Can Steven Adams Permanently Take over the OKC Thunder's Starting Center Job?

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Can Steven Adams Permanently Take over the OKC Thunder's Starting Center Job?
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The trip from Oklahoma to New Zealand may be halfway around the world, but for Steven Adams, traveling from the Oklahoma City Thunder bench to the starting lineup may seem like more of a trek.

The Rotorua, New Zealand native has had to step into the OKC starting lineup after a groin strain sidelined everyday starter Kendrick Perkins. And now, Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman says Perkins may be in a suit and tie for quite some time:

Adams has already started two games in place of Perk and has done a fine job. But in some ways, this injury goes beyond a team losing its starting center. Actually, Adams and Nick Collison getting more minutes may impact the Thunder's season in an immensely positive way.

For years, we've heard so much kvetching about Scott Brooks' starters:

Get Perkins out of the lineup! He used to be good, but he can't help a team anymore! Why is he still playing?!

Now, we finally get to see exactly how the Thunder can perform without their usual starting center. We've gotten to evaluate a Perkins-less OKC team in small stretches before, but six weeks is a long time. 

We're going to learn a bunch about this Thunder squad. And so is Brooks, who has shown a staunch and unrelenting preference to play Perkins larger-than-deserving minutes ever since Oklahoma City traded for the center back in 2011.

Brooks likes to take the "veteran leadership" angle, the same one we hear to justify Derek Fisher's consistent playing time. If he were to bench Perk, there would also be the potential issue of rubbing up against Perkins' sandpaper personality. But eventually, talent has to prevail.

Now, with Perkins out, we have a chance to learn if that talent is, in fact, Steven Adams.

 

Perkins with the Thunder

Don Ryan/Associated Press

It's possible that Perkins's consistent role in the starting lineup goes beyond Brooks's stubbornness. Perk's status could be more than just an ego massage.

After all, you can sometimes hide a starter. If Perkins were to play a similar role, but off the bench, he wouldn't provide much of a spark. At least, he wouldn't provide the energy that Adams and Collison do. 

But that may all be ridiculous conjecture, an unnecessary defense of a coach who has refused to go small as often as he should.

Brooks has made it abundantly clear he likes to stay conventionally big. That's why we've seen Kevin Durant play only 19 percent of his minutes at power forward this season, according to Basketball-Reference. 

He doesn't want to go small, and you can't make him. And Brooks clearly associates Perk with that old-school brand of center, the one that he prefers but seems to be dying out with each NBA season.

Now, the game is too fast for Perkins to contribute. He doesn't have to play the 19.7 minutes a night that he gets. Brooks could go with a three-man big rotation of Serge Ibaka, Collison and Adams, and call it a day. 

Of course, Perk could become a necessary fourth big once one of those guys gets into foul trouble, which isn't particularly unlikely, especially with Collison or Adams. But that's not what's happening. That's not the strategy we've seen.

Perkins isn't an emergency big. He's a primary one, who plays regardless of matchups.

In some way, shape or form, Kendrick Perkins has held onto his spot as the Thunder's second big man, and now that he finds himself out of the lineup for six weeks, this may be a blessing in disguise for Oklahoma City. 

 

Developing an Offensive Game

Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

With Perkins out of the lineup, Adams has stepped into the starting center role. And over his first two starts, he's hardly put up gaudy numbers, posting averages of 2.5 points and 5.0 rebounds in 20.5 minutes a night.  

But Adams isn't there to compile numbers. That's hardly what Scott Brooks would or should expect.

Adams's offensive game is immensely raw. But every so often, we see glimpses of what may come in the future—a jumper here, a post move there—but for now, you're not going to run any plays for the kid.

At this point in his career, Adams's modest scoring mostly comes from three facets of the game: cuts to the basket, dump offs around the rim and offensive-rebound putbacks. 

Once in a while, you'll see the Thunder run a pick-and-roll with him. But it doesn't always work.

Every now and then, you'll see them give him the ball in the post and let him try to score on his own. But it's not usually successful. 

His 53.6 percent field-goal percentage in the restricted area isn't so bad out of context, but factor in how few looks he gets and the type of looks he gets (usually dunks), and that number starts to dwindle from "I can talk myself into this" to "This needs to get better."

That's fine, though. Actually, Adams's offensive skill set may still be better than Perkins's, considering he is a more athletic finisher around the rim with a far better offensive rebounding rate. And it's not like the Thunder were running any plays to get Perk the ball, anyway.

Where Adams's value over Perkins can truly show, though, is on the defensive end.

 

Defensive Prowess

NBA Photos/Getty Images

Let's face it. Perkins can't move anymore. This has been true for a long time.

If you want to body Perk up in the post, he still has some effectiveness, but how many bigs love to bang down low now? Even the ones who do are usually quick and/or athletic enough either to face Perk up or get by him with a quick move. 

Adams, though, isn't going to get beat often with pure athleticism.

He is raw, but aggressive. And for a kid who just finished his freshman year of college less than a year ago, he's shown an inherent understanding for how to play defense.

Help defense in the post is about two main traits: foot speed and recognition.

Perkins can recognize. That's usually not a skill a player loses with age. For every obvious reason, basketball IQ tends to grow the more you play the game.

But Perkins doesn't have nearly the foot speed that Adams does, and his quickness matched with his large frame helps the New Zealander body up defenders in the post.

In some ways, Adams has hit a rookie wall as the season has developed.

He's shot just 41.3 percent from the field in 12.7 minutes a game over his last 25 contests. That's after he started the season shooting 48.9 percent in three more minutes a night.

He's been struggling to score, but offenses haven't started moving too fast for him, and that may be the more essential aspect of Adams' game. If he can play defense—if he can recognize offensive sets—then he can build from there. And Adams can still put himself in a position to contest shots.

In the Feb. 23 game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Chris Paul chucked a pass down the court to Blake Griffin, the master of transition. The Clips are a team that loves to push the pace, a squad with which Perkins can't really run. But Adams can.

On this play, he catches up with Griffin from behind and helps turn what may have otherwise been a decent look into a double-teamed shot.

It's not just that Adams can run. So many times, he comes over and bodies up post scorers in help. And considering that most players can't match his 7'0", 255-pound frame, they tend to have trouble going up against that 9'2" standing reach 

Adams' quickness also plays a major part in defending the pick-and-roll, the most commonly run play in the NBA.

On this play from Feb. 26 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Adams defends a Spencer Hawes pick-and-pop with agility and success:

The impressive part here is exactly how much ground the rookie has to cover. First, he comes over with Hawes, who sets a good screen on Jarrett Jack's defender, Thabo Sefolosha.

MySynergySports

As Jack aggressively dribbles around the screen, he sees a lane to the basket, but Adams is quick enough to sprint over and cut it off.

MySynergySports

Sefolosha, though, is out of position after failing to switch on the screen, and Hawes finds himself seemingly wide open for an elbow jumper.

This is exactly how the Cavs drew it up for the best pick-and-pop forward on their roster. But that shot is fool's gold, as Adams changes directions and comes over quickly enough to give some semblance of a closeout.

MySynergySports

Hawes fires the shot, and it's short. Now, look what happens when Perkins tries to defend a couple of similar plays:

You see all the different spots on the court Adams covered? He was like a free safety. Perkins, meanwhile, looked more like a statue.

He couldn't come close to getting out to a picking and popping Nikola Vucevic. And once DeMarcus Cousins made his way to the basket, he didn't have close to enough foot speed to catch up to the Sacramento Kings' center.

Perk just isn't quick enough. He realizes what's happening off the ball, but can't adjust. Often, there's no way he can come over in time to help on these types of routine plays.

Adams' help defense doesn't just contribute to his team when someone makes a mistake. It allows for Brooks to scheme differently. It allows for teammates to gamble just a bit more because they know someone is there to clean up their messes.

With Perkins behind him, if Ibaka left his feet, the play was often over. Now, even though "the Serge Protector" has become noticeably better at knowing when is and isn't appropriate to try to block a shot, he can sky for swats more often.

With Adams on the floor, Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson can feel more comfortable playing their gamble-heavy styles, trying to jump passing lanes and get steals. It allows everyone to be a little cozier in what they do best.

Ultimately, that's where the main discrepancy between an Adams-anchored defense and a Perkins-anchored one comes: speed and reliability in help. And that sort of difference has a trickle-down effect within the entire defense.

 

Let's Get Physical

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Adams may have an intuitive understanding for how to help on the defensive end, but that doesn't mean he's completely figured out all types of defense. He still fouls often, but it's not because he bites on pump fakes or because he comes flying at shooters, a trait so many young defenders have. It's purely because he's too physical.

Physicality, though, can be toned down. It can be honed. 

Leaving your feet with every ball fake shows some lack of mental understanding, though it's not a flaw that's impossible to overcome. We've seen plenty of bigs start off their career jumping every single time a shooter raises the ball only to refine their games as they mature (see: Ibaka).

Adams, though, is a step ahead of that class. But he does have to cut down on hacking everyone in sight.

It's just too much. So much fouling. Enough that someone can confuse the New Zealander's game with an Alex Cora at-bat. And at some point, the swinging and banging and slapping has to settle down.

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But with all that said, you don't want to take away part of what makes Adams so effective. Physicality is his game. He'll beat you up down low. He's an incessantly annoying defender.

The rookie has averaged 6.4 personal fouls per 36 minutes in his first NBA season. That's forced Brooks to limit his minutes, and at this point, it's still a legitimate excuse to keep him out of the starting lineup when the Thunder roster is at full strength.

If you value Adams as your best defensive center, you can't have him picking up two fouls in the first quarter or three fouls in the first half routinely. It would make sense to stagger minutes, even if you do think his defense and athleticism give you the best chance to win.

So Adams comes off the bench and bullies guys there. He's physical—probably too physical—but for now, that's fine.

It's not like Adams has an improper mentor. Collison has been one of the most irritatingly combative defenders in the league for quite some time. His style isn't all that different than that of his froncourt mate.

Adams is still learning, and maybe Collison is the guy to teach him. He's still only 20 years old, just an NBA baby.

 

Lineup Progression

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Thunder have dropped their first couple of games without Perkins, but that doesn't have much to do with the absence of their starting center. Opponents have outscored the OKC starting lineup of Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins by 7.5 points per 100 possessions on the season, and that's the team's second most-used lineup.

Granted, switch out Perkins for Adams, and all of a sudden, that lineup becomes twice as bad, getting outscored by 15.5 points per 100 possessions. But that's in about a third the amount of playing time, and so many of those minutes are concentrated together. 

Eventually, we can expect the lineup with Adams to regress to the mean. That logic starts to become more apparent when you see that most of the Thunder's best lineups are five-man bench teams which include Adams.

Adams is a work in progress. He's not all the way there. He's the typical project, but he's growing. He's improving.

Right now, the Thunder need a fourth big man who can at least play some minutes. With the inherent unreliability of a rookie and the constant foul trouble in which Collison and Adams find themselves, another center or power forward is more than necessary in the long run.

For now, though, Adams can work as a place holder. And maybe by the time Perkins returns, Scott Brooks will realize he already has the team's best center in the starting lineup.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

*All statistics current as of Feb. 27 and from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com (subscription required to access some stats) unless otherwise noted. 

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