Steven Adams has quickly grown into one of the NBA’s best centers his own way, countering the rest of the league’s transition into pace-and-space bigs. While Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis and most others move outside the paint on offense, reinventing the big man spot each day, Adams doesn’t. He’s a relic, and he’s thriving because he’s perfected every other aspect of his game aside from shooting.
Adams hasn’t made a three-point shot in his entire career, which might turn off progressive basketball fanatics. But his impact on the game aligns with the sport’s elites. He’s totaled 3.4 win shares — a stat that estimates the amount of ‘W’s a player contributes, according to basketball reference. That’s better than his superstar teammates Russell Westbrook and Paul George, and No. 16 in the entire league per 48 minutes.
Adams is playing the best basketball of his career, and he’s only 25 years old. He’s averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds, five of which come on the offensive end. If he can maintain that, he’ll be the sixth player since the 1973-74 season (when o-boards were first tracked) to score 15 and 10 with at least five offensive boards. That list only includes Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Willis and Andre Drummond.
That’s part of what makes him so valuable, and why he should be an All-Star this season. He’s making a star’s impact as a throwback player in the modern era like nobody else.
Steven Adams is a rebounding anchor, to say the least
Adams’ counting stats are spectacular, yet undercut his value, because he sacrifices those numbers every day to make his team more successful. There are never-ending jokes about Russell Westbrook triple-double hunting and snatching rebounds from teammates... but that’s part of what makes the Thunder work. The outlet pass is dying as do-it-all wings and guards launch downhill off of the boards, so Adams lets them take rebounds that should be his.
lmaooooo look at Steven Adams blatantly trying to tip an uncontested rebound to Russ pic.twitter.com/yzcOWeyLdc— sreekar (@sreekyshooter) March 9, 2018
Despite ranking No. 4 in box outs per game at 9.7, Adams only ranks No. 15 overall in rebounds per game. He ranks No. 3 in box outs that lead to a team rebound, too, meaning the ball got knocked out of play. NBA’s tracking stats say Adams ranks No. 11 in deferred rebound chances, meaning he’s averaging one rebound that he explicitly allows a teammate to grab that should be his. He’s doing all the hard work of securing the space to grab the rebound without always seeing the reward.
Adams is still one of the best rebounders by counting stats, and he isn’t even trying to be.
Adams’ best skill may be his ability to crash the offensive glass in particular. It’s what separates the kind of rebounding he does from most others. Rebounds on the offensive end are so important because of the close proximity to the rim a player typically is when they’re caught. It’s no surprise that the Thunder are second in the league in second-chance points at 15.9 per night, especially with high-volume and middling efficiency stars like Westbrook and Paul George at the helm. Adams has plenty of bricks to catch, which is how he ranks No. 3 in the league in second-chance points at 4.6 per game.
Adams in the 91st percentile among all bigs, according to Cleaning the Glass, rebounding 13.2 percent of his team’s misses on offense. More than one in every 10 misses end in Adams’ clutch, which sometimes makes Westbrook and George’s erratic shooting nights ok.
Adams is ahead of the next-most frequent offensive box out leader by close to a full attempt per game. That’s massive given it’s the difference between 3.4 and 2.8 tries per night. Put simply, the biggest guys in the league are having the most trouble containing Adams from loose balls around the rim. He’s elite at this, which also helps offset his lack of range shooting.
All these stats may go unnoticed on a game-to-game basis, but they’re quietly motoring an OKC team led by two great, but flawed, superstars. Adams masks a lot of their deficiencies.
He can’t shoot, but Adams scores just fine
Of the 261 shots Adams has taken this season, 254 of them have come from inside the paint and seven have come in the mid-range. Broken down further, 191 of his shots, or 73 percent of his attempts, have come in the restricted area (1-to-3 feet from the hoop.) Those are the best shots in basketball, and the hardest to come by.
ESPN’s Kirk Goldberry recently wrote about the dying mid-range shot, and broke down each area of the floor by points per shot from 2013-2018. The highest scoring rate came from the restricted area at 1.2+ points, with corner threes coming close, averaging 1.1-1.2 points.
Adams is shooting 66.5 percent from the restricted area, a bit down from 67.7 the year before, but overall, his effective field goal percentage is 59.3 percent. That ranks in the 75th percentile for all bigs, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Adams is still a miserable free throw shooter at 52.9 percent, and if opponents opt to target the lone weak spot in his game, he’ll be tough to keep on the floor. It’s why he can’t be considered a true superstar.
But teams aren’t explicitly exploiting him on that end yet. And until they do, Adams is one of the NBA’s best bigs. Few make a larger contribution to his team winning basketball games.
Westbrook and George will claim the spotlight in OKC, but they couldn’t do this alone. Adams makes it a Big 3, and maybe, this is the year we reward him for it at the All-Star game.
Adams has carved an outdated role into one that not only works in the modern era, it rules. Few bigs can match his overall value to successful basketball.