It was just over four years ago that the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden—along with Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward—to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, two protected future first-round picks and a second-round pick. That transaction was heavily scrutinized at the time and critics kept piling on as Harden evolved into a legitimate superstar in the NBA. Martin left the team after one season and Lamb, who never quite developed as projected, was traded after three.
While the Harden trade is still criticized by some, the negative talk has lessened for one primary reason. That reason goes by the name of Steven Adams, who the Thunder picked with the 12th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
Adams’ rookie year as a backup center was predictably shaky. As suspected, his defense looked promising, but his offense needed a lot of work. Under the season-long guidance of then-teammate Kendrick Perkins, Adams picked up tips on playing the center position, including beefing up his ability to agitate opponents, minimizing retaliation when upset and the art of the pick-and-roll. Adams averaged just 3.3 points and 4.1 rebounds in 14. 8 minutes in his rookie year. His sophomore year was better—he raised his averages to 7.7 points and 7.5 rebounds over 25.3 minutes per game—and he won the starting role over Perkins.
After accomplishing similar averages his third season, the proverbial switch turned on for Adams during the 2015-16 postseason, where he averaged 10.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. NBA followers began to take notice as Adams’ defensive impact was markedly felt in the playoffs. His touch around the basket and passing were difference-makers and, on the national stage, he proved to be both effective and tough.
This season, as the Thunder enter play on December 13 at 15-9, Adams has been key. Although he isn’t a reliable double-double machine just yet, he’s averaging 11.5 points, 7.8 rebounds (including 2.8 on the offensive end), 1.2 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. He is playing 30.2 minutes per game and is shooting 58.3 percent from the field.
The Thunder currently rank fifth in Defensive Rating, but Thunder head coach Billy Donovan emphasizes continual growth on the defensive end.
“It’s our timing and our awareness of what’s going on,” said Adams regarding the team’s defensive progress. “We’ve brought to light and defined what it means to actually go over and help if they’re in a really bad position with their defender. That’s where we kind of cleaned up. What we saw is that we’re over-helping and that’s leaving teams [with] offensive rebounding, corner threes all that kind of stuff.”
Now a masterful pick-and-roll player with surprising hand and foot speed for a seven-footer, Adams is quick to give credit to his on-court partner for the team’s competitiveness.
“It’s just Russ,” Adams said. “He attracts so much attention. He attacks the glass or just scores [and] he forces everyone. He does a good job of finding the open guy. It really helps out everyone a lot, it makes our job really easy.”
The Thunder have won seven of their past eight contests. Of course, Westbrook’s recent seven-game streak of triple-doubles hasn’t hurt.
“For me, it’s never been like [a] ‘oh my gosh’ sort of moment,” said Adams of Westbrook’s impressive streak. “It’s standard. He just plays hard, which is good. It’s just his energy is consistent, and that’s when I’m like ‘oh wow.’ That’s what’s amazing to me. Like his motor, it’s unbelievable. Just his passion and killer instinct … you don’t see that. Good stuff with the numbers.”
Adams has also made incredible strides in another aspect of the game. In an effort to deter opposing teams from utilizing the Hack-an-Adams strategy, he has dedicated himself to improving his free throw game. During his first three seasons, he shot 55.5 percent at the foul line. This season, his average has jumped to 74.7 percent.
Against the Houston Rockets two games ago, Adams recorded a career-high 24 points with ten rebounds and he went eight-of-nine from the field and eight-of-nine at the foul line. The spectacular Westbrook-to-Adams lob dunks, which we haven’t seen with regularity since last year, were on full display.
“No one was in there to hammer me, just get in my way,” said Adams. “Russ did a good job just finding me. Just well done. Worked out well.
“They always try to put two guys on Russ, three guys, whatever,” he continued. “But the reason I got open was their weak side wasn’t actually pulling across like other teams would do, which [is] what allowed me to roll down without being touched at all, more offensive rebounds and whatnot. I was getting free runs.”
With the Thunder’s heavy game schedule of late, group practice time has been quite limited.
“Strictly been working on ourselves because we haven’t had much time to practice at all,” explained Adams. “We’ve got make adjustments, but they’re only small adjustments, like whatever the team is, whatever they specialize in and all that. We’ve just got to make sure we’re all on the same page and understand the system that we have.”
With the departure of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka last summer, Adams has suddenly been elevated to the consensus status of second-best player on the team. Prior to the start of the new season, Adams was asked how he felt being regarded as a veteran of the team at 23 years of age and having only completed three NBA seasons.
“I feel normal,” he answered. “It’s the same. It’s good having this different approach to, say, [Domantas] Sabonis, who I have to teach some new things. They’re giving me little bit of responsibility to teach him some stuff, so there’s a big role in that. Kinda feel like a father, so congratulations to me. Dropping knowledge bombs.”
One of Adams’ most endearing qualities is his oddball sense of humor. The New Zealander has a way of phrasing the English language that brings waves of laughter from his listeners. His accent, mannerisms and ever-changing hairstyles only add to the comic relief. And he’ll be sticking around for awhile, as the Thunder signed Adams to an estimated four-year, $100 million extension in October.
“I’m definitely proud to be here,” Adams said. “I’m happy to be here as well in Oklahoma. It’s just cool knowing the Thunder want me here. I just like it here so much. It reminds me of New Zealand, this place. A lot of good people here. Obviously, it’s a really good organization.”
It’s impossible to forget the circumstances in which Harden was traded just months following the Thunder’s first NBA Finals appearance. Nobody knows what success they might have found that next year, or in subsequent years, had Harden been re-signed in 2012. However, that trade did net Adams, who has worked diligently to end up as a valued core piece for the Thunder, and perhaps, their next star.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN