Are the Pittsburgh Panthers better off without their former center Steven Adams?
There is a growing sentiment that the Pittsburgh Panthers are better off without Steven Adams, a Big East All-Rookie Selection just one year ago. Personally, I don't give much credence to this kind of conjecture, but of course I am a hypocrite, hence, I am writing an article about it. The one anecdotal observation that I care to substantiate on is the notion of addition by subtraction.
Steven Adams is gone, so all of his attempts and minutes have gone elsewhere providing more opportunity for everyone else, right? Well in truth, freshman forward Michael Young, has pretty much taken all of the shot attempts and minutes that Adams left behind thus far. His usage percentage through nine games is 16.3%, just slightly below the 17.7% average that Adams finished with last year. If Young makes incremental improvements throughout the year (likely), he'll exceed 17.7% by the end of the season. He is also taking 8.9 shot attempts per game, and is averaging 6.6 points per game on 42.5% shooting. He is chipping in 5.3 rebounds per game in just 20.0 minutes per contest as well. Through nine games last year, Adams attempted 5.1 shots per game, and averaged 6.2 points per game on 56.5% shooting. He also pulled down 5.0 rebounds per game in just 20.4 minutes.
What about the other starters? Sophomore point guard James Robinson, is currently attempting the same amount of shot attempts per game as last year, and his usage percentage is virtually the same. One might be inclined to think that senior forward Talib Zanna, is the one benefiting the most. However, he has the same usage percentage as last season as well. Furthermore, he is only attempting an additional shot attempt per game. His increase in production is more directly tied to his field goal percentage - currently 64.5%, up from 49.8% last year.
Senior forward Lamar Patterson, is having a phenomenal start to the season. But in terms of production, I would argue that Patterson is filling some of the void left by former point guard Tray Woodall. Woodall led the Panthers with 8.7 shot attempts per game last season. He also led the team in usage percentage at 22.8%. Patterson is taking 10.9 shots per game, up from 7.5 last season. His usage percentage has gone from 21.5% to a team-leading 27.1% this season. Junior guard Cameron Wright, has probably benefited the most though. He is taking an additional 5.4 shots per game this season now that he is a full-time starter. The combined increase in shot attempts by Patterson and Wright is almost exactly the same as the attempts Woodall took last season.
Defensively, Adams blocked 15 shots in his first nine games last year; no Panthers player has blocked more than seven so far this year. Adams altered a lot of shots, and his end of season defensive rating of 87.0 is better than any current starter. A rather impressive number given that Pitt hasn't played any offensive juggernauts yet this season, while Adams rating was taken across the entirety of last season.
Offensively, Pitt is currently tied for 9th in points per possession at 1.23. Last year, Pitt finished the season 8th in points per possession at 1.13. Defensively, Pitt held teams to .92 points per possession last year, good for 24th in the country. This year, the team is holding teams to .91 points per possession, good for 18th in the country. Again, the averages for this year are based on just nine games. The final numbers for last years team were taken across the entire season. I am sure once ACC play starts, the Panthers won't be able to keep up their current efficiency levels.
But doesn't this team get in transition more than last year? Currently, the Panthers attempt 25.9% of their shots in transition - with 55.3% of those attempts at the rim. However, last season, Pitt attempted 24.1% of their shots in transition, and 57.6% were at the rim.
While a lot of key metrics are very similar to last years team, it's the way Pitt is going about things this year that makes them distinctly different than past years. Nearly everyone can put the ball on the floor, and Pitt hasn't really had a point-forward quite like Patterson in the last thirteen years either. Credit Patterson for putting so much work in over the summer to make a mega-leap. Credit head coach Jamie Dixon, for showcasing an offensive and defensive scheme that best suits his current personnel. But don't discredit Steven Adams just because Pitt dumped the ball into him last year only to come up with a lot of empty possessions.
Has there ever been a starting Pitt player in the Dixon era that had their best year as a true freshman? Over the summer, Steven Adams showcased enough ability that he was drafted in the NBA Lottery by a team that he may start for by the end of the season; a team that has a realistic chance of winning an NBA Championship. Would Adams be an ideal fit in this teams offensive scheme, probably not. But that assumes the team would play exactly like they do right now. However, would he be an incredible rim protector against penetrating guards who are finding more success getting into the lane thanks to the new hand-check rules, definitely.
So, are the Panthers better without Steven Adams? In short, no. You can't be a better team if you lose the guy with the highest ceiling that has entered the program in the last thirteen years. You can, however, be extremely smart about how to best utilize the players the team currently has, and I would argue Pitt is thus far doing that better than they ever have.
- Stats courtesy of Sports Reference, Stat Sheet, and Hoops Math.
 An estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he is on the floor.
 An estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions.