By Michael Doutey
After the third consecutive first-round exit from the playoffs, everything about the Oklahoma City Thunder has been hyper-scrutinized. The Thunder are under a microscope like never before. Fans and media are looking at everything wondering how this team can get better and make a long playoff run while Paul George and Russell Westbrook are still in their prime.
Fans have clamored for a new coach. The media has debated if Sam Presti has done enough to surround the Thunder stars. There has been a lot of criticism directed at Russell Westbrook.
As the offseason slogs along, there will be more discussion about this team and their ever closing window to compete with the NBA elite. Something the Thunder haven’t been close to in the playoffs since Kevin Durant left.
There has been one particular debate that has surrounded fan-favorite Steven Adams. Adams struggled to finish the season strong, struggling to play as effective as he was before the All-Star Break. He was then surprisingly outplayed by his former Stache Bro, Enes Kanter, in the playoffs.
The NBA is rapidly changing. Perimeter shooting has become the norm. Centers who can’t stretch the floor are now becoming less valuable. Some have begun to wonder if the game has passed by Adams. There have been discussions from some in the past about trading Adams. Or they have at least questioned the massive four year, $100 million contract he got back in October of 2016.
Those conversations were silly and never had any real logic. But now the conversation seems more reasonable. There are actual reasons why Adams could be looked at as a trade asset this offseason. It sounds blasphemous. Especially with how much this city loves Adams.
Today I am going to look at reasons why trading him makes sense for the Thunder. After, I will also make an argument for why the Thunder shouldn’t trade their center.
The dynamic duo of Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams may not be so dynamic anymore. Westbrook is coming off the worst shooting season of his career and teams were able to defend both Westbrook and Adams in pick-and-roll situations. Neither player can stretch the floor and create space. We saw fewer of the monster lob passes Westbrook would throw to Adams for highlight reel dunks.
Teams began sagging off of Westbrook and allowing him open jump shots. Teams would dare him to shoot and more times than not Westbrook would take the shot. After he had several misses, he would then drive and try to finish at the rim or dish to Adams. But it was hard for Westbrook to get the ball to Adams in those situations because there were at least four players smashed in the paint. The lane would congest easily. Still, Westbrook would force passes inside and commit frustrating turnovers. Westbrook, Adams, and their two defenders would all cram into the deep paint and there would be hardly any space for either player to operate. For a team with spacing issues, this was exposed in the playoffs. What may have been a big part of the Thunder offense seems to have been figured out by NBA defenses. A pairing of a point guard who struggles to shoot with a big who can’t stretch the floor is a bad combination in today’s NBA.
There was a clear drop off in production from Adams last season. He was a stud before the All-Star Break. But after, he struggled and was a complete liability at the free throw line. After the break, Adams shot a putrid 31.5 percent from the free throw line. That’s after he shot 55 percent from the line pre-All-Star Break. That isn’t exactly setting the world on fire. He also averaged 2.8 fewer points over the final 25 games on nearly one fewer made shot a game. He averaged a plus-6.8 over the first 55 games of his season in 34 minutes per game. Over the final 25 games, he just averaged plus-0.6 points per game in the plus-minus. His effectiveness dropped and he was very average.
The Thunder played some of their best basketball in the playoffs with Adams on the bench. Look back to Game Five of their series with Portland. In the fourth quarter, the Thunder played great with a small lineup with Jerami Grant as the center and the spacing was tremendous. This isn’t a huge sample size to go off of. A quarter is not enough time to base a major decision on. But it still calls into question if Adams is a fit for the Thunder moving forward.
Then there is the matter of his contract. Some say it is a horrible contract. I can’t go that far. But it hasn’t turned out to be a good one. Next season he is owed $25.8 million and in 2020-2021 he is going to make $27.5 million. That’s $53.3 million over the next two years. That is a ton of money tied up in Adams. For a team who has absolutely zero financial flexibility, it is beginning to be hard to justify that much money being allocated to a center. The Thunder have holes in their roster that they need to address. If OKC was able to trade away Adams’ contract and acquire a capable center on an inexpensive contract, then the Thunder would able to free money up to use on shooting or better depth.
Why the Thunder Should NOT Trade Adams
Adams is a tremendous offensive rebounder. He averaged the second most offensive rebounder in the entire NBA with 4.9 per game. Offensive rebounds help with second-chance points. The Thunder averaged 13.8 second-chance points per game which ranked sixth best in the NBA. With a team who struggles to shoot at a high level, Adams ability to gather offensive boards is a huge part of the Thunder offense.
The Thunder overall are a great rebounding team. They were the second best team in the league in overall rebounding with 48.1 per game. They were behind the Milwaukee Bucks for first in that category. Adams is a huge part of Oklahoma City’s success in that. The Thunder like for their guys to have success boxing out for Russell Westbrook to grab the defensive rebound and get out on the fast break. This philosophy allows Adams to box out and then use his athleticism to sprint down the floor and get easy run-out baskets. If the defense defends Adams running the floor that allows Westbrook to pick lanes to speed down the floor and set up the Thunder attack. This is classic Thunder basketball and Adams’ role within it is the backbone of their success.
Adams is the quarterback of the Thunder defense. He makes all the calls and communicates with everyone on the floor. He has a major role within the Thunder defense with a lot of responsibility. The Thunder has a solid defense. The Thunder had the fourth best defensive rating in the NBA and trailed teams like the Pacers, Jazz and the Bucks topped the list. OKC had success without one of their prime defenders in Andre Roberson. He missed the season which forced Terrance Ferguson to start all season at shooting guard. The Thunder imagined having an elite defense with Roberson and George paired together. Those two paired with Adams could have been a game changer this season.
Adams also has many traits that the Thunder highly value but they might not always show up in the stat sheet. He might have the highest basketball IQ on the team. He is one of the best screeners in the entire NBA. He is extremely unselfish and almost to a fault. He is an excellent teammate and he is a very hard worker. He has helped set the culture in OKC. Those are things that make Adams so valuable to the Thunder.
Knowing how much the Thunder value what Adams brings to the organization, I would be surprised if the Thunder traded him. However, I wouldn’t be shocked. Sam Presti will consider all ways to improve the Thunder. I believe there are only two untouchable players in trade talks and they are Westbrook and George.
If the Thunder were to trade Adams, I would expect it to be in a splashy trade. The Thunder won’t trade Adams just to dump his salary. That will not happen. If I were to guess, the biggest trade chip the Thunder have this offseason would be Dennis Schröder and not Adams. But this is going to be a seismic offseason in the NBA. There are many possibilities haven’t presented themselves. Once free agency hits, who knows what will happen. But I wouldn’t expect Adams to be traded unless it is for a big name player.