Steven Adams presents an interesting evaluation challenge. Detractors look at his “limited” skill set and assume that because he doesn’t possess the outside shooting and playmaking present in many modern centers, he doesn’t do enough to deserve the near-max contract he signed in 2016. Supporters hone in on what he does well: He’s a monster within his role and the fact that he doesn’t try to stray outside of it is a positive, not a negative. The phrase “complementary star” isn’t often used to describe basketball players, but it’s perfectly apt for Adams, who does all the dirty work to ensure his Russell Westbrook and Paul George shine as brightly as possible.
Much is made of Adams’ relatively poor defensive rebounding numbers. He rebounded just 12.8 percent of opponent misses last season, a number that ranks him in the 11th percentile among big men. There’s a school of thought that Adams isn’t an impactful defensive rebounder because his numbers aren’t up there with the best in the league, but that ignores the very nature of rebounding.
Rebounding is not an individual activity that we can measure in a single statistic, even one as useful as defensive rebound rate. Rebounding the basketball is a team activity requiring and affecting multiple players, much like the defensive possession that led to the missed shot in the first place. Boxing out for Westbrook is almost always a good thing for the Thunder as a whole, as evidenced by their post-rebound statistics. Here’s a table of the Thunder’s 2017-18 offensive rating after a defensive rebound by Westbrook, by Adams, and by everyone else.
While Westbrook certainly has moments in which he eschews his defensive responsibilities in favor of getting to the glass, there’s no ignoring the fact that letting their point guard grab and go immediately is a positive for the Thunder as a whole.
Getting out in transition is an important aspect of Oklahoma City’s offensive attack — they’ve been in the top-10 in transition frequency every year dating back to 2005-06. Westbrook in particular is a one-man wrecking crew in transition, and by designing their defensive rebounding scheme around cutting out the outlet pass, the Thunder are able to take advantage of his otherworldly athleticism in that area.
On the other end of the floor, however, Adams dominates the glass with no regard for Westbrook or anybody else in his path.
Throughout his five-year career, he’s consistently been one of the best offensive rebounders in the league before peaking last season with an astronomical 14.5 percent offensive rebound rate. Adams has exceptional quickness and intelligence, meaning he can read the ball off the rim and get to where he needs to be easily. But it’s his strength that flashes the most when he kicks it into another gear — there are very few players in the league who can match Adams’ raw power during a battle in the paint, and he often just throws people out of his way.
Adams is such a constant and overwhelming threat on the offensive glass that he changes the way opponents defend the Thunder. Teams that switch ball screens consistently have had trouble keeping him off the offensive glass.
Additionally, Adams is smart about sneaking in for an offensive board if his man leaves him to go contest a shot on the other side of the rim.
He’s also a master of screening his own man to open a lane for Westbrook to the rim, but when he’s unable to do so, he’s usually there to clean things up if Westbrook misses a layup or short jumper. Opposing big men are caught between a rock and a hard place: They can’t just let Westbrook waltz in for a free layup, but if they move an inch, Adams is going to dunk the offensive rebound.
Adams’ offensive value extends past what he’s able to do after one of his teammates shoots the ball. He uses that same physicality that helps him own the glass to get his teammates open with a variety of punishing screens, but he doesn’t get caught up in trying to flatten opposing guards. Against deep drop coverage — in which the defensive big man stays back in the paint — Adams will set a hard screen in an attempt to take the opposing guard out of the play. This has the secondary effect of letting Westbrook get a full head of steam toward the rim with Adams trailing just behind. When Westbrook occupies the defense’s attention, Adams is always there with his patented floater in the lane.
Adams also recognizes when the defense is hedging hard on his teammates, and in those moments, will slip into the lane for layups and dunks.
While some big men throughout the league are useless as they get further away from the basket, Adams has at least been able to add this floater to his game, which catches opponents by surprise and also helps his burgeoning post game, which can be effective despite the fact he doesn’t always look to post defenders up. Down low, he uses great footwork and strength to bully through opposing big men with a quick drop step, then will counter with a feathery hook shot that looks similar to his one-hand floater.
There’s not a lot of flash to Adams’ game, but he’s brutally effective in his key areas. An above-average finisher inside, he pairs his physicality with underrated footwork and touch with the ball in his hands to extend his range out to about 8-10 feet from the hoop. He’s a menace on the glass on both sides of the court, even if it doesn’t quite show up in his defensive rebounding numbers the way it does on the offensive end.
He’s not the superstar that will draw all the headlines, but Adams plays a crucial role on the Thunder and supports Westbrook and George in a way not many modern centers can. Oklahoma City benefits immensely from his unselfish nature and will continue to do so as they build toward the future, with all of their Big Three firmly intact for at least the next three seasons.