Christopher Reive: The blunt reality of Steven Adams’ latest NBA season


Steven Adams had a taste of reality in his first season with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Reflecting on the 2020-21 NBA season, Adams called himself “dead weight” and if you look at the trajectory of his numbers, you might be inclined to agree.

Down from that of his recent campaigns with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Adams’ field goal attempts declined and he averaged the fewest points per game (7.6) since his rookie season in 2013-14 (3.3), while his total rebounding numbers also took a hit.

But it was no real surprise to see a decline in his offensive production when he was joining a team looking to blood some young stars. Adams is not the kind of highly skilled player who a team is going to run their offence through. While he has developed a sweet touch on his close-range floater, he hasn’t shown a consistent ability to play out at mid-range or beyond the three-point arc, so isn’t exactly an asset on the offensive side of the ball.

Instead, Adams has made a living off his hustle on the offensive glass – an area in which he improved on his numbers from the 2019-20 season. But it also didn’t help that injuries saw him play the fewest games in a season of his NBA career (58).

With the Pelicans looking to build their future on the shoulders of young forwards Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, this is the kind of season we can expect to see from Adams so long as he is in New Orleans.

Once a max-contract player in Oklahoma City, his latest contract seems him drops from US$27.5m to $17m next season, Adams is now at a crossroads in his career where he must embrace being a veteran of the league and help to nurture the young talent coming through. While there is a lot of hope that Williamson will continue to develop his all-around game and eventually be able to consistently score in all areas, this season the 20-year-old was primarily a paint player. Averaging 17 shots per game, Williamson ventures out beyond the arc rarely, though the Pelicans ran plenty of their offense through him given his strength and finishing ability in the post. The two don’t exactly complement one another on the offensive end.

With Adams’ calling card largely being based on physicality, strength and hustle, there’s only some much of an impact he can have on the game. While he featured in three of the team’s five most common lineups, backup centres Willy Hernangomez and Jaxson Hayes matched him for scoring in an average of nine fewer minutes on the court, with Hernangomez having plenty of success on the offensive boards.

Pelicans coach Stan van Gundy noted Adams’ influence on the game of the other two centres in the team, saying Adams was constantly talking to them and embracing a mentorship role.

Throughout his NBA career, Adams has done whatever was needed of him by his team, but low numbers on his stat line are not a fair reflection of his value to the team.

It’s not the most alluring title, but the time has come for people to realise Adams’ ceiling in the NBA is primarily as a great teammate who provides hustle, strength and rebounding on the court, though his numbers on the floor are a secondary need to the team.

That kind of player is one that others love to have on their team, and will lead to a very long career in the league. As Hernangomez put it: “The way he dedicated his time to teach me and Jaxson all season is something — you know we appreciate that.

“You don’t have many teammates in your career like that.”

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