DETROIT – A belief gained steam earlier this season that players perform worse when playing with Russell Westbrook.
Former Thunder players Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis were having career years with the Pacers. Ex-Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter was thriving with the Knicks. Meanwhile, hyped Thunder newcomers Paul George and Carmelo Anthony were struggling. Oklahoma City stumbled to a 4-7 start.
This indictment of Westbrook also effectively served to invalidate his MVP case last season. Westbrook’s Thunder won fewer games (47) than James Hardens’ Rockets (55). Naming Westbrook MVP implicitly acknowledged he had lesser teammates than Harden. But what if Westbrook were the problem with his teammates all along? Nobody could take away Westbrook’s MVP, but it sure was getting re-litigated.
What does Westbrook make of that narrative?
“I don’t make nothing of it. Through this ear,” Westbrook, raising his left index finger to his left ear, “out this one.”
Westbrook lifted his right index finger to his right ear then pointed out – incidentally, toward Steven Adams‘ locker.
A player’s success depends on far more context than whether or not he plays with Westbrook. Perhaps, nobody better illustrates than than Adams, who has spent his entire career with Westbrook and the Thunder.
Coming off a down season, Adams is having a career – and unique – year.
Last year’s Thunder were still built to win with Kevin Durant. His departure left them without enough scoring and floor spacing, deficiencies that compounded each other.
Adams tried to compensate. He developed his floater and posted up more. But those extra shots were largely inefficient, a symptom and cause of Oklahoma City’s overextended offense.
With George and Anthony in town, Adams has returned to the grungy role that serves him so well.
That starts with rebounding, where Adams is producing historically quirky numbers.
A problem on the defensive end? Not at all. The Thunder defensively rebound much better with Adams on the floor (78.7%, equivalent of seventh in the league) than when he sits (76.1%, equivalent of 27th in the league).
Adams contributes on the defensive glass by boxing out, sometimes to absurd degrees. Using the full force of his 7-foot, 255-pound frame, Adams sticks opponents.
“My whole mindset is just to hit them as hard as I can,” Adams said. “Really. Because it’s more just a psyche thing. Because no one likes getting hit. I don’t like getting hit. So, you get hit quite hard, then you’ll kind of second guess like, ‘Maybe, I’ll just take a couple steps back.” So, make the job in the long run more easier.”
Does it work?
“They all brace,” Adams said. “Everyone always braces, because I come in quite hot when I come in for a defensive box out.”
A few of his box outs:
Adams is hardly the first player to grab more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds. Jason Maxiell did it with the 2009 Pistons, though he’s the only player to do so in the previous 15 years.
But the spread between Adams’ offensive and defensive rebounding is dramatic.
The 4.0-percentage-point difference between Adams’ defensive-rebounding percentage (13.8) and offensive-rebounding percentage (17.8) has been surpassed by only Mike McGee and neared by nobody else:
But McGee was a plucky wing for the mid-80s Lakers. Adams is a center, far more heavily involved in rebounding.
On scale, Adams’ season is unprecedented by a wide margin.
He’s averaging 3.8 defensive rebounds and 5.2 offensive rebounds per game – a difference of 1.4. That difference is nearly three times larger than anyone else’s:
Adams’ tenaciousness on the offensive glass shows his ability to grab rebounds himself. But he has no problem letting teammates grab defensive rebounds. As he sees it, he usually guards the opponent’s best offensive rebounder. So, he can best help his team secure the defensive rebound by boxing out.
“My whole thing is we need to get onto the next possession,” Adams said. “Because I don’t want to play defense. It’s so f—ing difficult, mate. So, as long as we get the ball and we can stop playing defense, that’s great.”
But Adams boxing out while a teammate grabs the rebound doesn’t help Adams in the box score. Does that ever bother him?
“Since I’ve been over here, I’ve noticed that America is very stat-driven with a lot of sports,” said Adams, a New Zealand native. “I don’t know. I guess it could sway a lot of the kids growing up in this environment. Overseas, you tend not to see it at all.”
It probably doesn’t hurt that Adams is just starting a four-year, $100 million contract extension. Even if he doesn’t care about his numbers, NBA executives might. But Adams doesn’t need to chase financial security.
Does he have location security, though?
If George re-signs and Anthony opts in next summer, the Thunder’s roster could get too costly. Just Westbrook, George, Anthony, Adams and minimum-salary players would push Oklahoma City into the luxury tax.
And that doesn’t even account for above-minimum players with guaranteed salaries next season: Andre Roberson ($10,000,000), Alex Abrines ($5,455,236), Patrick Patterson ($5,451,600), Kyle Singler ($4,996,000) and Terrence Ferguson ($2,118,840).
Unless they avoid the tax this season – unlikely, considering they’re $13,313,518 north of the tax line – they’ll also be assessed the repeater rate next season.
Will ownership really cover such large costs? Could Adams eventually be the odd man out?
His rebounding and versatile defense are so important to this team, especially its stars.
“He make life easy out there,” said Anthony, who resisted moving from small forward to power forward until joining Adams in Oklahoma City.
Westbrook’s appreciation is self-evident. Adams’ box-outs helped Westbrook grab numerous rebounds that went toward his legacy-defining triple-doubles and MVP.
Now, Adams is showing how context beyond being Westbrook’s teammate matters. With George and Anthony drawing attention on the perimeter, Adams is getting all the way to the rim more often on pick-and-rolls rather then settling for less-efficient floaters. He doesn’t need to post up as often, because the Thunder have better options.
The rest of the narrative was overly simplistic and rushed, anyway.
Oladipo got into the best shape of his life and developed a highly effective pull-up 3-pointer (that, yes, he can use more without Westbrook). Sabonis is just 21, an age when many players improve rapidly. Kanter is getting more attention for starting in New York than he was for coming off the bench in Oklahoma City, but his production this season isn’t significantly outside his career baseline. Paul George found such a nice groove, he became an All-Star. Anthony, whose decline is probably tied to aging more than anything, is settling in as third option.
Are there challenges in playing with the ball-dominant, triple-double-chasing, notoriously intense Westbrook? Absolutely.
But that’s what makes a player like Adams, who unselfishly complements the Thunder superstar, so valuable.