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Why Does Everyone Want to Elbow Steven Adams?

By all appearances, Steven Adams is a chill, no-nonsense Kiwi. Yet he has carved out a role for himself in a changing NBA in large part by making everyone around him mad.
Photo by Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder are hanging by a thread. After making the NBA Finals with a shockingly young nucleus in 2012, the team has failed to make it back there., They traded James Harden to Houston and then had two playoff runs cut short by injuries—to Russell Westbrook in 2013 and Kevin Durant in 2015. With Durant's free agency looming this July, a team that once looked like a surefire dynasty is now playing under immense pressure.


They remain a fun team to watch, but there's an unfinished element and a broader anxiety to the Thunder. Well, to some of them, anyway. While OKC frets about whether their unusual collection of prize talent is becoming too big for their small-market pond, third-year center Steven Adams is happily cannonballing into the waters. On a team with reasons to worry, Adams is playing free, weird basketball, seemingly without a care in the world.

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The 22-year-old New Zealand native recently provided a reminder of what made him such a buzzed-about rookie during a not-so-heated dust-up with Miami Heat big man Hassan Whiteside, who is even more oversize than the seven-foot Adams:

As the TNT crew notes in the clip, Adams appears almost to be enjoying Whiteside's hulking elbow in his face. One could even argue that he is leaning into it, seeking the sort of kinky punishment that his facial hair, which has grown in some suspiciously porny directions since his rookie season, suggests he craves. This does not seem like the sort of thing a reasonable person would do, but Adams does not appear to be that type of person. This is a compliment.

A recent Thunder-produced documentary about Adams visiting his homeland, called The Kiwi Way, offers a window into the center's soul, which the film shows to be the soul of an extremely chill bro. Adams is the kind of guy who wears flip-flops to the pigeon-shooting range, likes to fish a lot, and likes to have a lot of bonfires, at which he cooks in the regional style of Hangi. "It's pretty much just: you dig a hole" Adams explains. "You fill it with hot soot and food and cover it with dirt. Everything's already wrapped up, you just cover it with dirt. All the way to the top. Pack it down and wait about four or five hours, eat it. So good, bro!"


The documentary also reveals that Adams had a hard time adjusting to the stuffy, tight-fitting uniform at his New Zealand boarding school, which greatly harshed his earthy vibe. Falling into strict institutional line—for instance, by cutting his hair in 2015—is an act too unnatural for Adams to endure without hesitation. Just have a look at this captioned moment from a speech he made during his graduation ceremony in 2011, in which he reflected on his adjustment curve into organized life:

This is not to say that Adams didn't ultimately develop an adorable bond with one of his more vocal teachers. Because he most certainly did:

As a NBA player, Adams embodies a curious contradiction. In contrast to his affable, loose demeanor off the court, Adams is a highly effective NBA sociopath on it. He is a very willing soldier of a Machiavellian game plan, and clearly takes a great deal of joy in freelance mischief-making. Like Dennis Rodman and Kevin Garnett before him, he has found ways to irritate players between the whistles and at volumes too quiet for referees' ears. One has to wonder what exactly he could've said or done to Zach Randolph in 2014, when Z-Bo was so peeved with Adams during a playoff contest that he whacked him in the face and was suspended for Game 7 of the tense first-round series, which OKC went on to win.

When asked about his tactics in the past, Adams has played coy, insisting that he's just sticking to his team's instructions and that, if anything, it's the very nature of competition that his aggrieved foes should take issue with, not him. Whiteside and Randolph are hardly alone in highlighting Adams' extra-basketball activities, though. The usually sedate Vince Carter has also elbowed Adams in the face for his play, and Nick Young has called him "dirty" on the record. This list could certainly go on. Al Jefferson has linked the young man's skills at getting under the skin to Kevin Garnett's methods of opponent-annoyance, which was handed down to Adams by former Thunder teammate Kendrick Perkins. One thing remains consistent in all of Adams's scuffles, though: he never loses his own cool. He has inspired many ejections and a few suspensions, but hasn't been ejected or suspended himself.

Skills-wise, Adams is part of an increasingly marginalized basketball breed. While being both seven feet tall and coordinated still makes you one of the world's scariest people by default, a Warriors-scorched league prioritizes freedom of body motion and spacing more with seemingly every game. Adams and other poor-shooting enforcers have less capital; given his very bad 58 percent shooting from the free-throw line and the league's increasing Hack-a aptitudes, Adams is even further in the hole.

Adams remains effective as a Thunder starter, though, because of things that are harder to measure. He's big, he knows his limitations, and he's clever enough to mess with his opponents' heads. Since he's such a delightful, rewarding character to watch—and, by all appearances, such a fascinatingly irritating player to play—it comes as a relief that he's also good enough to consistently stay on the floor. Adams is integral to what the Thunder do, but the game seems incidental to him, a subsidiary to the larger goal of having a very particular type of fun.