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The Thunder’s Giving Tree Rollins

In an age of limitless possibilities for NBA big men, Steven Adams is content to do the dirty work to let Oklahoma City’s stars take the limelight

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s an unspoken agreement between smalls and bigs on the basketball court. The bigs will offer protection in the form of a hard screen on a handsy defender, or a box out with a little extra heat behind it. In exchange, the smalls dish out touches and the stats behind them as a reward. Block a shot and run the floor hard? The ball is coming your way, big fella.

For years, that arrangement brokered peace between bigs and smalls. But then came the “unicorns,” the bigs who disrupted the balance with their on-ball skills. The revolution has opened the game up to new horizons, but the reward system has started to crumble.

Luckily for the Oklahoma City Thunder, their skilled center has 17 siblings and is thus used to sharing and scrapping. Steven Adams is the NBA’s Giving Tree Rollins—he’ll offer you everything he can, and also bite someone if he has to.

Adams’s selfless nature and mean streak is a perfect fit in Oklahoma City. While Paul George is OKC’s best player, Russell Westbrook is the unquestioned leader and is working toward his third consecutive season of averaging a triple-double. Polarizing as he is, Westbrook’s triple-doubles are a massive part of his legacy, and his performance helps maintain the internal pecking order for a team now powered by George’s own heroics. But the triple-doubles probably wouldn’t happen without Adams.

Via NBAWowy, Westbrook rebounds at a significantly lower rate when Adams is off the floor:

Westbrook with Adams: 29.5 percent of available defensive rebounds, 16.6 percent of total rebounds
Westbrook without Adams: 24.3 percent DRB, 13.9 percent TRB

It might seem trivial, but Adams is third in the NBA in box-outs per game and is tied for sixth in deferred rebounding chances this season, according to Westbrook, meanwhile, has the second-lowest contested rebound percentage (16.7 percent) of anyone averaging at least four rebounds a game, which means he’s often grabbing the board without any competition.

Next time an opponent misses a free throw against the Thunder, take a look at who gets the rebound—it’s almost always Westbrook. The difference between, say, eight rebounds a game and 10 rebounds a game could literally cost a big man millions of dollars on his next contract, but Adams clearly isn’t bothered, despite being plenty capable of putting up bigger numbers himself.

There have been 141 occurrences of a player averaging at least four offensive rebounds per game, but only Adams has averaged more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds, as he did last season. The reason? Offensive rebounds can’t really be gifted away.

The question isn’t whether or not Adams is sacrificing his own rebounding numbers to Westbrook and George (who has a career-high 8.1 rebounds per game this year). He is. The question is, what else is he sacrificing?

Touches, the great social currency of basketball players, are a good starting point. Clint Capela gets 60.9 touches a game. Rudy Gobert gets 59.5. But Adams, despite occupying a similar role and minutes, gets only 46.8 touches a game. Factor in that Oklahoma City plays at the league’s third-fastest pace, and you begin to see just how little Adams is involved at times. New York Knicks forward Noah Vonleh gets the ball more than Adams.

That’s not to say anyone on the Thunder is committing negligence. Adams does have some moves down on the block, including a feathery hook shot that’s hard to guard, but OKC is so much better on the move that anything that’s not a rim run or dump-off in the dunker spot for Adams can feel like eating vegetables instead of smashing steaks.

Much was made about George’s decision last summer to re-up with Oklahoma City and tie the prime of his career to Westbrook, but not nearly enough was made about Adams’s role in that decision. You’d be hard-pressed to find a screen more difficult to get through than one set by Adams, which is something opposing stars readily confess to.

“That m-----f----- is strong. Like, I’m serious,” Philadelphia 76ers star Jimmy Butler said last season. “He hit me with one screen and I thought my life was over.”

Those big screens have freed up George and Westbrook for a number of game-winners during the past two seasons. Adams allows Oklahoma City’s stars to play and act like stars—and both are well aware of how good they have it, especially on defense. George, who is reaping some late-season MVP buzz, is second in the league in defensive deflections, while Westbrook isn’t far behind at sixth. Oklahoma City’s defense is elite yet again, even without Andre Roberson. It’s hard to quantify the benefit of Adams allowing George and Westbrook to gamble and live in passing lanes without fear of their rim protector being out of position, but this gets close: Adams contests 14.5 shots per game (fifth in the NBA) yet averages just 2.5 fouls a game. Karl-Anthony Towns, who ranks just ahead of Adams in contests, averages 3.8 fouls.

Are there better rim protectors? Of course. There are better rebounders and scorers, too, but Adams knows what he is. He’s the best quote in the league (Eg. “Of course cake is not bread. Is this why Americans are fat? You confuse cake with bread?”), he looks like a superhero, and yet he is happy to be a star only in his role. There’s more out there for him if he wants it, but in the era of watching young big men take and then take some more, it’s refreshing to see one become beloved for all that he gives away.