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Steven Adams doing dirty work that bolsters Russell Westbrook’s reputation, helps Thunder

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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.

He leads the NBA in offensive-rebounding percentage (17.8), but he ranks just 148th – behind Stephen Curry, James Harden and J.J. Barea – in defensive-rebounding percentage (13.8).

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:

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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:

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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.

Report: Carmelo Anthony adds Cavaliers, Thunder to list of teams where he will accept trade

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Carmelo Anthony wants most of all to be traded to Houston (and he has leverage thanks to the no-trade clause Phil Jackson/James Dolan gave him). However, to make the deal work the Rockets needed to unload the three-year, $60 million contract of Ryan Anderson — which the Knicks do not want, and neither did any third team without a couple high first-round picks as a sweetener. Also, the Knicks wanted quality you assets back the Rockets didn’t have (or would part with), so the deal was dead. Anthony tried to wait it out, but nothing happened, and at this point the Knicks expect ‘Melo in camp Monday.

In the face of that, Anthony has expanded his list of teams where he will waive his no-trade clause to include the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder, according to multiple reports.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN was first with the news about the Cavs.

Carmelo Anthony, a 10-time NBA All-Star, has delivered the New York Knicks an expanded list of teams — including the Cleveland Cavaliers — with which he’d be willing to waive his no-trade clause, league sources told ESPN.

After the Knicks insisted that they were unable to make a deal with the Houston Rockets, his primary trade destination, Anthony and his representatives honored New York’s request and furnished at least two more teams within the past 10 days, league sources told ESPN.

ESPN’s Ian Begley filled in the details.

Cleveland was on the initial list of teams Anthony gave the Knicks (teams he would waive his no-trade for) but the Knicks wanted Kevin Love and Cleveland shot that down (that was before the Kyrie Irving deal, now Cleveland is even less likely to make that trade). The Cavaliers don’t have a lot of young talent on their roster, and that’s what the Knicks will want back in a deal, picks and players who are on Kristaps Porzingis‘ career arc.

If Cleveland was willing to throw the 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick in the trade it would get done quickly, but I have been told (before this news) Cleveland would not part with that pick, they see it as “LeBron leaves” insurance.

You can bet LeBron James is pushing to get Anthony on the Cavs. Adding him and Dwyane Wade — when Wade is bought out by the Bulls (eventually) — would move the Cavaliers a little closer to the Warriors, although both Wade and ‘Melo are bad defensive matchups against Golden State.

Oklahoma City would likely use Enes Kanter in any trade because his $17 million salary helps balance the money. However, the Thunder are like the Cavs in that this is not a roster with much young talent that the Knicks would want. Guys like Doug McDermott and Kyle Singler are not going to cut it.

It could take a third team to get a deal done with either the Cavaliers or Thunder.

While there had been rumors Portland was still trying to get in — that’s a team with multiple ways to make that trade if they are willing to send Zach Collins and picks to New York — multiple reports out of New York say the Blazers are not one of the teams on Anthony’s list, something first reported by Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

Anthony may well get moved before the start of the season now, but not likely before training camp opens for the Knicks Monday. So that awkward set of questions still gets to take place.

 

Report: Thunder signing Andre Roberson to three-year, $30 million contract

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Andre Roberson entered restricted free agency with a confounding profile – arguably the NBA’s best defensive guard, but an atrocious shooter (especially on free throws) for a wing.

What’s the price point on a player like that?

It appears the Thunder found it.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Oklahoma City is now over the luxury-tax line, though the tax is assessed on the last day of the regular season. There’s plenty of time to duck it, though dumping players like Enes Kanter and Kyle Singler could require significant sweeteners.

Maybe the Thunder, with Russell Westbrook extension eligible and headed toward 2018 free agency otherwise, are actually willing to pay the tax.

No matter what comes next, this is a nice signing for Oklahoma City, which is already having a fantastic offseason by trading for Paul George and signing Patrick Patterson. The 25-year-old Roberson should maintain his defensive excellence over the next three years, and he and George will make a heck of a defensive tandem on the wing. George will also alleviate pressure on Roberson offensively, maybe even allowing Roberson to spend more time as a small-ball four.

The Thunder still badly need an upgrade at backup point guard, and this signing precludes using the bi-annual exception or more of the mid-level exception than allocated to Patterson, either of which would trigger a hard cap. A backup point guard will now come via minimum signing, trade or – gulp – once again relying on Semaj Christon.

Three things we learned Monday: In game of Westbrook vs. World, the world won

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We know you were busy finishing your holiday shopping Monday night — yes, you can just buy your dad a bottle of bourbon — so here are the big takeaways from the night in the NBA that you missed.

1) Russell Westbrook needs a little help — from teammates, officials, anyone really. Russell Westbrook is pretty much turning into the exasperated kid on the playground yelling, “little help here” as the ball rolls away, only to have to go get it himself anyway.

Monday night Westbrook didn’t get the help he wanted from his teammates for 47 minutes or from the referees in the final one, and the result was a 110-108 Atlanta win in Oklahoma City. It was a night of Westbrook vs. the World, and the smart money was on the world. Not coincidentally, this is the fourth game in a row Victor Oladipo has missed with a sore right wrist — he will not need surgery, but he’s going to miss more time — and the Thunder are 1-3 in that stretch.

Westbrook made plays. He shot 16-of-33, was attacking the rim and getting to the line (11-of-13), but also was knocking it down from the midrange, where he was 8-of-14. The problem was the other Thunder starters combined to shoot 30.8 percent for the game. It forced Westbrook to take on more and more. The result was a lot more Westbrook isolation, and Atlanta’s defense made the shots for Westbrook tougher and tougher as the night went on — he still hit 8-of-16 contested shots (stat via NBA.com).

But in the final minute, the referees swallowed their whistles and Westbrook did not get the calls he wanted. After Paul Millsap had given Atlanta the lead on a short jumper (where Westbrook and Andre Roberson messed up the switch), Westbrook brought the ball up and attacked the basket but didn’t get the call, did get his own rebound, but couldn’t hit the follow-up. The Thunder still had 2.9 seconds, and Kyle Singler got the ball into Westbrook who took a contested three — and tried to sell the foul call but didn’t get it. Steven Adams got the rebound, but rather than flipping it up quickly to the bucket he tried to dunk it, and time expired before he got it off. Ballgame.

Needless to say, after the game Westbrook was more than a little frustrated.

Give the Hawks credit here. On a night Dwight Howard was out, Mike Budenholzer started a small lineup and got the first 30-point game of the season from Paul Millsap, who was his All-Star self, seeming to score at will. But the real star was Dennis Schroder, who had 31 points and eight assists, who took advantage of mismatches off switches on the picks all night and seemed to get into the lane whenever he wanted. This was a good win for a Hawks team that could use a couple of those after their recent slump.

2) Nikola Jokic has a coming out party, and Denver is just half a game out of the playoffs. Denver coach Mike Malone’s new starting lineup and frontcourt rotation — a lot of Nikola Jokic and no Jusuf Nurkic — has won the Nuggets three games in a row and has the team just half a game back of stumbling Portland for the last playoff slot in the West. After an ugly start to the season, Denver’s postseason goal is still well within reach.

And if Jokic keeps playing like this they may get it. The second-year big man had 27 points, 15 rebounds, and 9 assists as Denver beat Dallas 117-107. He did most of his damage near the basket (9-of-13 shooting within eight feet of the rim) but was 4-of-4 outside the paint, including hitting his only three. He was getting his buckets using his varied game — as the roll man, on the offensive glass, cuts off the ball and more.

It’s not just Jokic on this win streak. Gary Harris had a career-high 24 points Monday. The up-and-down Emmanuel Mudiay was on the upswing again with 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Wilson Chandler in the starting lineup has been a veteran influence the team needed. A lot of things are going right for Denver the last few games — we’ll see if they can sustain it. But the Nuggets are playing an energized brand of basketball in this homestand.

3) Honest Stan Van Gundy is the best Stan Van Gundy. You sick of coach speak? Tired of hearing “I think it was just an off night” or blaming the schedule after a blowout loss? Then we present to you Stan Van Gundy after his Pistons got blown out by the Bulls Monday night.

The Pistons’ had a couple of blowout losses leading into this game, which sparked “players only” meeting where defense and ball movement were stressed. It worked about as well as SVG suggested. The Pistons didn’t do either of those things, and the result was a blowout 113-82 loss to the Bulls (who had lost three in a row before this game). The Pistons are still in the playoff mix in the East and likely will stay there — just four games separate the three seed Celtics from the 12-seed Magic. That’s 10 teams that have playoff dreams, but six spots. There’s a lot of basketball to go, and the Pistons are too talented to not be in the postseason. But they have stumbled since Reggie Jackson‘s return (it’s not all on him), and it’s going to take more than words — from Van Gundy or the players — to right the ship.

Report: 76ers trade Jerami Grant to Thunder for draft pick, Ersan Ilyasova

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Jerami Grant is 22 and athletic, has a track record for improvement and is on a team-friendly contract.

So, the 76ers are trading him.

But is this a continuation of Sam Hinkie’s Process or a departure? The deal with the Thunder for Ersan Ilyasova includes mixed signals.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

On one hand, the 76ers might have been selling high on a player whose flaws could be exposed with more playing time – a deal in the spirit of the Michael Carter-Williams trade for the Lakers’ protected first-rounder. A former second-round pick, Grant is a woeful outside shooter who is thoroughly limited due that shortcoming.

But even so, he’s on a great contract – two more seasons including this one at a minimum salary – and just 22. Philadelphia shouldn’t trade him for a 29-year-old Ilyasova. Ilyasova is an underrated veteran, but on an expiring contract, he’s not changing the 76ers’ course. Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor need talent around them in two years, not a stretch four at their side now.

The draft pick could justify dealing Grant, but it’s impossible to say without knowing more about the protections.

Grant will help the Thunder replace Kevin Durant at forward, joining a rotation that includes Andre Roberson, Kyle Singler and Domantas Sabonis. Grant is an exceptional shot-blocker for his position, and his defense will get him on the court and give his offense an opportunity to develop. He adds athleticism to a team that already features Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams.

Oklahoma City will have two choices with Grant next summer:

  • Exercise his 2017-18 minimum-salary team option, let him become an unrestricted free agent in 2018
  • Decline his 2017-18 team option, make him a restricted free agent in 2017

There’s no clear answer yet, but the Thunder gained substantial control over a promising young player. Now, we’ll need to learn exactly what it cost them.