In the immediate aftermath of the Paul George and Russell Westbrook trades it was widely assumed that OKC would be going full rebuild, stripping the team down to parts, and starting anew. Veteran, (and highly paid), players such as Steven Adams, Dennis Schröder, Chris Paul, and Danilo Gallinari were viewed as locks to be dealt away from OKC, bringing back picks and other assets to aid the Thunder rebuild. It appeared that truly dark times were on the horizon, filled with mounting losses, and hoping for the lucky bounce of ping pong balls at the Draft Lottery. The brutal start to the 2019-2020 season certainly did not help the forecast.
But, as the season went along, the newcomers, (Chris Paul, SGA, Gallinari, and Lu Dort), meshed with established OKC players, and formed a very successful team. As the trade deadline came and went, it was clear that the same squad many in the media had left for dead, was actually quite a lively bunch, far exceeding all expectations. Forget ping pong balls, this team wants to win now! (As of the COVID-19 stoppage, OKC holds the 5 seed in the West).
While he hasn’t been the franchise heir apparent (SGA), squad leader and Allstar (CP3), or 6MOY (Schröder), Adams has been a big part of the team’s success. He has been the defensive stalwart in the middle, quarterbacking the defensive rotations, setting bone crunching screens, showcasing improved scoring ability, and making pinpoint passes.
Having said all that, I still believe Steven’s greatest contributions are not tangibly shown on the stat sheet.
Adams is unquestionably OKC’s Standard Bearer, representing and teaching OKC’s culture, philosophies, and traditions. This is a role for which he was groomed, having been the apprentice of both Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins. He is simultaneously both the Thunder’s enforcer and leading diplomat, (both roles at which he excels). As the Thunder continue to embark into the unknown waters of this new era (Post-Westbrook), I can think of no one better suited to help steer their course, bridging the old guard and the new.
In regard to OKC Thunder’s future, I believe that Adams makes sense both for a continued run at competitive relevance and a rebuild. In the competitive timeline, Adams would continue to play at a high level and anchor a team aiming for playoff success. In the rebuild timeline, Adams would mentor the young team and help them work through the growing pains of a roster shakeup.
Addressing the contract
Of course, for Adams to stick around in OKC, regardless of the timeline, his new contract would need to be more team-friendly and proportionate to the current landscape. On a competitive team, his current contract hamstrings roster construction and flexibility for improvements. And it would simply make no sense to pay a player that much during a rebuild, unless he was acquired in an asset-centered trade.
After this season officially ends (whether by cancellation or a crowned champion), there are going to be some difficult decisions to make regarding the future of this Thunder team, and Adams in particular. Back in 2016 when he was given the $100 million contract, it was viewed as a hefty, but necessary investment in the team’s growth. The contract has not aged gracefully, with a vocal group of fans declaring him “overpaid”. In hindsight, yes, the contract was too steep, but it was a decision made on the heels of losing Kevin Durant for nothing, and amidst an unprecedented cap spike that inflated player salaries across the league. (Think the Adams contract is bad? Look at the Mozgov deal.) An additional reason Presti signed both Adams and Victor Oladipo to those deals was that it made them tangible trade chips if need be. (That worked out when Oladipo was traded as part of a package for Paul George, who in turn was traded for SGA, Gallinari, 5 first round picks, and two pick swaps.)
Prior to the summer 2019 trades, Oklahoma City reportedly made Adams available in trade talks as they looked to improve the roster around Russ and PG. They were looking for more shooting and youth, and did not find the deal that they were wanting.1 Even after Russ and PG were traded, all the way up to the 2020 trade deadline, the Thunder were still operating under the mindset of “Adams could be available, but it’ll cost you.” Interested teams like Atlanta and Boston did not reach the price OKC wanted, so he stayed.
Keeping the Kiwi
Come the offseason of 2020, OKC will likely field more calls about Adams. Unless there is a killer offer, odds are good he’ll be back. He fits both possible timelines (compete and rebuild), is a beloved teammate, represents both OKC and his native New Zealand wonderfully, and has just one season left on his current deal. If he wants to stay in OKC for the long haul, chances are good that he and the team can come to terms on a new contract that keeps him wearing Thunder Blue, while not hamstringing their roster flexibility.
Concerning what a more team friendly contract looks like, it’s difficult to project at the moment. These have been some unprecedented circumstances, with both the COVID-19 Pandemic and China uproar projected to significantly affect the NBA Salary Cap. 2016 was the Great Cap Spike; the upcoming season might be the Great Cap Recession. A reduced cap limits cap gymnastics and roster construction, no matter how valuable the player. This will be just another hurdle Sam Presti must jump as he makes decisions regarding OKC’s team.
But when it comes to the Thunder’s Standard Bearer, the big man’s on-paper value won’t be the only consideration for Presti as he steers this team to a bright future.