Did OKC Use Steven Adams Properly In These NBA Playoffs?

Screen Shot 05-03-19 at 12.35 PM.JPG

It might not be a fair question to ask but it was an unavoidable one those last two games of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season while watching Adams sit quietly on the bench as his team failed to close out games in the fourth quarter, losing in five to the Portland Trail Blazers. Did the Thunder, did head coach Billy Donovan, use Steven Adams properly in that series?

The bloke’s copped plenty of blame for what went wrong. Steve-o didn’t play to his potential and that was a disappointment, especially up against his old Stache Bro in Enes Kanter… but even during the regular season there’s always the feeling that they don’t utilise Adams as much as they could. The playoffs were no different except that they lost badly and were left scraping for excuses, or at least explanations. Steven Adams was worse than anticipated. Some of that was down to him not being as assertive and effective as he usually is. A lot more quite honestly was just beyond his control. He was a victim of circumstance as a role player in a dysfunctional team (no matter how much he gets paid, he’s a third option at best behind two guys who had usage rates around 30% this series – that’s a role player).

Adams did what was asked of him, that much is beyond doubt. He put in mad work on defence even as he was so often switched onto guards like Lillard and McCollum (as is always the scheme for the Thunder) and that’s an impossible situation for any centre. But he left it all out there for sure, can’t fault the effort.

For one thing, Stevie had the best defensive rating amongst the OKC starters and Jerami Grant was the only other OKC player with a positive differential between Offensive and Defensive Ratings. Yet he was a -11.4 on court with the team scoring 14.2 points better while he was off the court (per 100 possessions). Part of that is because the OKC bench, led by Dennis Schroder, actually did really well against a limited Portland second unit. Part is also because ORtg/DRtg only take into account plays where the fella is directly involved while plus/minus is all plays while that fella’s on the court so if he had a positive O/DRtg but a huge negative plus/minus… well, something else is going wrong around him. Adams would be the first to tell you that defence is a five man game where communication is key but yeah, still tells a different story to what we’ve been hearing about Kiwi Steve.

Offensively it was a constant frustration that he wasn’t given more attempts. Dude shot 67% from the field in this series. He had a couple mud misses along the way, so did everyone, but overall Adams was hitting exactly two out of every three shots he attempted. 13.4 points and 8.2 rebounds per game is nothing to scoff at. It’s only a little way short of his season averages (13.9 pts & 9.5 reb) - which you’d expect in the playoffs against a better team for a bloke who isn’t a main option.

Typically the Thunder like to get Steven Adams on the ball early and force a few post-ups his way in the first quarter to set a physical standard for the game to follow. One of Russ’ favourite options. But then after playing a good ten minutes or so in the first quarter he tends not to meet that minutes total in any of the remaining quarters and even when he does he doesn’t get the shots. Fourth quarter and the jump shooters take over, leaving Adams to feed off putbacks.

Yet he didn’t even take the floor in the fourth quarters of the last two games. The first time was understandable, they pushed Grant to the five and PG13 to the four and they actually went on a crazy lil run to get back into the game. They still lost though that unit posted a +22.2 net rating in eight minutes in game four. Fair enough that Billy persisted with it then but live by the sword and die by the sword… that lot blew a 15 point lead on the way to elimination and at no point did Donovan chuck his defensive anchor in to change it up.

Honestly, benching him in those fourth quarters felt like a Hail Mary play from Billy D. A big old halfcourt heave. Poor mate was pretty much out of ideas with the series all but gone so he tried something and felt stuck with it because, well, it was his last idea. There were no more ideas after that one.

As to the rest of it, Adams’ supposed awfulness is pretty drastically overrated. He had a poor first game as Enes Kanter put up a 20/20 stat line but after that he was okay… outside of when he got attacked in the pick and roll by Lillard and McCollum. That meant there were times when they just couldn’t play him so Donovan’s failure to protect his centre there was a problem. Generally their over-switching is seen as a way to keep Russell Westbrook zoned in on defence, since he’s a player that is all energy, see ball chase ball, and is probably going to switch anyway whether you want him to or not. That’s basically a hospital pass for Steven Adams. No centre in the league is going to last long when they catch Damian Lillard in such untouchably sizzling form. (For all the negatives, there are just as many positives to playing with Russ though – he assists the majority of Adams’ shots for one thing).

See, Adams isn’t a shooter. He doesn’t bring much range or floor spacing so you want to surround a guy like that with people who do… which is not what OKC did. Jerami Grant got better as the series went on. Terrance Ferguson did not. Russell Westbrook made some shots but he took way too many to justify. Paul George was injured and although he was still the Thunder’s best, his bad shoulder robbed him of his shooting range (he shot a worse 3PT% than Russ and that takes some doing).

A few more cheeky layups and dunks for their franchise centre would not have gone astray in those stretches where the lads couldn’t seem to buy a bucket. Problem was, that wasn’t possible because of the Thunder’s awful shooting. Like, the Blazers were literally offering open shots to Westbrook on the edges. Dropping under screens so he’d take a pop.

And it wasn’t only Russ because with no real ball movement to engage the defence and with only limited threats outside they could afford to clog the lanes and take away Westbrook’s drives (in as much as that’s even possible). That then has the knock-on effect of eliminating Steven Adams’ pick and roll game and, possibly more crucially, his offensive rebounding. After six off boards in game one, he had just six more the entire rest of the series. Getting fewer with each subsequent game until having zero in game five. You know how many times Steve’s had zero offensive boards in a game this season? Just twice… and one was a game against Portland in February.

Typically for a Westbrook led team, the more they missed the more they felt like the next shot would be the one that drops so they kept on shooting. Russell Westbrook shot 36% from the floor and still took 22 shots per game. That’s not ideal… but it’s what Portland dared him to do. And when OKC were really bossing it in early 2019 it was because Paul George was playing at an MVP level. When PG dropped back to mere mortal status, scoring 28.6 points per game but only shooting at 43.6% from the field and 31.9% from deep, it all kinda fell apart.

In other words, no they probably didn’t use Steven Adams properly. They have an old school brawler centre and they wanted a stretch five. They weren’t able to get him his touches inside and didn’t have an answer to the way Portland crowded the paint and took away his rebounding or chucked him and his big feet in the spin cycle in the pick and roll. But that wasn’t why they lost. They lost because they couldn’t shoot. Adams was less effective because they couldn’t shoot. Damian Lillard was triumphant because he could shoot.

And let’s be honest: Steven Adams isn’t a good enough player to create his own offence. That’s not his role. He relies on others around him to space the floor and to get him the ball so when that doesn’t happen then of course he’s going to look a bit mud. It’s simplistic to blame him for that – did people think he was Shaquille O’Neal or something? Adams feasts when the Thunder feast.

On that topic, Sam Presti had some interesting things to say about Steven Adams in his end of season interview…

Sam Presti: “You know I think he’s a great encapsulation of this 70/30 concept in that in the beginning of the year he was dominant. He was a big reason why we were 18 games over .500 and playing so well. He’s calling for the ball in the post. He’s really effective down there. He’s putting people in the basket. He was rolling hard. He was doing the Steven Adams things that help you win games that don’t always show up, you know what I’m saying. Those effort plays and the physical plays and then toward the end of the year obviously he didn’t play as well, but that’s not just him that was a group thing. Not just Steven. I think the number one thing for him is he’s got to become a better free throw shooter. And as a team I know much has been made about our shooting in general and we’re probably more focused on efficiency than we are on just quote unquote ‘shooting’ shooting but shooting happens all over the floor and our free throw shooting if it just gets to league average would have a significant impact on our offensive rating and our net rating as a result.”

No lies there. This guy shot a career low 50% from the free throw line this season and was just 3/8 in the playoffs. A three-point shot would benefit his game plenty but let’s not run before we can walk – his FT% is the number one issue with his game right now. If you don’t wanna have your fate wrapped up in the whims of others then you’ve gotta plug those weaknesses to where you’re undeniable.

This isn’t about knee-jerk reactions and snap trades. OKC aren’t trading Steven Adams. They’re not moving Russ either. Dennis Schroder maybe, since he tips them over into the luxury tax, but Presti made a big deal of this being the first year in four where they aren’t spending the offseason trying to convince a star player not to leave in free agency. Continuity and growth is their thing and they’re not looking at getting waxed in the playoffs as much as they are trying to recreate the team in December/January which looked like it could compete with anyone. Which sorta sounds like Billy Donovan’s job will be safe too, lucky boy.

Steven Adams didn’t live up to expectations and some of that was his fault but most of it was down to the poor shooting of those around him and especially the schemes that he was subjected to by his opposition. Big fellas who can’t shoot have been having this same issue all over the show during these playoffs… Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, Andre Drummond… the Thunder trust Steve’s ability to defend guards when he’s switched. Same as they love getting him to box out big men so Russ can grab the defensive board and run downhill. Sometimes what’s best for Russ isn’t really best for anybody else but that’s just where we are. Stevie can’t expect his coach to run things around him and nor would he him to, knowing that lad.

If you appreciate the reads on The Niche Cache then please contribute to our ongoing existence by supporting us on Patreon so we’re getting paid for our yarns – a buck or two a month is plenty if enough people get on board

Also whack an ad whenever you read something worthwhile and spread the gospel amongst your mates

Keep cool but care