Steven Adams Is An Essential Cog In the Thunder Machine

Steven Funaki Adams.

He’s the brutish figure playing hall monitor in the paint for the Oklahoma City Thunder. NBA players voted him the “dirtiest player in the league,” which I interpret as “the strongest player in the league.” Adams is a modern day enforcer, a revisionist interpretation of those who came before: Charles Oakley, Wes Unseld, Willis Reed.

It’s cliche to say Adams is just “one of those guys who does all the little things,” or “a lot of this stuff just won’t show up in the box score.”

It wouldn’t be the worst idea to change this enormous man’s middle name to “Little Things.”

Adams is a guy with no flashy skills. He is not a textbook playmaker, he is not an elite rim protector, he cannot create his own shot, he can’t shoot outside, and yet he sits at number 38 in SI’s Top 100. He is ahead of all-stars (at his position, no less) like DeAndre Jordan (43), Blake Griffin (41), and Marc Gasol (48). Rob Mahoney writes:

“…the Thunder grabbed 31.6% of their own misses with Adams on the floor last season, per This is an offense unto itself. Adams may not be scoring all that much, but his efforts renew possessions and redeem low shooting percentages. Solvency comes easy when a team is allowed to take a mulligan on nearly a third of its misses, and potentially more when no true center is around to box Adams out. 

There’s just no working around the fact that Adams is a proper giant. He can wipe out a guard with a screen and bulldoze a big with a roll. Players of that size aren’t supposed to move around the floor so easily, and yet here is Adams, gliding through contact after teaching himself how.”

There is no mention of the traditional traits that prescribe value onto players. Mahoney draws attention to Adams’ offensive rebounding and screening.


Adams’value lies in his offensive rebounding and screen setting–yes, the little things–that make him one of the most valuable players the Thunder have. Without Adams, George and Westbrook undoubtedly have tougher jobs.

Were you to look at a typical Steven Adams box score, you’d see pretty average numbers. It is, per usual, only by watching him does one see his value. Value that lands a player with ho-hum numbers so high on player ranking lists.

Offensive Rebounding

Adams was tied with Andre Drummond for first in the league last season with 5.1 offensive rebounds per game. He makes it easy for himself, leading the league in boxouts per game at 11.5. Adams boxed players out over 170 more times than DeAndre Jordan, who was second in the league for total boxouts last year.

Rebounding is largely a product of effort. There are several 7 foot players who aren’t good rebounders. This is where Adams butters his bread. There are a couple things that stick out when watching Adams rebound, primarily his footwork and positioning.


Using short, choppy steps, Adams allows himself to constantly adjust to the ball. In the clips below, check out his feet.

In this first clip, Watch how Adams is constantly shifting and reacting to where the ball will be. He starts adjusting as soon as he releases from his roll. He sees the space Westbrook has, knows that’s Russ’ sweet spot, and begins his shifting toward the rim. By making these quick movement, Adams remains light on his feet and it allows him to react to the ball. Plays like this become easy:


I included the devastating screen for funsies. Notice Adams seal his man and as the ball bounces off the rim, the quick stutter step to regain possession:

Adams OREB2.gif


Position is the natural result of great footwork. With his feet, Adams gives himself the ability to move quickly, and with instinct, he puts himself in the right positions to get the rebound.

Watch how Adams monitors Russ with the ball. In the play below, Adams works through two defenders to be on the far side of the rim of Russ’ post up. He knows that’s his best shot at getting the second chance board.

The upcoming clip is especially astounding. On a Melo post up, Adams reacts to the ball in mid-air. Melo puts a horrific shot, and Adams makes a correct, split-second read on an abnormal shot. He’s exactly where the ball bounces. What a horrible, horrible shot. I’m not sure why Melo turned to his left on that shot.

This clip also gives more credence to Adams’ effort. Notice Adams’ effort compared to that of Myles Turner in this clip. Turner gives Adams a half-hearted slap of the wrist when Adams goes for the swim move.


Last offensive rebounding clip below.

Adams knows that a ball coming off a reverse layup isn’t likely to go long. It’s going to come off the front of the rim or be short and rocket back down toward Thicc Boy Raymond Felton’s noggin.

Because Nance, Clarkson and LeBron don’t bother boxing him out, Adams is free to roam where he wants. He goes, again, to the perfect spot.



Adams led the league in screen assists last year with 4.9 a game. That’s like adding 10 points a game, which is monumental. The Thunder have issues with initial play spacing. They don’t have lineups where Russ and Adams can be paired with 3 shooters. They have to manufacture space, and one way they do it is by running defenders into Adams.

Adams is a huge, strong, near immovable screen setter. He doesn’t ever get pushed around, and his screens create so much space for Westbrook and George. With a player as fast as Russ, an extra inch of space is the difference between settling for a contested 2 or driving to the hoop.

It’s a similar payoff for George, who is an expert curling around screens for open looks. When the pick and roll ball handler, George scores about 41% of the time, which puts him in the 72nd percentile of PnR ball handlers who played 60 games last year.

Look at the massive amount of space that come from Adams’ screens. For players as crafty as George and as fast as Westbrook, this is easy money.


And sometimes, he downright crushes people.


The value of Adams’ screening can only be quantified so much. We know he’s adding about 10 points a game without having the ball. That’s one of the most valuable traits a player can have–contributing to a team with or without the ball.

This is the only type of player that can work beside Westbrook and George. It is, in part, the reason the Carmelo Anthony Experience was largely a failure. What value does Melo have away from the ball? Is he giving his team extra possessions? Is he making Westbrook and George’s work easier? Of course he isn’t.

When evaluating players, experts will often ask the question: Does this player make his teammates better? Without question, Adams is making his teammates better.

Adams is brutally chopping a path through the metaphorical jungle, giving George and Westbrook more time to make correct plays, more space to see the team, and when they fail, more chances to try again.

And none of that can be found in a box score.


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Reid Belew