrook to the Rockets in July. But that didn’t stop him from strolling through the visiting locker room like he owned the place after the Thunder’s 116-112 loss Monday at Houston. Westbrook hasn’t worn an OKC jersey since April, but the Thunder’s entire history up to this season remains intertwined with his career.
You’re not going to sneak in the back room?” Adams said.
No, that wasn’t Westbrook’s style.”
(Semi relevant, that one, since Adams is the dude who most embraced the Turkish cuisine in those OKC days)
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