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Can Steven Adams open up the Thunder's offense?

Steven Adams averaged 13.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game this season for the Thunder. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]
Steven Adams averaged 13.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game this season for the Thunder. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]

Thunder general manager Sam Presti made the suggestion and the hairs stood up on the back of fans’ necks.

As of now, the Thunder isn’t going to get shooting out of its centers. As of now.

"But maybe we can push Steven into a development phase where we have him look at that," Presti said.

Ever the team player, Steven Adams said he’d be OK with it, expanding his game out to mid-range and the 3-point line the way many of the league’s best teams now deploy their centers. Adams, though, isn’t going to start jacking threes for his sake, only if it’s what the team requires.

"I get the word and they're like, ‘Hey, mate, jack a couple threes,’ and it's like ‘No worries, mate.’ … Get in the gym, yeah," Adams said.

The question is one of much debate and intrigue. Should Adams shoot 3-pointers? It’s not that he’s incapable, but is it what’s best for the Thunder’s offense?

"He can shoot the ball," Presti said. "We've seen it for years in the practice gym. Everybody here has."

So, why hasn’t he?

An avenue to offense?

In a Game 3 win over Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo beat their initial defender and had acres of open space to the rim. No help defender appeared and they walked into layups and dunks that spurred the Bucks’ win.

It was schematic but also a product of personnel.

Milwaukee’s Game 3 display, in theory, is what Adams shooting 3-pointers would open up: Space for the drives of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Bucks center Brook Lopez led NBA centers in 3-point attempts. Coach Mike Budenholzer placing four players on the perimeter unclogged driving lanes for MVP-to-be Antetokounmpo, who shot 77 percent at the rim. Bledsoe, a below-average 3-point shooter (33.6 career) like Westbrook, shot 72.6 percent at the rim.

Against packed defenses, Westbrook shot a career-best 65 percent at the rim. But in order to unpack defenses, players have to make and take deep shots. The mere threat of Adams on the perimeter is fine, but defenses will ignore him (a la Andre Roberson) unless he can prove he can make the shot. It’s what the Thunder missed in Alex Abrines and still misses in Kevin Durant.

ESPN analyst Stan Van Gundy said the Thunder doesn't necessarily have to stretch Adams out to the 3-point line to create space.

"It’s all personnel driven in terms of how you can play," Van Gundy told The Oklahoman. "When you use him around the baseline, there’s still plenty of space to penetrate. The problem is some of those other guys are not great shooters.

"I think he’s still got great value if you penetrate the ball and his man comes to help. He’s proven himself to be a good finisher around the basket, one of the best offensive rebounders in the league."

That’s the Thunder’s other issue in moving Adams away from the basket: Adams on the 3-point line means no Adams on the offensive glass.

Where’s the value?

In his sixth season, Adams averaged 13.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game and was the reason the Thunder shot the ball more than its opponents. He pulled down an offense rebound on 12.9 percent of his possessions, which helped the Thunder to 103.42 possessions per 48 minutes — the sixth-highest mark in the league.

On a recent edition of The Lowe Post podcast with Zach Lowe, Van Gundy went deep on the value of offensive rebounding in the playoffs. The Warriors put an emphasis on offensive rebounding against the Rockets and it's reaped benefits, a 26-13 advantage which helped negate uncharacteristically poor 3-point shooting from Golden State through two games.

"You’re going to have to shoot the ball better than your opponent or get more shots," Van Gundy said.

Offensive rebounding is valuable to teams which struggle to score. But this season, the correlation between the offensive glass and elite play was small.

Of the top 10 offenses in the league this season, only two (Denver, Portland) were in the top 10 in offensive rebounding rate. Five of those teams (Minnesota, Miami, New Orleans, Atlanta, Cleveland) didn’t make the playoffs. The three others (Oklahoma City, Brooklyn and Detroit) went 2-12 in the first round.

In Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against Portland, Denver pulled down 23 offensive rebounds but lost because it was wasteful, only scoring 20 second-chance points.

What adds up to elite play is not just elite offensive rebounding or 3-point shooting, but offensive efficiency.

Because of Adams, the Thunder ranked in the top 10 in the NBA in putback possessions, yet OKC averaged less than a point on those possessions (0.97), tied with Atlanta for last in the NBA. This season, Adams, Westbrook and Jerami Grant missed a combined 365 free throws, more than San Antonio, Boston, Golden State, Portland, Toronto or Cleveland each did as teams.

So, while the Thunder is playing to a style which fits personnel, it’s still not efficient at its identity.

"I don’t think it’s a schematic problem," Van Gundy said. "It’s a personnel problem in terms of shooting and at times in shot selection.

"It’s almost if they shoot the ball decently, they can beat anybody in the league."

Maybe the Thunder could be a better shooting team with Adams on the perimeter, not because he’d turn into Lopez from 3, but because (theoretically) Westbrook would turn into something closer to Bledsoe or Antetokounmpo at the rim.

It’s more than just putting Adams above the arc. He and whoever the Thunder employs have to make shots. Regardless of where Adams is on the floor, he, Westbrook and others making free throws can help close the offensive gap. And if that doesn’t happen, the Thunder is playing a game the current personnel can’t win.



This is Day 1 of The Oklahoman's Thunder-A-Day series, assessing the OKC roster entering the offseason. Up next:

Monday: Alex Abrines

Tuesday: Deonte Burton

Wednesday: Dennis Schroder

Thursday: Raymond Felton

Friday: Terrance Ferguson

Erik Horne

Erik Horne is in his fourth season on the Thunder beat. Horne joined The Oklahoman as a sports web editor/producer in September 2013 following a five-year stint at The Ardmoreite (Ardmore) – first as a sports writer, then sports editor. At The... Read more ›

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