OKLAHOMA CITY — Steven Adams sat and watched his team lose two of its most important games of the season. In Games’ 4 and 5, Adams logged zero minutes in two pivotal fourth quarters.
“It wasn’t a real disappointment, apart from, obviously, losing the game,” Adams said during his exit interview. “But it ain’t like this weird thing like I should have been playing. It’s not that at all. Again, your time on the court, it’s not a given, and it shouldn’t be expected, you know what I mean?”
That is patented Steven Adams humility. This is a guy who once called a hypothetical situation where he attempts a 3-pointer a “wasted possession.” A guy who never cares for his shot attempts, points scored or rebounding numbers. Only one thing matters — team success.
But why was a guy so important to team success watching when it mattered most? Adams cannot stretch the floor, at least not yet. Can he add this tool to his arsenal?
Or better yet, does Adams even believe he can do so?
“It’s still my role to do what I’m doing,” Adams said when asked about expanding his game. “Midrange and 3-pointers aren’t in there. So I would say that it still is — I could develop it, great, but then that’s just for individual gain or whatever it is. Again, for the team, still have to just focus on what we think — well, what your role is. I was really trying to just lock down on those things.”
There is that patented humility once again — shying away from “individual gain” and not wanting to do anything he knows he can’t do unless it becomes a focal point in practice.
But the question remains, does Adams even believe he can stretch the floor offensively at a clip that defenders will respect? Judging from his past answers over his career, no. Looking around other centers, there is not as much hope as one might expect.
Examples From Stretch-Centers
When the idea of Adams expanding his offensive game comes about, Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez is typically the best-case scenario.
In Lopez’s first eight seasons, he attempted 31 3s in the 487 games he played in. The majority of those 31 3s were end of shot-clock/end-of-the-quarter heaves. It wasn’t until his ninth season that the 3-point shot was added to his game — going from averaging 0.2 3-point attempts to 5.2 in 2016-17. Since then, Lopez is shooting 35-percent on 5.3 attempts a game, making him a stretch-center.
The easy thing to say is, go ahead Steven. “Go ahead and jack a couple 3s” as you said in your exit interview. But it isn’t that easy.
It made sense for Lopez’s game to evolve in that way. By his own skill and the natural progression of the NBA, Lopez became a player defenses have to respect beyond the arc and Milwaukee has reaped the benefits.
Why did it make sense for Lopez’s progression? He was shooting 51-percent on 14 attempts a game in his first eight seasons. More importantly, he was a 80-percent free throw shooter on five attempts a game. In Layman’s terms, he is a good shooter.
Adams is a career 55-percent free throw shooter on less than three attempts a game. While Adams has a better FG% at 58, Lopez attempted more shots as he was more of a focal point on offense for New Jersey/Brooklyn. In Layman’s terms, Adams is nowhere near the shooter that Lopez is.
Lopez had a foundation to build upon when he had to evolve his game. Adams has a weaker foundation due to his poor free throw shooting and by being a poor shooter overall.
Here are other examples of NBA bigs prior to their game expanding beyond the arc. Keep in mind Joel Embiid, Karl Anthony-Towns and Nikola Jokic walked into the league shooting 3s — each attempted more than one 3-pointer a game.
None of those players have shot less than 70-percent from the foul line in their careers. In terms of finding an example where a player shot a bad free throw percentage/field goal percentage and then suddenly became a threat beyond the arc, Adams has no situation he can point to for guidance.
A Realistic Best-Case Scenario
Of the players mentioned in the graph above, a Jonas Valanciunas-type game appears to be the best-case scenario for Adams.
Valanciunas is shooting a respectable 36-percent from deep over the last two seasons. In the five years prior, he didn’t average one 3-point attempt a game throughout a season.
The Memphis/Toronto player is by no means a stretch-center due to his low attempts per game. Despite his respectable percentage, defenses don’t really mind if he takes deep shots. If you type in “Jonas Valanciunas 3-point” in YouTube, you’ll find a four minute highlight video showcasing his shooting talent. To save you the time, every shot looks like this:
Even if Adams can add a pick-and-pop three pointer to his game — which is a big if — the major problem of floor spacing is not addressed. Defenses will still prefer Adams take those shots the same way defenses would prefer Valanciunas to shoot from deep, rather than roll to the rim off a screen for an easy dunk. Packing the paint kills two birds with one stone against OKC, stop easy Adams buckets and force Westbrook to beat you from deep.
Similar Playing Styles
Adams doesn’t need to look beyond his Northwest Division rivals Jusuf Nurkic and Rudy Gobert for centers whose offensive game is not widely diversified.
These players’, along with Adams’, responsibilities lie mostly with defense, communication, rebounding and setting screens. These guys exist to allow Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell and Westbrook/George to succeed.
Before you go thinking Adams can stretch the floor with a non-existent jump shot after comparing him to All-Stars and other stretch-bigs, compare him to Nurkic and Gobert.
Nurkic is a 77-percent free throw shooter. Gobert is better than Adams at 63-percent in numerical value only — they both aren’t very good shooters. But Gobert’s greatness as a defender/rim protector outweighs his lack offensive diversity. Nurkic is a guy who you could see make a similar leap into becoming a stretch-big due to his foundation if Portland ever wants him to become one.
It would not be surprising if beat writers from Portland or Utah possessed archives of video footage showcasing Nurkic or Gobert as competent 3-point shooters in an open gym against air.
It is apparent OKC needs help spacing the floor. From Adams’ comments as well as Sam Presti — who lamented that Adams did not reach the level this season he thought he could have — an Adams pick-and-pop/stretching the floor seems unlikely to nearly impossible.
Presti focused on adding shooters to help space the floor in his exit interview. He mentioned Wes Matthews by name twice.
Adams emphasizes performing at a high-level in his role. That is what Adams depends on and what the Thunder require him to do. He is very good in that role, but there is no doubt that in certain matchups — especially in the postseason — Adams’ lack of spacing hurts OKC.
This offseason will be very important. How do the Thunder view Adams moving forward? Does Adams believe he can impact the game more offensively? When asked what he will work on to improve this offseason, Adams said, “Make free throws.”
Time to build that foundation.