Why Steven Adams is Quietly One of the League’s Most Valuable Centers

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.

Pat Beverly, Isaiah Thomas, and many others fall victim to Steven Adams’ screens in this clip. Pat Beverly in particular got absolutely leveled.

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.

It’s honestly impressive the number of fights you can find Steven Adams breaking up just by searching “Russell Westbrook fights.”

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.

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Christmas Game Reactions: Lakers, Sixers, and More

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.

Grading Every Christmas Day NBA Match-Up

‘Tis the season of giving, and the NBA hath given a lineup of games for public view, so perfectly spaced out as to be able to watch various games throughout the day. Some of the games are clear rivalry games that the NBA is trying to push, whereas others are just individual teams from big markets that the league wishes to put on display. With that in mind, I’m going to go game by game and grade the game quality as well as provide a short blurb about the teams. Here we go!

Bucks @ Knicks: D | Not much to be said about this one. The Bucks have been shaky lately, but the Knicks are so widely devoid of any play-making talent that it probably won’t matter. Even if the Knicks pull off a Christmas upset, it probably won’t be pretty. More likely than that is a good old fashioned blowout courtesy of Giannis.

Thunder @ Rockets: B- | At the beginning of the season this match would have probably seemed like a really good one. Both of these teams started out mysteriously cold, and since then the Thunder have fared better. Houston is still struggling against even middling teams, while OKC is defending at a high level and PG is delivering on offense. I imagine this will be a good game nonetheless, but Chris Paul’s hamstring injury decreases the likelihood that this is a close, compelling game.

76ers @ Celtics: B+ | The NBA is, very clearly, exhaustively, trying to push this rivalry. LeBron leaving Cleveland officially signified that the reigns of the East would fall to the next generation, and in addition to the opening game being the same match-up, it’s clear that this is the narrative the NBA wants for the Eastern Conference. That said, it should be one of the most high-energy games all day, and it’s also very likely to be a close and exciting game. I wish it wasn’t at TD Garden again, seeing as the opening night game as well as the Christmas day game will be at home for Boston which kind of tells me that the NBA wants to push this rivalry, but wants to push Celtics exceptionalism harder. Injuries on Boston’s roster, particularly to their big men, blow this game wide open for Philly, especially because Boston hasn’t seen the Jimmy Butler Sixers yet.

Lakers @ Warriors: A- | The Lakers have begun to get a sense as to what lineups work for them, and the Warriors have finally begun to reach some consistency after reintegrating Steph Curry. Strong defensive teams have slowed the Dubs down and forced them on to suboptimal shots, and when the shots don’t fall like against the Jazz, it won’t take much to overcome them. LeBron doesn’t usually flip the switch this early in the year, but on a big stage and in the every-win-matters West, I think we’ll probably bear witness to the King in his true form. This match-up is an indirect finals rematch, too, which is why I imagine it made the cut for the Christmas games.

Trail Blazers @ Jazz: B | This will probably be an interesting game, but there is significantly less story-line as a basis for its inclusion as a Christmas day game. In reality, it’s just a game between two teams who need a win. Donovan Mitchell’s efficiency has been problematic all year, but the Jazz still sport a respectable defense behind star center Rudy Gobert, who probably doesn’t get enough credit for the impact he has when he checks in. Regardless, the Blazers are currently in the playoffs and the Jazz are a good way’s out of it, but there’s still a perfectly logical route for the Jazz to get in; they just need to win and win now. They can’t afford to have bad nights against other fringe teams like Portland, who are perfectly beatable if things go right. I mean, if you’re competing with the Sacramento¬†Kings¬†for a playoff spot, you’re never really out of it. The Jazz are still in a better place moving forward than, say, the Pelicans, but that’s no reason to be content with an L on Tuesday night.

The games this year follow some pretty clear patterns. The legacy teams who sport a geographic rivalry and were renewed by young talent, the one-man-army versus the people who have bested him the past 2 years, and the rest are filled out with identity-seeking playoff contenders looking to make a statement. Except Bucks/Knicks. That game just plain sucks.

Early NBA Coach of The Year Candidates

Coach of the Year is always one of my absolute favorite awards, in any sport. It is a testament not only to one’s knowledge but personality, practical skills and communication as well; all of that goes in to building a winning culture. The most interesting part, in my opinion, is the variety of ways in which coaches can make a case for the award.

Many awards in the NBA are a specific recognition of excellence within very specific circumstances, such as Sixth Man or Most Improved Player, both of which essentially require you to be some area below the highest echelon of skill in the league.

Coach of the Year isn’t quite like that. It can be won through stellar management of tough circumstances, or rapid adaptation to a changing basketball landscape, or even something as simple as delivering a team their winning-est season ever. With that in mind, here are a few coaches who, thus far into the season, are making a statement to put themselves in contention for this award.

Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets:

The Denver Nuggets have been the product of one of the most dramatic culture shifts this year, and are by far the most surprising team among expected contenders. Last season, the Nuggets were among the worst in the league in defending field goals and 3-point attempts, having one of the highest opponent completion percentage for both metrics. This year, they are in the 5 lowest opponent percentage for field goals and 3-pointers. Coach Malone made a huge statement about the team’s commitment to improving on defense during the off-season, and this drastic shift proves he was dead serious. In addition to Denver’s rapid improvement on defense, the Nuggets have maintained one of the best and most stable records in the league, despite injuries to notable depth players such as Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, and Isaiah Thomas, who still has yet to suit up for the Nuggets. Being able to take injuries in important role players who fulfill a variety of needs for the team, and still holding on to an elite record of 21-9, is the direct result of a team-centric culture within the roster and even better player management on behalf of Mike Malone. Taking the Nuggets from an inconsistent playoff snub, to being rock solid and potentially making a conference final appearance, is nothing short of noteworthy when discussing the best coaches this year.

David Joerger, Sacramento Kings:

The Sacramento Kings were widely expected to be the absolute worst team in the league this year. With the earlier caveat that the Nuggets were the most surprising contender, the Kings are far and away the most surprising team, period. The expectations being so low came from the talent vacuum, lack of a veteran presence, and there was really no reason for them to be in a rush to make the playoffs this year, so they should have had their sights set on developing young players anyways. They don’t have their first round pick this year if it ends up in the lottery, so they lack incentive to tank. The most important facet of the team catching people off guard is the rapid improvement of Sophomore De’Aaron Fox. The lineup lacks any tried and true stars, but in the absence of one, the Kings young back-court has been enabled to succeed. Credit where it’s due, there’s no way I’d look at that Kings roster and say, “Let’s go to the playoffs.” While an attitude adjustment from the tank to the hunt isn’t astounding, it also isn’t easy to balance making a push for a winning season with the development of young players (like 2nd overall pick Marvin Bagley III, who is injured for the moment but has made a notable impact off the bench during some of Sac-town’s surprising wins). Joerger has been controversial within his own franchise, as he’s gotten into problems with the front office structure, but I personally don’t blame Joerger for wanting delivering wins to the badly-mistreated Kings fan-base. For what it’s worth, he’s giving the current core solid run and is still doing what he needs to by Bagley, so I think the front office should back off and let the man work.

Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors:

To the best of my knowledge, no coach has won Coach of the Year in their first year as an NBA head coach (the only person would be Johnny Kerr, who won the award as the coach of an expansion team in their first year, the 33-win Chicago Bulls). Regardless, no Coach has done it in the modern era after taking the reigns on an already existing and constructed franchise. Nurse’s job would have been a lot easier without the off-season move of trading Demar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, as he would have only needed to continue doing what he did in the prior years as the team’s offensive brains. But adding a new star player, and one with extremely different skills than DeRozan, is a very difficult task. In addition to seamlessly integrating Kawhi, he’s unlocked the dormant potential in players like Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam, both of whom are integral to the depth and defensive prowess of Toronto this year. Being able to find significant production in players already on your roster, and converting them into systemic role players can change the destiny of a team for a whole season. It hurts a lot less when Kyle Lowry isn’t shooting well if Siakam is shooting 60% from the field on nearly 10 attempts per game. 538 projects the Raptors to win 59 games this year, which is the second highest projected win total in the league, and would match their record last year-which earned his predecessor Dwane Casey the award. I would say having a top 3 record and matching your team’s best record in franchise history in your first year would be grounds for some Coach of the Year votes.

Honorable Mention | Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder: The Oklahoma City Thunder began this year as down in the dumps as a contender could be. The most pressing question after the team became a first-round exit last year was “What is the next step for Russell Westbrook?” For once, this question wasn’t posed with free agency in mind. At this point, the team was unlikely to keep Paul George, and still had the Melo virus to deal with. With Melo gone and George staying, Billy Donovan finally had the blueprint for a defensively strong team. While they were good on defense last year, Carmelo Anthony got hunted out. Hard. And with George staying, it became 100% clear that Westbrook would have to become a better player off-ball. While his own efficiency and production has taken a hit, relieving themselves of the stat-padding has enabled the other strong and consistent players like Paul George and Steven Adams to keep the offense moving and put more energy towards defense, as well. The Thunder, despite a losing-streak out of the gate, have a chance to win mid-50 games or so, and their play even without Westbrook has convinced me that it’s not a far cry for this team.

It’s still early yet, but Coach of the Year isn’t the kind of award you win with a long win-streak in March; it’s the kind of award you make a case for night-in and night-out through 82 games. So with that in mind, those are 4 coaches worth keeping an eye on this year.