Basketball: Kiwi Steven Adams must talk the talk

By Kris Shannon

Kiwi Steven Adams needs to speak up and stand up for himself. Photo / AP
Kiwi Steven Adams needs to speak up and stand up for himself. Photo / AP

The most significant question asked of Kiwi Steven Adams in his fourth NBA season was the one he didn't answer.

Always quick with a quip and rightly regarded by the American media as something of a cultural oddity, Adams is a popular port of call for the press pack that follows the Oklahoma City Thunder.

"The best quote on the team", was how one reporter described Adams before this week's playoff elimination against the Rockets, and throughout the year he trailed only MVP favourite Russell Westbrook in media requests fielded by Thunder players.

But with that pair sharing the podium following Oklahoma City's game four loss to Houston, falling into a 3-1 hole from which they were unable to recover, it was the answer Adams never gave that spoke the most to his season.

Asked why the Thunder have struggled so much when Westbrook takes a rare breather, Adams barely opened his mouth before his teammate interjected.

"Hold on, Steven," Westbrook said. "I don't want nobody to try and split us up."

That sentiment holds true in the sense it's impossible to tell the story of Adams' season without the conversation being defined by Westbrook.

Adams this year set career highs in minutes, points and rebounds, averaging for the first time double digits in scoring. Last November, he inked a four-year contract extension worth US$100 million ($146m), a massive deal that's about to begin. His playing and financial future is undeniably secure.

And yet, it would be difficult to argue Adams displayed any dramatic improvement in his 85 games. It would be flat out wrong to suggest he took the promise shown during last season's playoffs and converted it into a sustained progression across a campaign that, for the Thunder, ended in disappointment.

Which is not to say Adams disappointed. He is, by most statistical measures, Oklahoma City's second-most important player, finishing second in plus-minus (how the score changes when a player is on the court), win shares (an estimate of the number of victories a player adds) and net rating (a player's impact on his team's points differential).

But, with Westbrook leading the way, that was a bit like finishing second to Usain Bolt; a noteworthy achievement, sure, but instantly eclipsed by the otherworldly talent blazing away at the front of the field.

The Kiwi was at times an able supporting player while Westbrook completed one of the more amazing individual seasons in recent history. At others, he was little more than a bystander with the best seat in the house.

The Thunder's hopes lived with Westbrook, recovering remarkably from what could have been the fatal blow of Kevin Durant's departure, and they died with Westbrook, ultimately beaten by a team boasting better all-around talent.

But that was the only way Oklahoma City were ever going to even reach the playoffs - and there was no trace of ill will about the approach.

"It just comes down to [Westbrook] being awesome - a really good dude," Adams said in his end-of-season interview this week. "The team chemistry was amazing. With everything that happened and what we have, being able to make it this far is amazing.

"It just comes down to having a good group of guys, and the mentality was, regardless of what happened, we weren't trying to compete with what we were in the past."

Which is fortunate, considering there's no competition when comparing between what the Thunder were with Durant to the current incarnation. Their first-round exit illustrated that while also elucidating about their reliance on one man: with Westbrook on the court the Houston series, the Thunder were a plus-15; without him, they were minus-58.

This off-season must produce a plan B if Oklahoma City wish to one day again challenge at the top tier.

But, in an NBA era defined by pace and space, in which many modern big men boast a capable jump shot, Adams can still finish only close to the basket, a major limitation.

"I'm capable of doing it," he said of adding a jumper to his offensive game. "Just, it'll suck. It'll be a terrible shot. But I'm capable of doing it - it's just got to get to the point where it'll help the team and not screw us up. We'll see what the coaches say."

The coaches, as always, will care more about what Adams does at the other end of the court, with his defensive ability remaining elite but occasionally exposed by the Rockets. That was the area Adams targeted when quizzed on any amendments he wanted to make. But if he fails, questions about the size of his contract will be raised.

"I'm still really trying to improve on the defensive end, mainly," Adams said. "That's the main focus. Other than that, it's just about getting with the coaches and seeing what direction they want to go."

The Thunder's direction will be determined by Westbrook as long as the mercurial point guard remains with the franchise. But, in year five, now a $100m man, Adams' cannot continue letting his teammate speak for him.

- Herald on Sunday

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