In today's player grades, we consider the man who changed the course of the Thunder's season: Kendrick Perkins. Perkins was the NBA's biggest in-season trade this past year and has continued to be the source of reams of discussion from both the Thunder and Celtics camps. Did OKC make the right move in trading for Perkins?
Kendrick Perkins is a native of Texas, where he led his basketball team at Clifton J. Ozen High School to four consecutive district championships and one state championship in 2003. In what may come as a surprise, Perkins actually averaged over 27 points per game in his senior year in high school in leading his team to a 33-1 final record.
Perkins was named a McDonalds High School All-American, and had originally planned on attending the University of Memphis in 2003. However, after taking stock of his chances in the draft, Perkins decided to forgo his college eligibility completely and entered the 2003 NBA draft.
Perkins was selected by the Memphis Grizzlies with the 27th overall pick but was immediately traded to the Boston Celtics for fellow draftees Dahntay Jones and Troy Bell. Although early on Perkins' opportunities with the Celtics were limited as he was still growing acclimated to the pro game, Perkins soon established himself as the "enforcer" on the Celtics' front line. By the time the Celtics finally made their big post-season push and brought in future Hall of Famers Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, Perkins had become firmly entrenched in the starting center role and was an integral component in the Celtics' 2008 championship run, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers.
Two years later, Perkins again found himself playing in an NBA Finals in a re-match against the Lakers. Unfortunately for Perkins and Boston, he injured his right knee in Game Six, tearing the MCL and PCL ligaments. Despite having a 3-2 lead in the series heading into that game, Boston dropped the last two of the series, losing the Finals in Game Seven.
Perkins began the season as two things: 1) a Boston Celtic; and 2) injured. Therefore, it isn't fair to evaluate Perkins based on his pre-season expectations, except for the fact that the Celtics saw him as an integral cog in their championship hopes. Perkins was part of a championship team and to many, his injury was the primary reason why the Celtics lost Game Seven the year before. In fact, the legend of the injured Kendrick Perkins rose to an almost mythical status.
It was clear that both Celtic players and fans saw Perkins as a necessary component to their getting back to the Finals. The Celtics believed that nobody could beat their starting five. When Perkins was traded to OKC, many did (and still do) blame the Perkins trade for Boston's falling short this season.
Regular Season Grade: B+
Grading Perkins this past season is tricky because 1) he has not been fully healthy; and 2) statistics don't really convey his value to the team. Let's go back in time and look at what Jeff Clark of CelticsBlog wrote for us at the time of the trade:
"There's a reason why Kendrick Perkins was the 2nd longest tenured Celtic behind Paul Pierce. There's a reason why he became one of the most popular Celtics that never made an All Star game. There's a reason why there was an outcry from the fans when he was traded away just a few days ago. In a nutshell, he's exactly the kind of guy you want to fill out your roster with if you want to win a Championship - which is exactly why the Thunder went out and got him."
Once Perkins stepped onto the floor, all of these predictions began to manifest. A team that looked fatally flawed in its original 2010 construction finally made sense. Perkins assumed the role of football's offensive tackle. He did not collect stats for himself, but rather freed up everybody else to elevate their respective games. Instead of Thunder defenders playing out of position, over-rotating, or offering only token resistance to shooters, they were snapped to attention by the uninhibited demands of their new defensive leader and his years of experience and expertise.
The greatest recipient of Perkins' presence was Serge Ibaka, the young, raw, but extremely gifted power forward. Instead of worrying about guarding the opponents' best post-player, Ibaka was allowed to focus on the weak side and play help defense. As a result, Ibaka averaged over three blocks per game the rest of the season, leading the league in that defensive category.
Despite Perkins' still limited physical ability, the team's before and after difference was palpable - he made everybody around him better on defense and he brought a tenacity and accountability that was lacking. A flawed team was transformed into a dangerous team almost overnight.
Post-Season Grade: B- (overall)
The post-season is all about match-ups, so Perkins was going to sink or swim based on who he was matched up against. For those 17 games, it was crystal clear that Perkins could do one thing very well defensively and another thing not at all. The thing Perkins was able to do well was body up against other power forwards and centers and fight them on the block. The thing that Perkins could not do at all was guard players in open space. Let's rehash each round:
Round 1: Perkins vs Nene
As we saw in this five game series, Nene is a Brazilian bull who pairs power with deft footwork and a penchant for finishing strong at the rim. This was an ideal match-up for Perkins because for the most part, all he had to do was wait for Nene to get the ball and initiate contact. The battle was won or lost based on who could get the better position.
Much credit goes to Perkins in this series, who took the challenge head-on and doggedly worked to keep Nene in front of him. The only game where Nene and Denver were able to get the best of the match-up was in Game One. By using Nene in screen and rolls, the Nuggets were able to expose Perkins' slower footwork. As a result, Nene got his series best 22 points on 9-11 shooting against the Thunder front line.
In the remaining four games, Perkins and the Thunder made the choice that they were going to play Nene overly physical to the point of putting him on the free throw line whenever they had to, but refused to give him the kind of open space and dunks that Nene enjoyed in Game One. The rest of the series, Nene never attempted more than five shots, and only shot 50% once. Although his free throw attempts ballooned to 18 in Game Two, Nene's limitations at the charity stripe (56% for the series) began to show and hindered the team.
By the end, Perkins and the Thunder had completely marginalized Nene. His final scoring totals for those five games were: 22-16-15-10-8. Nene's eight points in the deciding Game Five came off of 3-9 shooting, and he only went to the free throw line three times. Perkins and the Thunder defense had effectively psyched out Nene and the Nuggets, and he was a shadow of his Game One self.
Round Two was a mixed bag for Perkins as he and the Thunder had to contend with the two best post-players in the playoffs. Randolph and Gasol play completely different types of players. Randolph is a nailed-to-the-floor version of Kevin McHale, with a variety of spins and moves, face-ups, post-ups, and a rock-back jumper that is impossible to defend. Gasol on the other hand is much more comfortable playing in open space and facing up the rim, either to roll off high screens or shoot the open 15 footer.
Perkins did not have great success defending Randolph, as Z-Bo's lateral moves and foot quickness were too much for Perkins to handle. Perkins did a much better job in guarding Gasol, because as long as Perkins was able to stay in front of him Gasol's effectiveness was limited. Gasol played his most efficient game in Game One, where he scored 20 points off of 9-11 shooting while grabbing 11 rebounds. From that point on however, Perkins did a much better job in limiting Gasol's opportunities.
With the exception of the Game Four triple overtime, Gasol did not have another game where he made more than six shots, shooting 44% the rest of the way. It was not a shut-down effort, but Perkins was able to slow up Gasol just enough to help get the Thunder over the hump in Game Seven.
Round 3: Perkins vs Tyson Chandler
By the time the Thunder reached the Conference Finals, Perkins finally ran into a match-up for which he could not counter. The Mavericks' starting center, Tyson Chandler, is long, agile, a quick jumper, and moves exceptionally well both inside and outside of the painted area. We knew after watching the first two rounds that Perkins would be in trouble if he were forced to move a lot in defensive sets, and this is precisely what Chandler made him do. Chandler used his superior athleticism to force Perkins away from his comfort zone five feet from the basket and repeatedly left him exposed on the perimeter. The worst situation Perkins found himself in was when Chandler got involved in the Mavericks' high screen game, with either Jason Terry or Jose Barea running off of those high screens. Perkins simply did not have the lateral movement or foot speed he needed to defend such plays, and those offensive sets were a major component to Dallas' exploitation of the Thunder defense.
After averaging almost 31 minutes per game in the seven game Grizzlies series, Perkins' minutes dropped off in the 3rd round to 27 minutes, with Perkins giving way to slightly smaller and quicker defensive sets involving Nick Collison. Perkins was at his best when Dallas inserted Brendan Haywood, who is more of a classic post-up player. However, since Haywood was only a back-up, Perkins' total effectiveness was limited.
It was a frustrating end for both Perkins' and the Thunder's playoff run, but Dallas knew that Perkins was not 100% healthy and they devised tactics to expose him. A healthier Perkins or a less adept Dallas coaching staff might have given the Thunder a better chance, but unfortunately Dallas was the superior team and eventually took the championship.
Most Memorable Game:
While Perkins had a number of games in his short Thunder career that spoke through decent statistics, as we have seen thus far, statistics barely scratch the surface of his contribution. As such, let us look at one of his biggest statement games of the season - his second game in a Thunder uniform. On March 16, the Thunder took their new-found talents to South Beach (perhaps it's time to retire that phrase) and dismantled the Miami Heat. From the outset, OKC dominated the Heat defensively, holding them to 85 points on 38.5% shooting. Perkins' numbers didn't say much - he played 18 minutes, scored four points, grabbed five rebounds, and fouled out. However, what we saw on the court could not be quantified. The Thunder, passive defenders for most of the season, finally looked like they knew what they were doing defensively. Players attacked the ball, rotated quickly, played physically, and met the Heat players at the rim. While Dwyane Wade did have one phenomenal play over Perkins, for the most part he, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James were denied chances to score at the rim. Consider this quote:
"We have some of the best attackers in the game. They usually go over the top. They were being met at the rim. They forced us into some tough opportunities. Regardless of whether we feel there was contact or not, you have to give them credit with their defense." - Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
On the statistical surface, very little had changed with Perkins in the line-up. In reality, everything had changed, and the Thunder proved to everyone, and most importantly themselves, that they could beat (and beat up) elite teams with their defense.
Most Memorable Single Moment:
For a player whose greatest impact comes when he does not even touch the ball, I look to Perkins' head to head showdown (literally) against Nene. The two are both powerful and fearless front line competitors, and it became clear in the April 5th game in Denver that Nene was a key measuring stick for the Nuggets' chances against OKC in the playoffs.
Perkins and Nene had an early game confrontation, and it became clear that Perkins was not going to cede any ground to Nene. The Nuggets absolutely had to have Nene be an impact if they wanted to build confidence heading into the playoffs, and Perkins took it on himself to not allow Nene to get any sort of edge, be it physical or mental. The Thunder won this game on the road and Nene was held to seven points and eight rebounds. More importantly, Perkins grabbed the early edge and held fast to it as the two teams prepared for their opening round series.
Kendrick Perkins was brought into the fold to be the team's center of the future. He fits the OKC Thunder profile perfectly - he is young, he works hard, is team oriented, is invested in the community, and has championship rings on his mind. He was signed to a five year contract that was equitable for all sides, keeping him in OKC through the 2014-15 season.
Perkins' direction now is easy - he needs to continue to get himself back into superior shape and condition that was the hallmark of his career in Boston. He needs to drop some weight, regain his footwork and coordination, and work himself back into an elite post-defender.
More importantly, Perkins was chosen for the Thunder because of the role he plays in the locker room as well as on the court. He immediately assumed the role of a team leader, holding the young team to a higher level of accountability. He took Serge Ibaka under his wing and went out of his way to praise the defense of Thabo Sefolosha. Perkins' greatest impact may not be on the court, but in the Ubuntu lessons he learned in Boston that he seems so eager to bring to OKC.
In the afterglow of the Thunder's post-season run, we have seen many critics and naysayers state that perhaps Perkins was overvalued and that OKC would have been better off keeping Jeff Green. While Perkins was not quite as good in the playoffs as we had hoped, the fact is that if the trade never happened, I do believe the Thunder would have had a hard time getting out of the first round. As noted above, he simply cannot be measured in terms of statistics; his impression runs deeper.
In conclusion, the addition of Kendrick Perkins and how he is perceived reminds me of a portion of a book written by Malcolm Gladwell. In Gladwell's book, "Blink," he writes about how a museum came by a type of rare statue called a Kouros. By all objective measures, the statue appeared to be a remarkable find for the museum and one for which they would have paid handsomely. Scientists, forensic experts, and statisticians agreed - the statue was measurably sound.
Except that it wasn't. As more and more true art experts began to behold the piece, their reactions ranged from confusion to visceral revulsion. The statue simply did not look "right." The art experts could not explain it in a quantifiable way, but they all had the unshakable notion that what they were seeing was fake.
In a similar way, you can examine Perkins through stats and regressions, PER and eFG, and in the end, you can conclude that he's a marginal player destined to have a marginal career. It is hard to argue against those stats. However, for those of us who watched this team the entire season, before and after Perkins arrived, we have a similar reaction to those art experts - confusion, frustration, and even revulsion. The model those numbers portray don't look "right."
What does look right is the way the Thunder came together as a team, remade themselves on the fly, forged a completely different identity, and put the rest of the league on notice. That facet, more than anything, is the value Kendrick Perkins brought to OKC.
A: Far exceeded expectations
B: Exceeded expectations
C: Met expectations
D: Did not meet expectations
F: Fell far short of expectations