The Oklahoma City Thunder went on the road and picked up a (very) important victory on Saturday evening, upending James Harden and the Houston Rockets to secure improved playoff positioning. As usual, Russell Westbrook had a productive game with 24 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, and he was flanked by 20-plus point scoring efforts from both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. In short, it was a run-of-the-mill box score for Oklahoma City that also included a rock solid 12-point, eight-rebound showing from big man Steven Adams.
During the game, though, Pistons star Blake Griffin anointed Adams as “so underrated” and that might feel strange given his statistical performance, but he happens to be very right.
Adams doesn’t blow up the box score on a regular basis and, frankly, it would be difficult for almost any big man to do so on a team with players like Westbrook, George, and Anthony dominating offensive usage. Still, Adams is the embodiment of a player that does “all of the little things” that contribute to winning and someone in Griffin’s position (even as simply a fan in this case) can recognize that.
Adams is a thoroughly dominant offensive rebounder. Even on a team with Westbrook (who flies around with historic rebounding rates for a point guard), Adams leads the NBA in offensive rebound rate (16.8) and those extra possessions are vital to the way Oklahoma City plays offensively. In fact, the Thunder have a 109.5 offensive rating when Adams plays and, when he exits, that dips to a paltry 103.3. As you may expect, the team experiences a similar dip when Westbrook leaves the floor but, in the same breath, his impact is more obvious, whereas the way Adams contributes is far more understated.
Adams also works in near perfect harmony with Westbrook to make one of the league’s most dangerous pick-and-roll combos. His massive frame and general physicality make him a hellacious screener (just ask Jimmy Butler about what that feels like), but he also possesses a high basketball IQ and knows when to adjust the approach with fake screens to set up his defender when the opposition starts anticipating the pick-and-roll action.
Adams is also steady, strong defensive force near the rim. He isn’t a dominant shot-blocker but rather a capable one (2.9 percent block rate). At the same time, his mobility and toughness are important to everything the Thunder do on that end of the floor and, even if his defensive reputation is potentially inflated when compared to his offense (where he is actually better), there is little left on the table by Adams defensively.
Overall, the still 24-year-old center is in the midst of the best season of his career. In addition to the standout offensive rebounding, Adams owns career-bests in PER (20.8), true shooting (62.8 percent), scoring (13.9 points per game), rebounding (9.1 per game), win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, VORP and BPM. This may be the peak of Steven Adams but, if it is, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, especially through the prism of his off-the-charts efficiency.
Oklahoma City’s win over Houston virtually ensured that the Thunder will avoid full-fledged disaster and actually make the playoffs, albeit by the slimmest of margins. That provides an opportunity for Adams to shine the postseason, much in the way he did during the team’s last deep playoff run, when he exploded and paved the way for his current $100 million contract. Before the “second season” arrives, though, Griffin nudged the basketball viewing public into appreciation for Adams and, with a player of his particular skill set, it is wise to take a deeper look, rather than simply relying on points, rebounds, and blocked shots.
Steven Adams isn’t the best player on the Oklahoma City Thunder roster, nor he is the second-best. For many teams, though, he would be (much) higher in the pecking order and, for now, he is simply the perfect complement to what Westbrook and George do at the top of the hierarchy.