Alvan Adams, the Original Modern Big Man

Phoenix Suns Archive

Can you name the five players in NBA history with the most triple doubles in their rookie season? You can probably guess some of them. Oscar Robertson leads the list and he’s known for being the first player to average a triple-double over the course of a season. Ben Simmons had an incredible rookie season with twelve triple-doubles of his own. Luka Doncic and Magic Johnson are both large point guards who recorded a large number of assists and rebounds in their rookie seasons as well. And finally rounding out the top five, there’s Alvan Adams.

Alvan Adams was the fourth overall pick in the 1975 NBA draft to the Phoenix Suns. He spent his entire 13-year career with the Suns and still holds the records for most games played, minutes played, rebounds and steals recorded for the franchise. Overall, he had a very respectable career although not a particularly noteworthy one as a whole. The thing that sticks about Adams’ time in the NBA is his unique career arc.

Value over Replacement Player (VORP) isn’t a perfect metric partially because of its overreliance on basic box score stats. However, it does give us a general idea of a player’s value to their team and the options for advanced stats in the 1970s and 1980s are pretty limited regardless. Anyway, the fact that Adams experienced a relative peak around the age of 26 with a decline shortly thereafter is pretty typical. The part that stands out is just how productive he was in his rookie year compared to the rest of his career.

While I’d refrain from saying that he peaked at 21-years-old because he certainly improved1 in some regards, he probably didn’t live up to the high expectations he set after his extraordinary rookie campaign.

In his rookie season, Alvan Adams started at center for the Suns and averaged a stat line of 19 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks through 80 regular season games. As a rookie, he was the second-leading scorer for the Suns behind only Hall of Fame guard Paul Westphal who averaged 20.5 per contest. Adams led the 42-40 Suns in field goals attempted, assists, and blocks. All of this is impressive on its own, but what made this season truly remarkable for the Suns and Alvan Adams is their postseason run.

The Suns took care of business in a six-game first round series against the two-seed Seattle Supersonics. The Suns advanced to the Western Conference Finals where they faced the 59-23 Golden State Warriors. The Warriors had won the 1975 NBA Finals and entered the 1976 playoffs as a far better team than their championship team. They were scary. Think the 2016 Warriors. Needless to say, the Suns were underdogs.

Now, you could write a book about these next two series. I’m gonna keep it short, though. Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry combined for 82 points in the first two games for the Warriors, but the Suns withstanded his onslaught and managed to get the series tied 1-1 thanks to an efficient 31-point performance from Paul Westphal. The Warriors won two of the next three games to go up 3-2. In a legendary Game 6 battle, Alvan Adams hit a layup to put the Suns up by one with 12 seconds left in the game. Jamaal Wilkes missed what would’ve been a game-winner for the Warriors, setting up a do-or-die Game 7. Rick Barry was upset with the end of Game 6 as he felt that he should’ve gotten final shot, and his anger allegedly didn’t end with that game.

Early in Game 7, Ricky Sobers of the Suns instigated a fight with Rick Barry. Barry reportedly viewed the tape of the fight at halftime and noticed that none of his teammates went to back him up during the scuffle. The rumor is that Barry essentially quit on his team after that and didn’t try to shoot the ball when passed to. Barry vehemently denies these allegations, but the result was the same. The Suns pulled off one of the greatest playoff upsets in league history to advance to the NBA Finals.

The Suns went up against the 54-28 Boston Celtics in the Finals in what was bound to be another difficult series for the the underdogs from Phoenix. The Celtics won the Finals in 1974, the year before the Warriors, so it was another opponent filled with proven winners. This is where Alvan Adams really stepped up and made a name for himself. While the Suns lost the series in six games, Adams averaged 23 points through the series including an epic 33-point performance in a 108-105 Game 3 win. That’s impressive for any player, let alone a 21-year-old rookie in the NBA Finals.

The series included what’s regarded by some as the greatest game in NBA history, a triple-overtime battle in Game 5 which the Celtics won 128-126. You could actually write a book about this single game. The Suns mounted a 22-point comeback to improbably force overtime after the Celtics seemed in control for much of the game. At the end of the second overtime, the Suns’ Curtis Perry hit a go-ahead basket with five seconds to go off of a clutch steal. Hall of Famer John Havlicek responded with a leaning jumper off the glass to end the game — so they thought. While the Boston crowd stormed the court thinking the game was over, there was actually one second left on the clock.

The issue for the Suns was that they would have to take the ball from underneath the opposite basket because the Suns had no timeouts to advance the ball. With one second left, victory would’ve been nigh impossible. Paul Westphal recognized a loophole in the rules and called a timeout which gave the Celtics a technical free throw but gave the Suns possession at half-court. Now although they were down two, they actually had a shot. Gar Heard nailed the contested jumper for the Suns to force a third overtime.

By the third overtime, many role players were on the court being relied upon to make plays. Unfortunately for the Suns, Boston’s depth prevailed and the Suns ended up one miracle short from pulling ahead 3-2 in the series. They were that close to pulling off a Cinderella run that would’ve been immortalized in NBA history, one that Alvan Adams was a key part of.

The Suns never returned to the Finals in Adams’ time with the team, but he still continued to showcase his unique skillset on a nightly basis. Remember when I said Adams led the Suns in assists in 1976? He also led all rookies in the league in assists. As a center. In 1976. Playmaking ability has become a more sought out skill for an ideal big man in the modern NBA, but that wasn’t the case at the time of Adams’ emergence.

Alvan Adams’ assist percentage of 27.2% in his rookie season was the highest for a center in NBA history until Vlade Divac took the top spot in 2004. Adams has now been relegated to 6th place (and will likely drop even further) because Nikola Jokic now holds the top four spots. However, this is just a testament to the fact that Adams was seemingly ahead of his time — not just in his rookie season, as demonstrated by all the other orange dots on the plot representing his later seasons.

These stats on their own are pretty cool, but I couldn’t go without actually seeing him play. And while I couldn’t find much footage of him, there was enough to see that he was clearly a special player. I’ve gathered some of my favorite clips here in a short video.

A large portion of the Suns’ offense involved getting Adams the ball in the high post where he could initiate the offense with his playmaking or keep the defense honest with his shooting ability. You can even see him pulling up and taking a baseline jumper, delivering flashy passes in open space, taking the ball up the court like a guard, and putting in acrobatic layups around the rim. He could do it all offensively on top of being the all-time leader in defensive win shares for the Suns. I included the last play even though it’s a miss because I think it’s hilarious how confident the guy was as a rookie in the NBA Finals.

People often diminish the level of talent in this era of the NBA, but I really think Alvan Adams would’ve been an even better player in today’s NBA. He had the combination of skill and athleticism that NBA teams strive for from their big men.

Upon retirement, Adams referenced the magic of his inaugural season in the NBA and the effect it had on him. ”I never felt that rookie season was an albatross that I carried around my whole career, but I remember thinking there very likely will never be anything like this again, with this much excitement.” While he didn’t become the Hall of Famer that some may have expected, he carved out an impressive career on top of a rookie season that’ll always be interesting to those who learn of it.

  1. Adams put up a true shooting percentage of just 50.7% in his rookie season compared to a 56.9% average from 1978-1981
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