Where did Steven Adams go? Just a moment ago he hit a post-hook from the left block, then one from the right. Now he’s nowhere to be found. Not on the court, not being carted off on a stretcher. Even the bench is barren of the behemoth and his samurai bun.
But that 7 foot, 265 pound frame is hard to hide. Look deep into the tunnel that leads to the annals of Chesapeake Arena and you’ll spot him. Well, just his head.
He stares intently at the action of the game from his perch on a stationary bike, preparing for re-entry. A mid-game workout seems like a questionable tactic, but existing (let alone playing professional basketball) as a human mountain is a straining task. Adams will do whatever he can to stay limber.
Whether due to the bike or some incredible power of will (probably a bit of both), Steven Adams has been one of the most durable big men in the league for his entire career. According to FiveThirtyEight, lottery pick seven-plus-footers miss an average of 23.5% of their games due to injury. For their closer-to-human-size counterparts in the league, that average is around 15%.
The Big Kiwi has missed only 5% (28/515) of possible games in his NBA career due to injury. What. A. Tank.
Despite his exceptional history of health, Adams started off this year with some lingering issues. Early in the season he just didn’t look himself athletically. Slower on rotations, lighter on the bruising down in the paint, and much less aggressive and effective overall.
The cause of this uncharacteristic lack of production was soon revealed as Steven Adams sat out three games in early November due to a left knee contusion. Billy Donovan told us the injury was not something fresh, saying at the time that the knee pain was a “recurrence of what he’s been dealing with.”
But even well after returning from his leave of absence, Adams still didn’t look the same. His teammate, Dennis Schröder, even noted as recently as late November that Adams’ was still “fighting through injuries and still, still on the floor … doing it for the team.”
Playing through injury is bold, especially in today’s modern NBA, with its “load management” and “reasonable precautions.” Luckily for OKC, his play has recently returned to form and, even better, translated directly to Thunder victories.
Following the Thunder’s return from a west coast road trip 11 games into the season, Steven “Aquaman” Adams decided he was tired of letting his injury hold him back. Maybe it was the strength of the ocean restoring his health or maybe he had just the right amount of California cannabis. Either way, Adams’ average Game Score (a measure of a player’s overall performance based on a combination of box-score stats) doubled from 6.3 in those first 11 games, to 18.6 in the most recent 9 game stretch, according to (like all numbers given in this article) basketball-reference.
Watching the man in action, it’s clear he no longer feels as restricted by his knees and other minor ailments. He’s back to his old ways of patience and power in the post to pair with perfect positioning and constant presence on defense. Better yet, Adams has even added a new wrinkle to his offensive game.
The biggest improvement from last year we’ve seen from the Khal Drogo of the Oklahoma Prairie has been his facilitating. He’s posting a career high of 3.0 assists per game (almost doubling his previous best of 1.6). Perhaps even more impressive, his already low turnover rate (1.5 TOPG) has actually gone down from the last few years.
He’s been operating out of the high post more and more often, where his strength and patience with the ball are well utilized in finding and delivering to open teammates. His shot locations back up this observation, as we’ve seen a decrease in his at-the-rim attempts and dunks per game from previous seasons, while his short to mid range shots and hook attempts have gone way up.
As a side-effect, his previously league-leading offensive rebound numbers have taken a dip (from 4.9 last year to 3.1 this year). While he’s still one of the best in the league at it, his new role as a focal point of creation in the middle of the Thunder’s offense has shown a shift in priorities for Coach Billy Donovan. The fact that Adams is top 5 among all NBA centers in Assist to Turnover Ratio (2:1) and in AST% (17.1%) is good evidence that the strategy has been working too.
Adams return to form physically, and departure from the norm offensively, have been key to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s recent success. He’s setting up teammates for screen assists as well as ever, and the Thunder are leaning on that skill (multiple games have started with 5-10 consecutive possessions based around Adams setting high screens for any and all teammates before crashing to the rim), but now he’s dropping dimes too.
Just because you don’t see Steven Adams scoring quite as much as in recent years, doesn’t mean The Big Kiwi isn’t still a force of nature. And now that he’s apparently lost the ability to feel physical pain, don’t expect his streak of dominance to stop anytime soon.
Connor Ayubi is the newest member of The Franchise’s OKC Thunder insider coverage team. An Oklahoma native, he now studies Economics and Sport Analytics at Rice University. Connor has experience leading the analytics team for Rice Men’s and Women’s basketball, consulting for Rocnation Sports, and preparing the Phoenix Suns for the 2019 NBA Draft with his scouting and analysis. Follow him on Twitter @AyubiNBA