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.