If the Thunder can go 22-8 (.733) with Russell Westbrook out of the lineup, something tells me they'll be fine dealing with Kendrick Perkins' six-week absence. In the third quarter of last Thursday's game against the Miami Heat, Perkins left the game after a collision while setting a screen. It turns out he sustained a strained left groin, and he opted for surgery.
The immediate reaction? Well, it wasn't quite one of doom and gloom. In fact, I'm sure I could find tweets about how this makes the Thunder better in about five seconds. Good old Perkins jokes will never go away! I'm not convinced it'll ever be particularly fun to lose your starting center for a month and a half, especially not with the playoffs looming near the end of that timeframe, but at least this won't be eliciting the WHY BASKETBALL GODS WHY screams that Westbrook's injury did.
In fact, this one comes with some interesting consequences. Losing Perkins is different from losing Westbrook in a bunch of ways, the first one being that Perkins isn't as good as Westbrook. The joke is that Perk's a negative, though I'll take his solid post defense, the knowledge he's gained from the Kevin Garnett School of Illegal Screens, and the smart passes he makes here and there over nothing at all. Those contributions aren't quite the same as exploding to the rim for high-flying dunks or pulling up from 28 feet out to chuck three-point bombs like Westbrook likes to do, but Perkins can be helpful nonetheless.
That said, the most intriguing difference between losing Perkins and losing Westbrook that we'll see over the next few weeks is who steps up to claim playing time. When Westbrook went down, the Thunder had a starting caliber point guard in Reggie Jackson and a host of other guards (Jeremy Lamb and the early 2000's version Derek Fisher that surprisingly emerged) stepping up to claim the mantle. There's no Reggie Jackson at Perkins' position, however. Rookie Steven Adams has been a pleasant surprise but not quite a proven talent in the NBA yet. A number of other players should see spikes in playing time too, but again the depth up front doesn't quite match what it is in the backcourt.
In fact, Adams will probably keep starting games for as long as Perkins is out. He started against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, seeing 16:08 of court time. Though he's not established in the NBA, Adams has come a long way already. As the 12th overall pick in the last year's draft, the expectation was that he'd be a raw talent that would require at least a season's worth of grooming in the D-League à la Jeremy Lamb or Perry Jones III. Well, Adams hasn't seen a D-League stint yet and he probably won't see one anytime soon with the way he's played this season.
Adams has been an absolute brute under the basket, proving nearly impossible to move for opponents trying to score in the paint. He's shown the Roy Hibbert verticality on challenging shots and has generally moved well out on the perimeter too. As if that weren't enough, throw in the fact that he's a beast on the boards and has a surprisingly soft (if still inconsistent) touch on the offensive end, and we've got a big man prospect that looks like a keeper. People have been clamoring for Adams to start over Perkins all season and he'll certainly have that opportunity now.
Can he handle it? That's the biggest question to ask. Adams is averaging 10.6 rebounds (a whopping 4.7 of which are on the offensive end) and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes, but he also registers 6.6 fouls in that time. The whistles have arguably been his biggest obstacle as a rookie in the NBA, and I took an extensive look at his foul troubles a month ago. Basically, Adams is a very physical player. He picks up loose ball fouls or blocking fouls like there's no tomorrow.
On the bright side, Adams has seen his fouling rate drop a bit since we last checked up on him. The graph in my hyperlinked article on Adams' fouls showed he averaged 7.7 fouls per 40 minutes, but now that's slightly down to 7.3. In February, he averaged 6.0 fouls per 40 minutes and 5.4 fouls per 36 minutes. Progress! Now we'll see if that number can keep going down, which will be important for however long Perkins is out. After all, who's the fall-back option now when Adams picks up foul trouble? Hasheem Thabeet?
Well, probably not. Thabeet has played 44 minutes all season long, and despite some passable play last season in a bit role, the Thunder probably have better options. Maybe Thabeet checks in and logs five minutes here and there, but it's unlikely he'll be much of a factor in the effort to replace Perkins.
Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison, both proven quantities, are sure to see a bump in minutes. No complaints there. We might see Ibaka-Collison used as a big man tandem from time to time, and they do fine. Both guys give you strong defense, tenacious effort on the boards and ultra-efficient midrange shooting. Neither is a bruiser like Adams or Perk nor a skyscraper like Thabeet, but they're both strong individual players and they should be reliable in Perk's absence.
Instead, the interesting name to consider is Perry Jones III. He's a weird position-less player that has some perimeter skills such as ball-handling and shooting, but his size and athleticism are one of a mobile big man. PJ3 has looked great this season whenever Brooks has checked him in, and Perk's absence should give PJ3 an opportunity to claim more court time. He played 31 seconds against the Clippers on Sunday and Brooks can be frustrating with his minute distribution, so PJ3 might still ride the pine as he has for long stretches this season.
You never know, though. Jones is up to 49.6% field goal shooting on the season to go with solid 36.8% three-point shooting after sub-40% shooting last season with no makes on his two threes attempted. He had a memorable game against the Miami Heat last month where he defended LeBron James and kept him in check. Yes, that LeBron James! It was bold of Brooks to put his young project of a prospect in against the NBA's most talented player, and as much as he can be frustrating with his minute assignments, he can be unpredictable.
A safer bet is that we'll probably see Scott Brooks up his usage of small-ball lineups. Because of Westbrook's injury placing a greater workload on the other guards and maybe also due to Adams' emergence, Brooks hasn't often elected to play small lineups with Serge Ibaka (or Nick Collison) as the nominal center alongside Kevin Durant at the 4. Those lineups, filled out with three guards, were much more common last season.
With Perkins out now and a clear disparity in guard depth to big man depth, Brooks' hand might be forced to do the opposite of what Westbrook's injury did. The Thunder are loaded with reliable guards, between Reggie Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha, Jeremy Lamb, Derek Fisher and a now-healthy Westbrook. Those five make up about half of the Thunder's Perkins-less rotation on their own and Brooks has demonstrated much more trust in each one of them than someone like Perry Jones III and maybe even Adams. With Westbrook in and Perkins out, it's very likely we'll see those guards utilized in more three-guard units alongside Durant and Ibaka or Collison.
So far, the most used small-ball lineup for the Thunder is the Jackson-Fisher-Lamb-Durant-Collison unit, which has played 51 minutes across 16 games. Even that lineup, absent of more talented players like Westbrook and Ibaka, has put together a gaudy plus-42 scoring margin. The scoring total is considerable, with 129 points scored in a sample size that's only three minutes longer than your standard game. Playing with Collison is a breeze, Jackson makes for a nice secondary playmaker or scorer, and the Lamb-Fisher pairing might be the Thunder's best catch-and-shoot duo from three.
There are a handful of other small-ball lineups that have seen close to a full game's worth of playing time, though the stats fluctuate heavily across them. Jackson-Lamb-Sefolosha-Durant-Ibaka was efficient offensively, but struggled defensively. Westbrook-Jackson-Fisher-Durant-Ibaka was bad both from the field and defensively, but maintained shreds of respect on a high volume of free throw attempts and few turnovers. The Westbrook-Jackson-Sefolosha-Durant-Ibaka unit might've been one of the Thunder's most statistically monstrous lineups, scoring 123 points in 44 minutes across 14 games on a 67.6% True Shooting Percentage while also limiting opponents to 79 points on a 43.0% TSP – a plus/minus of plus-44 overall.
There's a lot of numbers to wrap your head around there in those last two paragraphs, and most of it is affected by sample size. What should be a safe assumption to make, and the eye test will reinforce this, is that the Thunder's small-ball lineups have the capacity to be very good and generally are. That's vague and BS-y, but it's very true. Two of the lineups I listed had a high plus/minus rating, while the other two were low negatives (which I didn't include). Put all of them together, and it comes out to a +81 rating over 189 minutes.
Like most small-ball lineups, the Thunder's own small-ball units thrive upon principals like spacing and off-ball motion. I've noticed fewer isolations and more pick-and-rolls, down screens and backdoor cuts when the Thunder work in these lineups. A lot of their sets look like this one against the Spurs, where they mixed in swing passes, a downscreen and then a pick-and-roll for Durant. It looks relatively basic (Brooks still doesn't get creative often!), but having Jackson on the perimeter instead of Perkins somewhere on the floor creates a lot of extra space and this entire play looks fluid.
Every once in a while, you get something fun like this. There's a lot of spacing on this play, including no one clogging up the paint which allows Durant to cut back for the open alley-oop instead of taking Ibaka's down screen. With Perk or Adams on the floor, that play wouldn't have been possible because teams don't respect their jumpshot.
With Perkins out and small-ball lineups likely to be one of Brooks' main options going forward, this serves as a valuable opportunity for the Thunder to establish a comfort level in those lineups heading into the playoffs. When rotations get tighter in the postseason, it wouldn't be surprising to see some of the Thunder's fringe rotation players' (Adams and PJ3 are the most obvious candidates) minutes slashed. Westbrook, Jackson, Sefolosha, Fisher and Lamb won't be going anywhere, however. Small-ball lineups will probably be a major part of the Thunder's postseason rotation, so after they saw limited use in Westbrook's absence, Perkins' absence creates an opportunity to make up for lost time.
On Friday, the Thunder will take on the Memphis Grizzlies. They're regarded around the league for being one of the NBA's most post-centric teams. Their offense runs through beefy bruiser Zach Randolph and the talents of Marc Gasol. I'm not ready to say that Perkins being out for that game will leave a drastic impact on the final score.
However, how the Thunder approach a team headlined by their big men while missing one of their own could be very indicative of what this team plans to do for the next six weeks, and perhaps into the postseason. Opportunites are abound for Steven Adams, Perry Jones III and small-ball lineups. Let's see what perks they offer.