Paul George and Carmelo Anthony will help Steven Adams reach a new level

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JANUARY 31: Steven Adams
SAN ANTONIO, TX - JANUARY 31: Steven Adams /

It’s remarkable what Russell Westbrook and the Thunder were able to accomplish last season without any real shooting threats from the perimeter. While they ranked 18th in 3-point attempts per game as a team, they were dead last in the NBA when it came to converting those opportunities with a success rate of 32.7 percent. They were slightly better from 3-point range with Westbrook on the court, but the difference (0.9 percentage points) was marginal.

That should no longer be a problem following the acquisitions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this offseason. Whereas Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Taj Gibson struggled to space the floor consistently for Westbrook as starters last season, George (84.1 percentile) and Anthony (93.8 percentile) are two of the best spot-up shooters in the NBA. Even with Andre Roberson on the floor, they should give Westbrook far more space to work with in the half court.

The same goes for Steven Adams. Although Adams has never averaged more than 11.3 points per game in a season, he plays an important role in the Thunder’s offense as Westbrook’s go-to pick-and-roll partner. Westbrook was one of the league leaders in pick-and-roll scoring last season with 35.5 percent of his offense coming as the ball-handler in those situations. Adams only averaged 3.0 points per game as the roller, but those possessions made up 24.0 percent of his offense. Ranking in the 64.2 percentile with 1.09 points per roll possession, helped Adams be on the receiving end of 22.5 percent of Westbrook’s total assists on the season.

Read More: Can Westbrook become more of an off-ball threat for George?

Those scoring numbers were down slightly from the season prior for Adams, when he ranked in the 76.7 percentile with 1.12 points per possession, due in large part to the aforementioned spacing issues. To understand why, look at how the Warriors defended this pick-and-roll between Westbrook and Adams from last season:

Klay Thompson goes over the screen from Adams to take away Westbrook’s pull-up and Zaza Pachulia helps Thompson out by meeting Westbrook at elbow. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant has a foot just outside the paint to prevent Westbrook from driving to his left and Draymond Green ignores Sabonis in the corner to protect the basket. Stephen Curry also provides some help by leaving his defensive assignment.

The end result for Adams is a contested floater from outside the restricted area.

The following possession from the second half of the same game is almost identical in terms of how the Warriors establish a wall and the shot Adams receives. Notice once again how Durant and Green completely ignore their assignments.

The encouraging sign for Adams’ development is he made both of those attempts. After attempting 19 floaters in 2015-16, Adams attempted 37 floaters in 2016-17 and made 19 of them. Even though he might never be someone who can pop to the perimeter in the pick-and-roll, the ability to make floaters helps keep the defense honest. He showed signs of improvement as a passer as well last season by kicking the ball out to the perimeter for jump shots and drives. Both of those skills will help him become a more well-rounded center as his game continues to mature.

Those floaters and passes, however, come at a cost elsewhere. Adams set a career-high last season with 112 dunks, but they only made up 19.8 percent of his field goal attempts. That was down from the season prior, when 27.7 percent of his field goal attempts were dunks. In fact, the only other time dunks represented less than 20.0 percent of his field goal attempts was during his rookie season.

Whether or not Adams can match those figures again remains to be seen, but the addition of George and Anthony will simplify his pick-and-roll options. Teams will certainly be more reluctant to create a wall in the paint seeing as George and Anthony both made around 40.0 percent of their catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season, which will open up lanes for these sorts connections between Westbrook and Adams:

Adams is a powerful finisher in the paint and he’s a huge target for Westbrook as a 7-footer with a 7-foot-4 wingspan. If he’s able to generate any sort of momentum downhill in the pick-and-roll or in transition, he’s almost impossible to stop at the rim, where 55.7 percent of his shot attempts came from last season.

When defenses do create a wall in the paint to take away those easy opportunities next season, Adams will have to make the same floaters or kickouts as he did last season. The difference is George and Anthony will be the ones receiving those kickouts, not Oladipo and Sabonis. The Thunder will therefore be able to take those high percentage shots rather than having to “create floor movement” with more dribble penetration and passes.

None of this is to say Adams will suddenly average 20 points per game or become one of the best passing big men in the NBA. If anything his scoring and assist numbers will remain the same as last season or even decrease. But by establishing him as a greater pick-and-roll threat with more space to work with, he will have more gravitational pull than he did last season because of the shooters the Thunder now have on their roster. The combination will put defenses at greater risk of giving up open layups and open 3-pointers against the Thunder, both of which are the foundation of the best offenses in the league in today’s NBA.

Next: How can Anthony, George and Westbrook coexist on offense?

Think of Adams almost as the Thunder’s version of DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard or Andre Drummond — an athletic 7-footer who can finish at the rim out of the pick-and-roll. Those players struggle to make a big difference without the right spacing around them because of their limited skill set, but they can elevate an offense to new heights in the right situation. With George and Anthony now on the Thunder, Adams finds himself in that right situation.