While Paul George’s near-MVP candidate level of play has hoisted the Oklahoma City Thunder to a solid record of 25-14 (3rd in the Western Conference) there has been another major player in their recent success. And unsurprisingly, it’s not the slumping former-MVP Russell Westbrook. Steven Adams, the 7’0, 265 lb big man from New Zealand (and Pitt product!), has been rock-solid for this Thunder crew. The 5th year man with a burly build and an intimidating gaze flies under the radar for a number of reasons, even though many often recognize the impact he has for this team.
Before I begin, I would like to clarify what I mean by “most valuable.” I don’t mean “most valuable” in the same sense that the MVP award does, as in “this team won games because this player and this player alone did what they did,” although in a certain regard that may be true for Adams. What I mean by “most valuable” is that if you were to take any other center, even ones with comparable stats, and switch them with Adams, the Thunder would suffer for it. Adams is the only guy who can do what this team asks of him, both as a big body and as a personality. His fit for the needs this current Thunder team has at the center position is unlike any other supporting player in the league. Without any more semantics, let’s get into what makes Steven Adams such a necessity for OKC:
He Gets Buckets: Despite the somewhat limited offensive role he plays for the Thunder, Adams averages a respectable 15.2 PPG on the year, and in relatively low minutes for a starting center. Additionally, despite his somewhat limited range, Adams sports a near 60% field goal rating, and from 5 feet or less he’s almost up to 65%. For a player who receives the ball infrequently outside of the post, that’s a level of consistency that is pretty hard to match. For comparison, Joel Embiid (with admittedly a much larger offensive burden for his team) has shot 49% on field goals on the year. So, for Steven Adams to deliver on the few shots he gets goes a long way for the Thunder front court offense.
He’s a Monster on Offensive Glass: Adams is top 3 in the league in offensive rebounds per game. Despite the new 14-second renewed shot clock, those second chances add up, especially when you have two offensive weapons like Paul George and Russell Westbrook. Adams is a master of the put back himself, no less. While Adams is somewhat lower on the defensive rebounding chart, Westbrook and George are both elite in that department, alleviating that issue a bit.
He’s Improved Every Year of his Career: In Adams relatively short NBA career, he’s gone from coming off of the bench to starting in almost 80 games each year, including every one of 38 thus far in 2018-2019. More importantly, his average PPG has seen a significant improvement every single year of his career, even in comparable amounts of games and minutes played. In addition to becoming a more potent offensive player, he’s improved as both an offensive and defensive rebounder as his career goes on. Adams is only 25, and he still has plenty of room to grow as a player as he continues to work, and I have no doubts that he will continue to step it up in the near future.
He’s Selfless and Plays Hard: One of the things Adams is so well-known for is the extreme physicality of his play. He sets some rock-hard screens, plays aggressive defense in the paint, and fights hard for rebounds. He takes a lot of contact, but he’s a sturdy body in the way of driving opponents. Many of the most famous plays Adams makes are his brick-wall picks for Russ or PG, so not only is he taking contact, but he’s doing so in order to help create for his teammates.
With the hard screens he delivers on players like those in the clip above, you’d almost think it was an open field tackle he was laying into these guys, but his clean picks are just that immovable.
He Puts Up with Westbrook’s BS: One of the defining features of Adams fit in OKC is how little he asks of the team. He’s not there to pad stats, he’s not there to fuel his ego, and he’s not there to drive an MVP storyline into the ground. Steven Adams comes to work. Not only does he ball out and ask little in return, he’s a fantastic teammate. I can’t even count on my fingers how many times (just off of the top of my head) that Russ has talked his way into a confrontation that Adams inevitably helps break up. There was one particular instance in which Adams got a technical for breaking up a fight that Westbrook instigated with Willie Cauley-Stein. Adams remained cool in collected even as Cauley-Stein pushed him away by the throat. His temperament, level-headedness, and patience is truly remarkable. If I was playing peacemaker, and WCS grabbed me by the neck and pushed me away, I’d sure as hell go earn myself a technical. Plenty of players act a fool in the NBA, one not the least of which is his star teammate, and Adams is unmoved in their presence.
Conclusion: There’s no doubt: Steven Adams is not only an impressive basketball talent and smart player, but his personality makes him more than an ideal fit for this team and its personnel. In terms of the “intangibles,” he hits it out of the park.
In the mainstream NBA medias undying desire to create story-lines where none exist, the Jimmy Butler saga has earned a new chapter. The news comes as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne report that Butler had questioned Brett Brown over his role and usage within the team’s offensive system.
My major issue with this reporting is the very intentionally harsh word choice. The ESPN piece described the incident as Butler “challenging” Brown during a film review, which some witnesses described as “disrespectful,” as well as describing the Big 3’s chemistry as “tenuous.”
Of course, if you’re a part of the casual NBA fanbase’s hivemind who takes every headline at face value, your mouth is probably watering at the proposition that things are heading south for Butler and the 76ers. Except they aren’t. If you read any further into the article than the headline, you would understand that once again, there’s a whole lot of something being made out of a whole lot of nothing.
There are many reasons that I think this is entirely no big deal. First of all, Brett Brown himself said so. Per ESPN’s own article, “Brown has told people within the organization that he had no issues with that exchange and considered it within the confines of the relationship that he’s developed with Butler, sources said.” So Brett Brown did not believe the confrontation to be disrespectful, and very clearly finds it to have been within the informal rules of his relationship with the star Forward. If you ask me, Brett Brown’s opinion of the dialogue is more important than anyone else in the room.
The second reason this is a mountain being made from a molehill is that the team chemistry is not “tenuous.” Sure, Simmons, Butler, and Embiid aren’t clicking perfectly on the court. But it’s barely been more than a month since the trade, so of course there are still kinks to work out. The major sports media groups love to take conflicts of play-style and turn them into conflicts of personality and mentality. The Sixers have so few shooters that Embiid is being used to space the floor, and when he expressed disinterest in that, the media made it sound like he hates having Butler around and like things better before the trade. In reality, all he was saying is the change in the system have made him find different ways to get his shots off.
Another bothersome bit of word-play in this headline is the word “challenging” which carries a connotation that implies that Butler was questioning Brown’s authority or expertise, which clearly was not the case. Could it have been confrontational? Possibly, we don’t know exactly what happened. But more likely than not, Butler expressed some qualms about his plays and maybe went about it in the wrong way. This isn’t a bad thing, however.
One of the key reasons the Butler trade was a positive for the Sixers was bringing in a player with veteran expertise at multiple levels of play including the post-season. He’s played with a lot of guys, on multiple teams, and he’s seen a lot of NBA basketball. So I find it a gross over-reaction that people are describing Butler offering his opinion on a matter to his coach as a problem. Anyone who has ever been a fan of a LeBron-led team knows that player input is important.
Of course, this comes with the obvious assumption that such dialogue is productive, respectful, and within the bounds of the team’s culture. Is it possible that Butler violated some or any of those 3? Sure, but Brett Brown doesn’t seem to think he did.
More importantly, Butler must know as well as anyone that him getting the contract that he wants, as well as contending for titles, relies upon him having a constructive and open-minded relationship with Brett and the organization. I don’t see another team that’s in as good a situation as Philly is giving him the money he wants and the competitive future that he wants.
I for one was very concerned about team chemistry post-Butler trade. Since then, things have gone well, but I still have that itch in the back of my head that things could go wrong, and that worries me about it a little bit. Until then, however, as long as Butler, Embiid, Simmons, Brett, and the whole organization continue to be professional and engaged with their goals, there will be no problems. This whole chemistry issue, up to this point and most likely for a while, will be no big deal.
You may remember that about a month ago I wrote a piece titled The Ghosts of Process Past that highlighted the biggest mistakes throughout the history of the Sixers’ Process. Now, you may also remember that I mentioned it was the first article of a three part mini-series, and while it has taken much longer than I wished for me to get around to it, I present to you part two: The Ghosts of Process Present.
Now much like Ghosts of Process Past, I am going to avoid talking in retrospect as much as possible. What I mean by this is I am not going to be talking about why the Sixers can’t win a championship this year. With the way the league is currently constructed, it is incredibly difficult for really the 28 other teams outside of the Warriors and the new look Raptors to contend for a title this year when they are healthy. Will the journey to the Championship series be exciting? Probably, just as we saw last year’s Western and Eastern Conference Championship series each go to 7 games. But really, the Warriors and Cavaliers were both chalked up to compete in their fourth straight title series since before the season even started.
Rather, my desire is to discuss the biggest issues with how the Sixers are currently built, why these problems are taking away from them truly reaching their potential, and how it may affect them in the years to come. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 Ghosts of Process Present:
5. The Markelle Fultz Mystery
It should come to no basketball fan’s surprise that Markelle Fultz found his way onto this list. What may be a bit surprising is why I have it so low, so hear me out. Markelle Fultz’ rookie year was incredibly disappointing, and it makes it even more so because Bryan Colangelo traded up to select him with the first overall pick. With uncertainty surrounding him and the team concerning whether it was an injury or a mental issue, there have been questions circling whether or not Fultz will ever be the same since the first time he suited up for a preseason game. But the fact is the Sixers were a 52 win team without him. Sure, the Washington Markelle Fultz could have easily been the piece that turned a good team into a great team, but with the new addition of Jimmy Butler, Fultz does not need to be the guy to fill that role anymore. With all of this in mind, its fair to consider the Fultz issue as more of a “non-positive” rather than a negative.
However, there was a lot of anticipation that Fultz could have very well been ready to return in full form this year after working all summer with shot doctor Drew Hanlen. But as we all saw, Fultz clearly was not at 100% and his improved shot and mentality quickly deteriorated as the season went on. With Fultz currently out rehabbing what was officially declared as thoracic outlet syndrome, there is hope again that Fultz can come back ready to play like he did as a collegiate athlete, but it was also recently reported that Fultz may not be able to return this year at all.
Even if he never becomes the player he was supposed to be, he could very well play an important role off the bench as the team’s future sixth man if he is able to find any sort of footing in the NBA. With all of this to consider, it puts the Sixers in a very difficult situation: should they trade him or keep him? The benifits of trading him is freeing up $10 million in cap space they can use to strengthen their depth next offseason. But if they trade him for a pile of second rounders and an aging vet (which, lets be honest, is all they can get for him right now) and Fultz turns around his career, it could haunt the Sixers for upwards of a decade. It remains to be seen how the situation will turn out, but it will be incredibly interesting to see what happens.
It has been about a month and a half since the Sixers traded Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and some change in return for All-Star Jimmy Butler. Since then, the Sixers are 13-4 in games Butler has played since making his debut in a Sixer’s uniform (0-2 when he sits). So there is no doubt that the trade has made the Sixers a much better basketball team. However, as much as Butler helps the Sixers, there has been one noticeable drawback from the trade: three point shooting.
Now, when you look at the team stats from three point range, there is not a glaring difference from before and after the trade. The Sixers struggled collectively from three early this season but last year they shot 29.8 3PA on 36.9% per game (29.8 3PA on 37.9% per game after the start of the New Year when the Sixers really started rolling). Since the trade, the team has been shooting 30.4 threes per game at 36.9%. While the team’s three point production has not exactly changed, it is hard to ignore trading away two of the team’s three best three point shooters for a guy who makes a living in the mid-range like Butler. Butler is currently shooting a career high 38.8% from three, but it remains to be seen if he can keep this pace up as he has only played 27 games this year. With Embiid not exactly a prolific three point shooter and Ben Simmons yet to attempt a legitamate three in his career, the Sixers lack of premier perimeter shooting could very well be exposed futher down the road like in last year’s playoff series against the Celtics.
3. The Phantom of the Process
While yes, this heading is an ode to Embiid’s self imposed nickname from last year’s playoff run, I do not mean this in a good way. Just like a phantom, or a ghost, can disappear into thin air, so can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons against the better teams in the league. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s take a look at the Sixer’s performance against the Celtics and the Raptors, the Sixers’ two biggest obstacles in the Eastern Conference, over the last two seasons. In the regular season alone, the Sixers are a combined 3-9 against these two teams (1-4 against Boston and 2-5 against Toronto). The Sixers might have won big the other night against Toronto, but the Raptors were without three of their best players in Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valencuinas. And then of course we all remember losing to the Celtics in 5 games in last years playoffs: a series in which the Celtics were without their two best players and a game where Ben Simmons could only manage one singular point.
On top of all that, with the Sixers recent win against a depleted Raptors team, they improved to a mere 4-7 against teams with a winning record this year and face 16 more teams with a +.500 winning percentage through February 12th. It will undoubtedly be the biggest challenge of the season for the team, and will show us truly what this team is all about.
Nevertheless, the Sixers are still a young team learning to grow with eachother, and I have faith they will get this issue sorted out, especially with the talent they have at the top of their roster.
2. Brett Brown Being Just… Ok
While the “Fire Brett Brown” crowd has not been as loud this year, they still exist, and they have a tad bit of a valid argument. Before I get into it, I just want to preface this by saying Brett Brown is not a bad coach, by any means. But that being said, he is not a great coach either. Now, I love Brett Brown. He has been here since the beginning of the Process and deserves every chance in the world to be able to win a title with this team. He is an excellent X’s and O’s guy, as he’s been able to develop very effective offensive and defensive systems. The Sixers were even one of the best defensive teams in the league in the middle of the Process Era led by a rookie Nerlens Noel. On top of that, the organization loves him and his players believe in him.
However, in the heat of the game, Brown is prone to some questionable rotations and even more questionable time management. Time in and time out, he fails to stop the clock, give his guys a rest, and draw up a play to get the team rolling when they are on the wrong end of long scoring runs. I would not place him in my top 10 coaches in the league and I’m not convinced he is in the top half either. With a young, inexperienced team, it is incredibly important for the team to have a coach that can guide them through close games and the playoff grind, and judging by the collapse against the Celtics in last years playoffs and their inexplicable habit of losing 20 point leads in the 4th quarter, I am not convinced Brown is that guy.
My stance? The Sixers should not fire Brett Brown, yet. While the Sixers could do a whole lot worse at the Head Coach position, I don’t think they could do a whole lot better at the moment, as there are not exactly any desireable coaches available on the market. Brett Brown is still figuring things out just like his players, so only time will tell if good ole BB can coach his guys to a long playoff run.
1. The Bench
Any Sixers fan who’s watched their fair share of games this year knows that the Sixers’ depth, or lack there of, has been a major issue. This also ties in with Markelle Fultz’ disappearing jumpshot, as his ability to create shots off the dribble is exactly what the Sixers need off the pine. Currently, the Sixers rotation includes TJ McConnell, Furkan Korkmaz, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, and more recently Jonah Bolden. Shake Melton, Demetrius Jackson, and Amir Johnson round out the reserves. While most of these players are solid rotational guys and could very well earn minutes on a majority of teams around the league, there are two glaring holes in the rotation: shot creating and rim protection.
As far as the guards go, Shamet and McConnell are the first two guys off the bench. Shake Melton and Demetrius Jackson have been getting more looks as of late, but their youth and inexperience show when they find themselves on the hardwood. Shamet has been one of the most surprising rookies in the league, going head to head with Luka Doncic for the rookie leader in three pointers made. McConnell has been a fan favorite for years with his gritty defense and incredible moments over the years, like his game winner against the Knicks two seasons ago.
But both of them come with significant draw backs. McConnell is not exactly an offensive force. He is a game manager that is great in his role, but he cannot be called upon to come off the bench and give the team a bucket. Additionally, after posting a career high in three point efficiency last season, he has taken a significant step back in that department. Shamet on the other hand is used as essentially JJ Redick lite, which is perfect on the offensive side of the ball. However, much like JJ, Shamet struggles on the defensive side, especially against more athletic players.
Furkan Korkmaz is currently the only wing coming off the bench for the Sixers, and he poses the same advantages and disadvantages as Shamet. However, he has proven that he could earn an important role off the bench come playoff time, as he has been playing more than Shamet lately.
Perhaps the biggest issue is the backups to All-Star Center Joel Embiid. Jonah Bolden, Mike Muscala, and Amir Johnson arenot bad players, but none of them can effectively guard the rack. Bolden has shown some defensive upside, but much like Amir, he just does not have the athleticism to keep the other team outside of the paint. While Muscala plays an excellent stretch role at the five and four, he is a giant hole on the defensive end.
The season is far from over, and the Sixers’ roster is far from complete. I expect them to address this issue with a trade and free agency after the Buy Out Deadline, but as of now the Sixers’ bench greatly hinders the team from reaching their fullest.
Well, there you have it: The Ghosts of Process Present. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Keep an eye out for the final edition of this three part docu-series: The Ghosts of Process Future.
The NBA Christmas Day games were as interesting as the league could possibly have hoped. The prime-time games, especially, were more close than I think most would have expected. Bucks/Knicks was exactly as much of a non-factor as I figured it would be, which was why it got the bad slot. It was close, for like, a quarter? Which doesn’t mean much. Regardless, the good games were good.
Lakers/Warriors, and a King’s Exit
Beginning with the Lakers/Warriors game, the Lakers got off to a quicker start than I think was probably warranted. They led at the end of every quarter, and the Lakers’ role players showed up, with 6 players not named LeBron James in double-digits for points on the night. Notably, Lance Stephenson did so in only 11 minutes of play.
Speaking of LeBron James, he left the game early with a sort of dumb-luck groin injury, which was very akin to Chris Paul’s hamstring injury recently. Nothing gross, nothing severe, just the wrong motion at the wrong time and he was out to the locker room. The Lakers survived the patented Warriors 3rd Quarter comeback, and blew them out in the remaining time. With that said, LeBron missing any amount of time could set this team off of the track that they had found themselves on. Smooth sailing is a luxury in the Western Conference, and losing LeBron for even a week could spell stormy waters for LA.
The King will undergo an MRI soon, and more information on his condition will be available soon. He has beaten the odds avoiding any sort of major or recurring injury considering the amount of miles he’s taken on in his career, and while the injury didn’t appear to be anything severe, it could put a dent in his ability to play so many minutes for so many games from here on out.
Sixers/Celtics, and an OT Thriller
Pivoting to the Eastern Conference showdown, the Sixers/Celtics game was probably the best one on the docket for Christmas, both in terms of storylines and in terms of quality of the game itself. Embiid exploded against a team that historically has shut him down, but some of the bench players went absolutely cold, preventing the Sixers from properly capitalizing on the gravity that JoJo created.
My one reason for optimism as a Sixers fan (other than this being a close loss in hostile territory and Kyrie putting up the best Celtic performance in more than a decade) is that the Sixers brought themselves back into a game that looked like a shutout. After the first quarter, it looked like this game would go the way of the playoffs and opening night game in which the Sixers make a lot of errors, both forced and unforced, and generally struggle to gain footing. This was not the case, however.
Generally, the Sixers are much better at taking a lead and holding on to it than they are overcoming a deficit, especially against teams at a similar level to them in terms of talent. Usually, when they start cold they need to take risks to get back into it such as unnecessary 3-pointers, Embiid dribbling into double-teams hoping for a foul, and other things that are just unpredictable. However, in the Christmas game, they fought their way back into it in the second half through big defensive plays up and down the roster and fluid scoring. For a team with depth issues, especially against a team that’s among the deepest in the league, I was pleased to see them keep their head on straight and just play.
For a while, the Celtics did what they’re good at, and held the Sixers to arms length, surviving any surges to make the game closer, but eventually the Sixers built a near double-digit lead, despite being down as much a quarter or so earlier. At the risk of reading too much into one game, this was a big time game against a team that they have struggled against in the past, and they almost one even with a historic performance on the other team. They’re too good to feel good about moral victories, but I think from a mentality perspective, the team did the damn thing yesterday.
Rockets/Thunder, and James Harden’s Heroics
The final game I’m going to touch on is Rockets/Thunder, in which the Rockets survived a Chris Paul absence against a defensive powerhouse in OKC. Harden continued to put the ball in the hole at the most elite level the league has seen in a long time with 41 points, and backup PG Austin Rivers had double-digits in his debut. Safe to say Chris Paul would have scored more than 10 points, but for a guy Houston signed just days before, you can’t really complain.
The most important thing, in this game, was not Harden delivering a much needed win against a contender for the Rockets. To me, the most important thing is that Paul George is looking like the best player on this team, even in his role as a second option. Russ is supposed to be the engine of this offense, and Paul George is consistently scoring more, getting more rebounds, and guarding the perimeter at the highest level in the league.
It doesn’t quite matter who the “best” player on the team is, but I think it’s time Russ stops playing as if he’s Jordan. For all of the Thunder’s strengths, offensive selfishness could be their downfall. Everyone on this team is playing selfless around Russ, which during his MVP season was just plain logical. But if Russ can recognize his own shortcomings, especially in shooting 3-balls, he could do more to enable the people who help him out like Paul George, the quiet killer, or Steven Adams, who is possibly the most selfless player in the league with a killer hook-shot.
The moral of the story is, this team has found something special in the role they’ve developed for Paul George, but it could go south easily if the Thunder don’t play to their strengths, none of which are Russell Wilson taking almost five 3-pointers a game at less than 25%.
The Christmas day games are pretty special, and while I think some teams get in off name and name alone (looking at you, Knicks) the roster of contending teams put teams in a place of high regard by the league, both in terms of strength and entertainment value.