Kiwi Steve in the NBA #16: What’s With The Steven Adams Backlash?

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There’s like, seven games to catch up on this week because of the post-All Star smashing out of the schedule so thinking we may do something a little different here. Rather than the all-in recaps of each individual game, this week’s gonna be more of an overall look at the state of things – which fits with the way Steve is playing lately because those 20+ point games of a few months ago have well and truly dried up recently.

It was hoped that all he needed was some rest over All Stars but while he’s certainly looked a little fresher, the numbers haven’t exactly skyrocketed back to those November/December heights. Which is sweet as for a dude who only really cares if he’s helping his team win or not. But even then there’s been some backlash amongst the OKC faithful so that’ll all need a sweep up too. Could it be that Steven Adams is actually a bad defender? Could it be that he’s now the fifth or sixth offensive option on the squad? Could it be that he’s now finally ventured into the realms of the overrated? Mate, only one way to find out and that’s to do the research.

(By the way, TNC prides itself in being a rare kiwi media outlet that covers Steven Adams with any kind of legit context and basketball knowledge, but we’re always open to whatever so if you prefer this style of write up or the old style game by games… let us know so we’re dishing out what the people want – and give a ponder on supporting us indie battlers on Patreon if you’re a regular reader)

First we must present the case against Steven Adams. Looking month by month, this is what Kiwi Steve has served up based on the major stat categories:

Since a magical December, he’s steadily dropped in most categories despite his usage rating actually increasing slightly from January to February. March is only halfway through so I’ve cut that one out but the positive is that he’s edging back towards the upwards on most things. Particularly his rebounding, oddly (22 in one game against Memphis sure helped). However the shooting percentages remain a bit of a concern and the number one worry has been that rising defensive rating. So far in March he’s at least got that back into a clean differential.

Important note to make here is that he’s still averaging 14.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, which would both be career highs. However a complete list of centres averaging more points than him as things stand would read: Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nikola Jokic, John Collins, Andre Drummond, Clint Capela, Deandre Ayton, Montrezl Harrell, Rudy Gobert, Jusuf Nurkic, and Marc Gasol. That’s a long list. Not exactly ideal. The Thunder have two major scorers leading the way which some of these other jokers do not, however that’s been the same all season and anyway that doesn’t affect the slide on defence… at least not directly.

Chuck in that the Thunder are in a weird place where they’ve sorta stagnated as a team and are relying on Russell Westbrook or Paul George to rip it up in order to win games. They’ve alternated sometimes as dramatically as from game to game between looking like one of the best defensive teams in the league and one of the worst. The Thunder lost six of nine games coming out of the All Star Break so there’s some frustration stemming from that situation and when your team isn’t playing to it’s potential then you look to the dudes who aren’t contributing. Steven Adams is one of them at the moment and with his pay cheque that’s not really what they need.

But stop me if you’ve heard this one before, right? Steven Adams being less of a factor on offence than he should and then copping some of the heat for the Thunder’s floppy defence? Probably worth reminding ourselves of the character that Steven Adams is, a player who isn’t so much selfless when it comes to traditional stats as he simply has no appreciation for them. Shots, points, rebounds… he’s just doing whatever it takes to win and so often that’s meant facilitating things for others.

Opposition centres have been shredding on OKC lately. LaMarcus Aldridge put 27p/10r on them for the Spurs. KAT was on fire with 31 points and 14 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who dropped 131 on OKC. Jusuf Nurkic had 13p/17r in an OT game for the Trail Blazers. But then it’d be silly to overlook that Damian Lillard scored 51 in that game. Or that the Wolves shooting over 50% for the game (including 11/22 3pt).

In other words, just because a centre gets some points doesn’t mean the opposing centre was at fault. Adams might have been helping on the weak side or switched onto the perimeter because some other muppet couldn’t guard his guard. The tendency towards stats = truth in American sports is bloody useful for this kind of analysis but it does come with the dangerous assumption that every incident can be defined with a single cause/blame which simply isn’t the case. Basketball is a flowing game. There are moving pieces.

Although they don’t move so much when Funaki’s on the box out. Once again he’s one of the leaders in that category and now that those numbers are being recorded we’re seeing the value of that (asterisk: as per last paragraph, stats aren’t the full story. Westbrook’s speed around the edge helps Adams screen too, it ain’t all Steve). With Adams on the court Russ gets 29.5% of available defensive boards (H/T Ringer/NBAWowy). That drops to 24.3% when Adams is off the court and while it looks like a small deficit, a seven foot tall starting centre usually means waaaay less boards for a point guard. The reason Russ gets so many boards is he’s uncontested bloody half the time.

To be quite frank, Russell Westbrook isn’t getting the triple-doubles if he’s got more of an alpha-dog-mentality centre gobbling up rebounds and demanding the ball in the post. Instead he’s got a defensive leader who is willing to help on defence at the detriment of his own numbers. And if Adams sliding out of position is a risky factor in Townsy going wild, it’s also a risky factor in Russ and PG both being right up there in steals this season.

The Ringer/DJ Foster: “The question isn’t whether or not Adams is sacrificing his own rebounding numbers to Westbrook and George (who has a career-high 8.1 rebounds per game this year). He is. The question is, what else is he sacrificing? Touches, the great social currency of basketball players, are a good starting point. Clint Capela gets 60.9 touches a game. Rudy Gobert gets 59.5. But Adams, despite occupying a similar role and minutes, gets only 46.8 touches a game. Factor in that Oklahoma City plays at the league’s third-fastest pace, and you begin to see just how little Adams is involved at times. New York Knicks forward Noah Vonleh gets the ball more than Adams.”

Part of this reputational slide – and let’s be honest we’re feeling it in Aotearoa too after the treats we were dished up in late 2018 – is down to an expectation that improvement is a continual thing. Like, there’ll be no drops on the upward curve. But there usually are and what’s more is that a team dynamic changes immensely over the course of a season. Adams has eleven 20+ scoring games this season but nine of them were in November/December. Two in January and none since. But OKC are 6-5 in those games so it’s not like he was leading them to victory. Hence the team keeps searching for what works. They’re also 15-14 in games when he has 10+ rebounds. When he gets a double-double? 11-12. Compare that to Rusty Buckets’ TDs and in those games (all 26 of them) the Thunder have a record of 18 wins and 8 defeats. So… yeah.

Plus we’re also looking at a situation where guys like Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson have been stepping up their games and demanding more shots. Grant is averaging 14.3 pts & 5.4 rebs since the All Star Break and he wasn’t playing too shabbily before that either. As a bouncy guy with some range, Grant’s benefited heaps from playing next to Steve and that’s opened up the OKC offence heaps… though it’s dragged their defence down a bit at the same time. In 2019 Jerami Grant has averaged 10.7 shots per game while Stevie’s lingering at 9.2. Games aren’t getting any longer, there’s only a finite amount of time in each, and there are only so many shot on offer. If Adams is getting the fifth most shots attempts in the team (he’s below sixth man Dennis Schroder too) then of course you can’t expect him to bring the monster offence.

The theory before the ASG was that he must have been dealing with an injury or twenty because he looked sluggish on top of playing below his usual production. Chances are that was true and chances are one week of rest didn’t solve everything. That’s one to remember, although that’s kinda the case for everyone. Where it gets weird is in questioning his defence, the side of his game which he’s always excelled best in, where he doesn’t have to feed off scraps because that ball is coming to him regardless.

We were looking at team records per stat before? Okay how’s this one: when Steven Adams has a DRtg under 100 in a game, in other words the opposition are scoring fewer than a point per possession while he’s on the court, the Thunder are 17-0. They’re 2-10 when that defensive rating is at 116 or higher. Naturally points win games so most players will have similar trends… just not usually so drastically. Keeping it at per hundy possessions, the only player who fouls less on the Thunder than Adams per hundy poss is Patrick Patterson and that’s only because he doesn’t do anything at all.

Another one from that same Ringer article: “Adams contests 14.5 shots per game (fifth in the NBA) yet averages just 2.5 fouls a game. Karl-Anthony Towns, who ranks just ahead of Adams in contests, averages 3.8 fouls.”

Time to add some sass from Welcome to Loud City into the mix…

That all shows you just what a versatile defender he really is. For a big fella he’s really locking down numerous situations. But at the same time of course we’re free to wonder why they can’t just give him a bigger role on the offence, why he has to continue to be this underground helping hand when he’s proven he can be one of the most efficient scorers out there. And that doesn’t mean just blaming Russ or Billy Donovan, part of that is on Steve himself for being so accommodating. It’s his nature so that won’t change… but yeah.

Fact is we’re only discussing this now because he was so good at the end of last year and hasn’t been at that same level since. Which means that it’s only fair to give the final word to old mate himself…


at SAN ANTONIO SPURS (L 116-102):

25 MIN | 17 PTS (7/11 FG, 3/5 FT) | 13 REB (6 OFF) | 2 STL | 1 BLK | 2 TO | 4 PF


32 MIN | 13 PTS (6/10 FG, 1/6 FT) | 22 REB (8 OFF) | 2 STL | 1 BLK | 4 TO | 1 PF


36 MIN | 13 PTS (5/6 FG, 3/9 FT) | 11 REB (9 OFF) | 2 AST | 1 STL | 3 BLK | 3 TO


39 MIN | 12 PTS (6/11 FG) | 7 REB (5 OFF) | 2 STL | 2 BLK | 1 TO | 4 PF


32 MIN | 6 PTS (3/5 FG, 0/2 FT) | 10 REB (7 OFF) | 3 AST | 1 TO | 6 PF

at UTAH JAZZ (W 98-89):

33 MIN | 12 PTS (6/10 FG) | 7 REB (3 OFF) | 2 STL | 2 BLK | 3 TO | 4 PF

vs BROOKLYN NETS (W 108-96):

30 MIN | 13 PTS (6/12 FG, 1/2 FT) | 7 REB (6 OFF) | 1 AST | 2 STL | 1 BLK | 2 TO | 2 PF


at INDIANA PACERS, Friday at 12.00pm (NZT)

vs GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS, Sunday at 1.30pm (NZT)

vs MIAMI HEAT, Tuesday at 1.00pm (NZT)

vs TORONTO RAPTORS, Thursday at 2.30pm (NZT)

at TORONTO RAPTORS, Saturday at 12.30pm (NZT)


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