Steven Adams is the most important player on the Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – APRIL 23: Steven Adams #12 of the OKC Thunder goes up for a dunk against the Houston Rockets during Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on April 23, 2017 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

To win a championship in the modern NBA, teams need a Big Three. The OKC Thunder have a Terrific Two solidified in Russell Westbrook and Paul George – Steven Adams has the opportunity to fill out the last spot.

Steven Adams became a basketball sensation during the 2016 Playoffs. The 7-footer from New Zealand dominated the Spurs frontcourt in the second round, then perplexed the Warriors with his combination of size, strength and agility on the defensive end.

The performance vaulted the raw 23-year old into the top center conversation. ESPN named him the 36th best player in the NBA – one spot ahead of Rudy Gobert and one spot behind Marc Gasol –  going into the 2016-2017 season. Looking back, that was a little bit of a stretch.

Adams affected the Playoffs immensely, but he wasn’t coming close to the numbers that the Gobert’s and Gasol’s of the world average. The Big Kiwi put up 10.1 points and 9.5 rebounds on 61.3% shooting; he didn’t even average 1 block or 1 steal a game. Ultimately the hype came from plays like this:

At the time it was asinine to think Steph Curry could be blocked at the three-point line by a seven-footer – Adams changed that perception. His ability to then run the floor forced teams to defend Oklahoma City much differently. Not only did they have to worry about KD pulling up from anywhere or Westbrook leading a one-man fastbreak, they had to watch out for easy entry passes to the biggest man on the court. It appeared the Thunder had the perfect third piece to pair along KD and Russ.

We all know what happened next. KD left and the 23-year old was expected to take an even bigger leap in a larger role. We saw his famous push shot come to life in the Playoffs and figured that would transition to the next season. We assumed he’d add a couple post moves and become a secondary offensive option for Russ. Most importantly, we thought he’d become a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.

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None of those things happened last season. Looking back at how the Thunder were structured, it was nearly impossible for any player to make such a large leap. Adams could only do so much in the Westbrook-led offense. It isn’t a fault on either player – Oklahoma City built their entire season around “hist0ry.”

Enter 2017.

Expectations have dampened on the Big Kiwi, especially with the addition of Paul George. In Adams, basketball minds see an above-average defender who can finish down-low at an elite level. Adams is never going to be an All-Star in this age of gaudy numbers, but his skillset can impact the game like an All-Star. It’s a matter of using his skills perfectly, the way the Warriors utilize Draymond Green.

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That’s where Billy Donovan steps in. Donovan showed the basketball world that he was a top ten NBA coach during those aforementioned Playoffs. He defeated Coach Popovich and the Spurs with a Twin Towers lineup, then flipped the script and went small against Golden State. Donovan utilized his entire roster’s skillset perfectly, something Thunder fans had never experienced.

His coaching clout suffered last season, however. Donovan didn’t have a roster built to make the playoffs, but he had a superstar hungry to prove the world wrong. The solution: run everything on offense through that superstar. It made for great television, yes, but it didn’t help with player development.

This season is different though. The roster is re-tooled and built to contend once again. The Thunder added three quality rotation players – including a superstar – while only losing one Playoff rotation piece. Billy Donovan has a wide variety of players to experiment with. More importantly, Adams has the perfect pieces around him to thrive.

The now 24-year old still has his pick & roll partner in Westbrook. He’s got two above-average three-point shooters at the 3 and 4. The entire starting lineup consists of quality defenders. Adams’ counting numbers won’t drastically increase by the nature of the Thunder offense, but his ability to impact the game should increase tenfold.

MUST READ: The Kiwi Bible – The ultimate guide to Steven Adams

The key word is “should.” There’s a reason Kevin Durant proclaimed that Steven Adams was part of a Big Three in OKC. Durant understands Adams’ rare talents better than any other non-Thunder player in the league. Throw away your personal opinions about Durant – the man knows the game of basketball better than nearly everybody on the planet.

As of now, Oklahoma City is one piece away from truly contending with Golden State. Their 1-3 (Westbrook-Roberson-George) is locked in, but the 4-5 is questionable. Patrick Patterson is a solid player, but is he on Andre Iguodala’s (the Warriors “worst” player in the Death Lineup) level? No. Could he be if the Thunder traded away Adams for a Demarcus Cousins-level talent? Maybe.

Or a different scenario could take place. Steven Adams could make the leap we were expecting last season, this season. Even if he isn’t as good as Marc Gasol, simply entering that conversation would push the Thunder within striking distance of Golden State. Then they could go out for a non All-Star but above-average starter at power forward and realistically have a chance to beat Golden State.

The current Thunder team is incredibly similar to the 2016 Playoffs team. Russ’ partner is slightly worse, but the supporting cast is arguably slightly better. The big difference is Steven Adams, the x-factor of that 2016 team, is two years older.

Steven Adams was raw coming into the Draft – he’s still raw for his age. That’s why a large leap isn’t out of the question for a player on his second contract. Once again Adams has the means to be a force in the paint, something we couldn’t say last year. It’s up to the coaching staff and Adams to devise the proper gameplan.

Do that and Oklahoma City may have the perfect Big Three to take down Golden State.