Serge Ibaka has played three percent of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s minutes at center this season, just a year after soaking up nearly a quarter of the team’s minutes in the same spot, per 82games.com.
That number will inevitably rise as Kevin Durant is re-worked into the lineup. But even with all of OKC’s injury woes, its commitment to playing big has been surprising. It’s also a telling sign of how the organization feels about the steady progress of Steven Adams.
Adams currently ranks 16th among centers in ESPN‘s real-plus minus system and 10th in wins above replacement. Since Russell Westbrook’s return, Adams is averaging 11.8 points and 12.4 rebounds per 36 minutes on 58 percent true shooting. That’s really freaking good.
Metrics like RPM and WAR are a bit hit-or-miss, and it would be inaccurate to call Adams a top-10 or probably even a top-15 center. But he’s coming along nicely, and given the rate of his development, he’ll almost certainly be an even better player by the time the postseason rolls around.
Offensively, Adams lives on a variety of typical big-man stuff; post ups and pick-and-rolls. He still refuses to look at the rim if he’s beyond eight feet, though if his 51 percent free throw shooting is any indication, that’s probably a good thing.
OKC played around with a lot of Adams post ups early in the year, but we’re nearing the point where those should mostly be shelved for better options. Adams certainly has the physical tools to be a strong post player, and he gets decent looks out of his two pet moves—a jump hook in the lane and a sweeping off-the-bounce runner. But for the time at least, he’s not effective down there.
Adams is shooting just 39 percent on hook shots, per nbawowy!. He also coughs the ball up at a big clip when he’s on the low block, especially if defenses send help or aggressively stunt on him. He does draw a lot of shooting fouls when he faces up. But getting to the line isn’t always a positive if you can’t hit your free throws, and opponents are more than happy to hack Adams if it looks like he has an easy bucket.
That’s not to say his post game should be completely punted—it could be a real weapon against certain small lineups or as a tool to get bigs in foul trouble. He repeatedly attacked Tim Duncan (!!) of all people in a recent game to great success. For the most part though, his offensive niche lies in his pick-and-roll play.
Ibaka’s three-point shooting has allowed Adams to take over as OKC’s primary screen-setter. He’s been great in that regard. He sets punishing screens, and he’s surprisingly good at getting away with wide (illegal) picks that free up a lot of space for the Thunder ball-handlers.
Adams mimics Kendrick Perkins in the pick-and-roll. He’ll set a full screen, linger for a moment, and then follow the path opened up by OKC’s ball-handler.
It’s interesting to compare him with someone like Tyson Chandler, arguably the league’s scariest roll man. The Dallas Mavericks run a ton of slip screens for Chandler, plays where he’ll pose as if to set a pick, and then cut hard to the basket. If the ball-handler can get his defender leaning the wrong way, as Monta Ellis does when he dusts poor Hollis Thompson, it’s game over.
There’s a stark contrast between the way the two function in the pick-and-roll. Adams is primarily a space-clearer/backup plan if things go wrong. Chandler, more often than not, is a primary scoring option.
Neither way is incorrect, but the way Adams is being used feels a tad limiting. It makes a ton of sense for the Thunder—Durant or Westbrook in open space is much more dangerous than a rolling Adams. Especially given his free throw shooting woes. But he’s been dunking everything in the pick-and-roll lately (his numbers at the rim are deceptively low due to missed putbacks), and it might be worth giving him more flexibility there.
Adams has been his usual self crashing the offensive glass, pulling down 12.6 percent of the Thunder’s misses. OKC is posting an offensive rebounding rate of 31.1 percent when he’s on the floor, a mark that would easily be tops among NBA teams. It’s admittedly hard to sort his impact out from Andre Roberson’s, but it’s safe to say he’s a huge plus on that front.
I’m even a little bullish on Adams’ potential as a passer, though the numbers don’t exactly bear this out. He turns the ball over a lot and is assisting on just 5.2 percent of the Thunder’s baskets when he’s on the floor (good for 48th among centers!). But he’s also flashed some clever touch passes, including a handful that came on the move.
It almost feels as though Adams can make all the correct reads, but he’s not so good at the actual physical act of passing, if that makes sense. He’ll never whip the ball around like Joakim Noah, but it’s not unrealistic to think that he could someday grow into a Nick Collison-esque passer, which would be huge for OKC.
The Thunder are surrendering just 99.8 points per 100 possessions when Adams is on the court, though that data is somewhat ambiguous due to injuries and Roberson’s ridiculousness. Most metrics seem to like him (RPM and Basketball-Reference‘s Defensive Box Plus/Minus both have him as a sizable plus), but his actual impact wavers from game to game.
Adams’ biggest problem is still defending the pick-and-roll. That’s something every young big struggles with, and Adams has it worse than most because OKC employs such an aggressive defensive scheme. He too often gets lost between hedging on guards and retreating back to his man. The best guards in the league can string him out when he hedges, opening up the rim for a rolling big.
He gets stuck in no man’s land like that far too often. And that can’t happen in the postseason, not to the degree it’s happening now. It’s partly unfair to bash him—a raw, 21-year-old big—for not being awesome at pick-and-roll defense all the time. But if Scott Brooks remains this committed to playing big, then Adams simply has to improve for OKC to survive the West.
Fortunately, he has improved in most other aspects. Opponents are shooting 48 percent at the rim against him, and Nylon Calculus pegs him as one of the league’s better rim-protectors. It’s important to factor in the Thunder’s manic brand of defense here. Unlike a lot of bigs with better numbers, Adams rarely has the luxury of dropping back on screens and floating around the rim. He typically has to race in from crazy angles to contest shots, dragging his rim-protection numbers down (and making Ibaka’s look even more insane).
He still gets suckered by fakes more often than you’d like, but he’s less jumpy than he was as a rookie. He’s cut his foul rate to 4.2 per 36 minutes, and you can notice visible improvement at times—like when he recently stuck with Duncan on a series of fakes, eventually blocking his shot. Rookie Adams absolutely fouls Duncan in that situation.
The defensive boards are still an issue, though Adams has upped his defensive rebounding percentage to 23.3 over the past month. I’d hold off on drawing any significant conclusions from that. But even if his recent spike ends up being a mirage, OKC can mitigate a lot of rebounding problems by playing him next to Roberson.
There are obviously still nits to pick with Adams, but he’s become a very good player very quickly. It’s almost hard to believe many of us (myself included) thought he’d still be in Tulsa at this point. Well done, Steve.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com unless stated otherwise