2019 Summer Feature Series: Steven Adams
Gritting his teeth, Steven Adams limped back onto the court after minutes tucked away in the road locker room. He could put little pressure on his rolled left ankle, but in the heat of a January double-overtime shootout in San Antonio against the Spurs, Adams lifted off the ground for a roaring dunk to keep the game alive.
He was a symbol of the relentless team-first energy that he has always exuded, but ultimately that game ended in a loss. Adams has always been a bit of a bellwether for the Thunder – as he goes so does the team – and much like his absence that January night, his production was a signal of how the Thunder fared in the 2018-19 season.
At year’s end, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti explained that the Thunder’s season truly broke down into 70 percent high-level, 30 percent sub-standard. The team rose to as many as 18 games over .500, then swooned in late February and early March with losses in 13 of 19 games. Adams had a similar trajectory.
“He's a great encapsulation of this kind of 70/30 concept,” Presti said of Adams. “In the beginning of the year he was dominant. He's a big reason why we were 18 games over .500 and playing so well. He was calling for the ball in the post. He was really effective down there. He was 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,” Presti said. “Those effort plays and the physical plays.”
The numbers bear out Presti’s assessment. On February 8th, through 52 games, Adams was averaging 15.2 points and 9.7 rebounds, shooting 61.1 percent shooting, including 55.1 percent from the free throw line on 4.2 attempts per game. As a rebounder, he was racking up 4.6 per game on the offensive glass and, 5.4 on defense to help finish out stops and initiate the fast break. For much of the year, Adams was an All-Star candidate, finishing 6th amongst front court players in the Western Conference in fan voting and 8th overall when including player and media voting.
“I like to just have a successful play. That's just the bottom line of it. Sometimes it is me scoring, but a lot of times it's like me kicking it out,” noted Adams, who averaged a career-best 1.6 assists in 2018-19.
Much like the inexplicable faltering that the Thunder experienced after the All-Star Break, there were no inciting moments that could have foretold Adams’ drop in production, outside of a few ankle twists early in the 2019 calendar year. Yet after that Feb. 8 date, Adams’ averages fell to 11.3 points and 9.1 rebounds, including an inversion that leaned more heavily to offensive rebounding (5.4) compared to defensive boards (3.7). Adams shot 5 full percentage points lower at just 56.0 percent from the field, but the issue the New Zealander pointed to as being his number one focus came at the free throw line.
Foul shots have never been a strength of Adams’ game, but both the volume and accuracy of his shots at the stripe dropped precipitously over the final 28 games, to just 35.5 percent on 2.7 attempts per game. After the season ended, Adams indicated that improving his free throw shooting is far and away the most important part of his plan for this summer.
Ever-studious, Adams will certainly be analyzing other aspects of his game this offseason. He’s been the Thunder’s defensive anchor since he emerged as the team’s full-time starter in 2014-15, his second season in the league. Adams is required to play multiple different pick and roll coverages, using quick feet, long arms and his IQ to be in the right place at the right time to deny both drives by guards and rolls by centers all the way to the rim.
Adams leans on the Thunder’s entire coaching, scouting and support staff to acquire all the information he needs before each game, and dives in deep to the film to get a better look at how he and the team are defending.
“I’ve always been like that because the perspective of what I’m seeing is a lot different from what you guys are watching,” Adams said. “I’m always trying to get their advice and see what (our coaches) are seeing.”
The main takeaway from Adams’ 2018-19 season, where he matched a career-high in points per game and set career-bests in rebounds and steals per game, is that he’s not satisfied. Both with his own personal performance and the team’s overall results, Adams believes that the Thunder can reach higher. They’re all working together, the crew of good locker room guys who simply wants what’s best for the group, but results aren’t guaranteed. Hard work this offseason can move the needle, and that’s what Adams intends to control.
“The whole objective right from the get go is to win a championship. Anything short of that is hard to be like, ‘oh, we did okay,'” Adams said. “You always have to go in there and try to figure out a solution. Everyone is trying to do the right thing.”