A Thunder L.A. story: there and back again

Ronald Martinez

Can Hollywood house a Thunder fan? Stranger things have happened. Today we introduce a new writer, Tanner Bean.

(Today we introduce a new writer to the fold, Mr. Tanner Bean. Tanner hails from L.A. but is a native Oklahoma and brings to you his inaugural column today.)

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First of all, I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, so you shouldn't listen to anything I say. But for those of you ready to hop on, I feel like an introduction is in order since this is my first column for Welcome to Loud City.

I was born and raised in Midwest City, OK. I grew up in the Michael Jordan era of basketball. I was a Bulls fan, or specifically, a Jordan fan. But what kid wasn't in the 80's and 90's? Besides Detroit kids in the late 80's. Anyways, getting my first pair of Nike Jordans was a pivotal moment in my young life, like it was for so many other boys.

Back story. It had to be early 1990 because my cousin Shelby (a boy) was going to give me his old Air Jordan 4's because Nike had just released the 5's. The 4's were, and still are, my favorite Jordans of all time. Shelby was spending the weekend at my house, and this was the weekend that the Jordan handoff was scheduled to go down. For some reason, Shelby and I thought it would be funny to take a crap in a brown paper bag, place it on my neighbors' porch, and then "ring ‘n' run" them.

Needless to say: my neighbors - who I tormented on a semi-regular basis - weren't amused. They told my parents. My punishment? No Jordans. What?! Seriously? We didn't even light the poop-bag on fire! Why didn't we light it on fire? Amateurs!

Just for the record: I know you're all concerned about whether or not I ever got a pair of MJ sneakers. Well... I did. I ended up getting a white pair of the 5's a few months later. But the memory of the 4's slipping through my fingers still haunts me to this day.

So... yeah. Jordan. The Bulls. I was a fan. Although I was also kinda partial to Karl Malone and John Stockton, and even rooted against Jordan's Bulls in the 1998 Finals. Despite my treasonous act against his Airness, as Jordan's reign came to end after that season, my love for basketball waned as well.

I also graduated high school in ‘98. Four years after that, I graduated with a Film Studies degree from the University of Oklahoma. A year after that - in 2003 - I moved to Los Angeles to simultaneously become a rock star and a screenwriter.

Yes, I'm aware of how crazy that sounds.

Living in LA didn't turn me back into a basketball fan. The Clippers sucked. And there was no chance in hell I was gonna turn into a bandwagon Lakers fan. The Oklahoma City Hornets didn't make me care about B-Ball again either. I had been living in LA for a few years at this point and I didn't give two shits that my home state temporarily got its own team.

Let the record state that I was still a diehard OU Sooners football fan. Moving on...

My friends and I were on a quest to find the best burger in LA.

When the SuperSonics relocated to OKC and became the Thunder, I still didn't care. They were horrible. Then, a few years later, they played the Lakers in the First Round. For a few weeks it felt like the entire city of Los Angeles was talking about Oklahoma's little basketball team. It suddenly felt... real. I started to hear about some guy named Kevin Durant and some guy named Russell Westbrook. My interest was piqued, but I still didn't fully dive in. Not until midway through the next season.

February 24, 2011. I was at a burger joint on Melrose Blvd. in Hollywood. My friends and I were on a quest to find the best burger in LA. As we stuffed our faces with gourmet ground beef, my roommate Big Bob told me that the Thunder got Kendrick Perkins in a trade. The Celtic. The champion. The player whose untimely injury in Game 6 of the 2010 Finals was a big reason why Kobe has 5 rings instead of 4. For what it's worth, a decent amount of my Laker friends don't dispute this claim. Crazy, right?

Back to yours truly: after hearing the Perk trade news, something clicked for me. I had watched the Thunder enough by now to know they were soft defensively in the paint, that Jeff Green was really more of a 3 than a 4, and that the team's only rim protector was coming off the bench. The Perkins trade changed all that. Perk brought an edge. An attitude. Toughness. It felt like exactly what the young Thunder team needed. This trade also moved the aforementioned rim protector - everyone's favorite Congolese-Spanish shot blocker into the starting lineup - where he belonged.

My roommate Big Bob is from "up north" as they say out here. No, not Winterfell. Northern California. This makes Bob a Sacramento Kings fan. Lucky for me, he had the NBA League Pass. Unlucky for Bob, he's a Kings fan. So... I tuned into the Thunder's next game. I was curious. Big Perk didn't even play, but it didn't matter. I took a good look at these Durant and Westbrook guys that I had been hearing so much about. I took a gander at some dude with a massive beard, too.

My roommate Big Bob is from "up north" as they say out here. No, not Winterfell.

I was hooked. Since that game, I can count the number of games I've missed on one hand. This year, I watched 81 of 82 regular season games. Ironically, the only game I missed was against the Spurs, and that's only because I had a wild night that could've served as the plot for an episode of "Californication." But that's another story.

My day-job is working for the guy that wrote Pixar's "Cars" and "Crazy, Stupid, Love." My average workday is 10 to 12 hours, which means I generally don't start my DVRed OKC games until pretty late each night. The only upside is that by the time I've finished watching the game, NewsOK's beat writer, Darnell Mayberry, has usually published his "Nuggets From My Notebook" column. The downside? I'm always tired.

So there it is. That's my story. And yes, the most maligned player in the Thunder's (very brief) history was a principal reason why I started watching basketball again. And since I just lost my (already questionable) credibility with 99% of the people still reading this, I may as well start with the infamous center himself...

Kendrick Perkins. Thunder fans blame him for EVERYTHING. The slow starts to the 1st and 3rd quarters. Their dumb ass kid flunking his science test. World hunger.

But their anger is misdirected. It's not Perk's fault. None of it is his fault.

Settle down. Just hear me out.

It's not his fault the Celtics traded him to OKC. He had no say in the matter. It's not his fault the Thunder overpaid him 8+ million a year for 4 years. Keep cashing those checks Big Perk! Hell, it's not Perk's fault that Hollinger's PER only rates offensive prowess. Most importantly, it's not his fault Scott Brooks plays him way too many minutes in situations where his (limited) skillset is completely exposed. Some examples: the 2012 NBA Finals and the 2014 Western Conference Finals - specifically Games 5 and 6 when Popovich went small and replaced his center with a stretch 4. This forced Serge Ibaka to guard perimeter players, which negates what he does best. Seriously, I bet Pop literally licked his chops when he saw Brooks trot out Perkins in those last two games.

Game 6. Man, what a stressful game to watch. I took my shirt off at one point. It was ugly. But the better/more disciplined team won. That's all there is to it.

I took my shirt off at one point. It was ugly.

Many people question whether Perkins should be a starting center on an elite NBA team. My answer? Maybe. But only if the coach truly understands what Perk does - and especially doesn't - do well. And only if that coach can properly adjust to what's happening over the course of a game and is willing to sit Perk if he isn't able to be effective based on the matchups. Brooks does not excel at this. For Scotty's many flaws, playing the wrong personnel at the wrong time might be his biggest shortcoming. Honorable Mentions: no offensive structure, too much switching on defense, no discipline, no ball movement, refusal to monitor Durant's minutes, calling no plays on offense, having players sag toward the paint a few steps too far which allows too many uncontested three-pointers, and his unconditional love of hero ball. If he doesn't love it, then why does he allow so much of it?

A lot of fans think Brooks does Perkins a huge solid by playing him so much. In my opinion, it's the opposite. Brooks continually puts Perk in situations where he looks like a buffoon. No, this does not include his multitude of "Shaqtin' a Fool" appearances - Kendrick La'Dale Perkins is the only one responsible for those gems.

Perk's first season in Thunder blue only consisted of 17 games plus a playoff run. Every season since he's come into training camp in great shape (he shed 30 pounds before the start of the 2011 season). He gives maximum effort when he's on the court. He's competitive as hell. He has a high basketball IQ. He sets the meanest screen in professional basketball. But unfortunately, his ability to put a basketball through a hoop (or even catch a ball) is severely lacking. And even though he's not quite 30 years old, his (already insufficient) athleticism is fading noticeably as each season passes. The truth is: there are certain teams that he shouldn't play against. But Perk's biggest problem - and consequently one of the Thunder's biggest problems - isn't that he starts. It's that he starts alongside another offensive sieve named...

Thabo Sefolosha. And Sefolosha's biggest problem is that he starts alongside Perkins.

Thabo has had some really nice moments on the court playing for the Thunder these past six seasons. He's been a good teammate, too. But on teams not named the Thunder, it's rare that two players with Perkins and Sefolosha's lack of offensive skills share the floor together.  It's rare to even see defensive juggernauts like Chicago, Indiana, or Memphis play two players at the same time with virtually no offensive ability. There is a reason why Tony Allen started coming off the bench once the Grizzlies traded for Courtney Lee. Allen and Tayshaun Prince on the court together is like playing 3 on 5 - and the Thunder does this every game.  Thabo and Perk combined to score 9.7 points a game during the 2013-2014 season while the Grindfather averaged 9 points himself. Sounds pretty bad when you look at it like that, doesn't it?

Don't believe me? Think I'm exaggerating? Do yourself a favor: go through the Starting 5 of every NBA team. The Thunder are the ONLY team that consistently start two players with a combined scoring average of less than 10 points a game. In fact, it's not even close. And yes, I know the Thunder has Durant and Westbrook. But still.

Who's to blame? Brooks for not playing the "right" players/rotations? Or Sam Presti for not assembling the "right" roster? Honestly, that's a tough one to answer. Yes, Brooks frequently plays the wrong players at the wrong times, but if he wouldn't have started Thabo this season, then who from Presti's bench could've taken his place?

Derek Fisher? No. Relying on a 39 year old to start seems like a very bad plan.

Andre Roberson? No. At this point in his career he's a poor man's Sefolosha.

Perry Jones? I don't hate this idea. He started 5 games at the 2 when Thabo was injured, and although I wasn't blown away by any means, that's not a big enough sample size to truly make an educated decision. With PJ III and Durant both starting, the two wing players would've been 7 foot (give or take an inch). That's unconventional, and I'm far from confident in this plan, but it could've been interesting to see more of.

What about Jeremy Lamb? If Durant and Westbrook (and Jackson) would have been committed to playing defense more consistently throughout the regular season, then yeah. Maybe. It's not inconceivable to think they could've gotten away with starting him. Although the main problem with the Lamb argument is that by the time it was clear Thabo's 40% 3-point stroke was gone for good, Lamb was in a slump himself. It's hard to demote someone when the guy who's getting promoted is also struggling.

Keep in mind that this is an assessment of Jones and Lamb as players this year - not who they "could've been" if Brooks wouldn't have stunted their growth by overplaying some of his coveted veterans. In truth, neither Jones nor Lamb would've been a great option this year. If Lamb hits the weight room and evolves defensively, then he could be a good option a year or two from now.

What about Reggie Jackson? I liked Reggie starting in the playoffs, considering you always shorten your rotations, but the way this team is presently constructed, starting Reggie wouldn't have been sustainable throughout the regular season. It would've destroyed the 2nd Unit. When Jackson started in place of Russ, KD had to go into full-blown Slim Reaper mode to compensate. Again, this isn't sustainable.

Who does that leave? Caron Butler? Even though he didn't have a great post season, I do think I would've started Butler over Jackson. He's an upgrade over Thabo and starting him would've left some much-needed firepower coming off the bench (with Reggie as the 6th man). So... Butler is your answer then? I mean... I guess. Probably. In a more ideal situation, you'd bring in a recently-bought-out veteran to fortify your bench, as it's obviously not a great idea to add a starter to a championship level team with only 22 games left in the regular season. Ideally, one would've fixed their starting lineup way before this point.

I'm confused. First you said Butler should've started. Now you're saying he should've been brought in to strengthen the Thunder's bench, and that's exactly what they did. Look, I loved the Butler pickup, but it didn't fix the bigger problem. Because if he would've started then there still would've been a hole on the bench. And vice versa.

That was the Thunder's biggest problem this season in terms of personnel. No matter how you shake up the lineup, they still would've been one player short.

For the record: if Tough Juice does re-sign next year, he should be Durant's backup (the Durantula needs a serviceable backup; he played way too many minutes this season).

Hold on. Why have you been picking on Sefolosha? Perkins is the problem! He sucks! Okay. Fine. But who would've replaced Perk in the lineup? Nick Collison? Steven Adams? No and no. I love those two guys, and maybe there's an argument to be made that a starting lineup with Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka, and either Collison or Adams is better than with Perkins, but does either one of those options truly look like a championship level lineup? Nope. There's no doubt that Adams is the Center of the future, and I do want him to start next year, but if he would've started this season, the lineup still would've been missing something.

No matter how you shake up the lineup, they still would've been one player short.

Now if we're talking about 2016 Adams and 2012 Sefolosha, then yeah, we might have a winner. But I don't think Marty McFly is swinging by in his DeLorean any time soon.

In defense of Brooks and Presti: Thabo had a bad year. There was no way for them to predict his 3P% would drop a staggering 10%. Was it because he was in a contract year? I'm sure that had something to do with it, but his always-reliable defense wasn't as good either. When it comes down to it: even if Thabo would've been more consistent this year, pairing him with Perk still isn't a great combo. At this point in their careers, they're both overpaid situational players. Or the nicer way of saying it: they're specialists.

To make a long story short, I don't think the Thunder can get it done with two extremely one-dimensional players in the starting lineup. The problem: really good two-way players cost a pretty penny. Some of them include Paul George, Luol Deng, and Nicolas Batum. Oh, and some dude they call King James. None of those players are realistic additions to the Thunder's squad. The good news? That's not actually a problem. The Thunder doesn't need a "really good" two-way player. But how about adding a "good" two-way player?

But first: who stays and who goes? Sefolosha is an Unrestricted Free Agent and I don't see the Thunder bringing him back, so that situation basically takes care of itself. Sorry to all the Perk haters out there!

Taking all that into consideration, the Thunder needs a new starting Shooting Guard that's a "good" two-way player. The ideal candidate in my opinion: Arron Afflalo.

I've been driving my dad - also a huge Thunder fan - crazy about Afflalo for months, so it makes me happy to see a smattering of Afflalo/Thunder talk starting to gain momentum online. But since I haven't seen anyone thoroughly examine this trade idea yet, that's what I'm going to do for Part 2 of my column.

Stay tuned!

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