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.
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