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2014-15 Thunder player grades: Kendrick Perkins, The final chapter, the end of an era

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Kendrick Perkins' time in Oklahoma City was a mixture of good and bad, but in the end, Perk was one of a kind.

The good, the bad, the only silverback
The good, the bad, the only silverback
Film image via United Artists

Full Name: Kendrick Le'Dale Perkins

Nicknames: "Perk," "Yung Hawg," "The Scowl," "KP","Swamp Thang," the self proclaimed "Only Silverback", "Gran Torino"

Contract Status: off the books

Notable factoid: As a practicing Roman Catholic, Perkins was an altar boy in his youth though finding an alb that fit was sometimes a problem because of his height. "The Scowl" was an altar boy? Yep! Scowl and all:

altar

image via Blacksportsonline.com

Brief Player History

Born in Nederland, TX, Perkins graduated from  Clifton J. Ozen High School in Beaumont, Texas in 2003 after leading Ozen High to to four consecutive district championships and one state championship. Perk was adopted by his grandparents at the age of 5. Upon being asked about his relationship with his grandfather, Raymond Peter Lewis, Sr. after his passing on Nov. 11, 2013, Perkins said:

"That was my best friend. He was the best man at my wedding, so that should tell you a lot. My mom died when I was 5. My grandparents took me when I was up for adoption. He was around 49 so he was a young grandfather. He took me in and just raised me. Me and him were best friends all through the years. Everywhere he went I went. He's the one that first taught me how to cut grass, to fish; we had chickens and ducks and stuff, how to do all that stuff. He's the one who taught me how to be who I am today. He put up my first basketball goal, but he also was the one who kept me in church. Words can't really express what he meant to me. It's like when I lost him, I lost a piece of my soul. But at the end of the day, I know he's in a better place."

After averaging 27.5 points, 16.4 rebounds and 7.8 blocked shots a game as a Senior, Perk was selected to the McDonald's All American Game. Rated as a 5 star recruit by Rival.com and considered the 3rd best center and 6th best player over all in the country in 2003, he originally committed to Memphis University, but later opted to make the jump to the NBA directly out of high school.

Perkins was drafted with the 27th pick by the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2003 NBA Draft and then immediately traded to the Boston Celtics along with Marcus Banks for Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones. Perkins spent the next 8 1/2 seasons for the Celtics before being traded along with Nate Robinson to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic on February 24, 2011.

During Perk's 8 completed seasons with the Celtics, Boston made the postseason 6 times, winning the NBA Title in 2008 over the Lakers and narrowly missing a second championship in a rematch against the Lakers in 2010. Many Celtic fans feel the 2010 results were skewed because Perkins sustained a season ending knee injury in game 6 of that series and his absence in game 7 has evolved into myth-building proportions.

Trade Expectations Part 1: Fan Reaction

Sam Presti attempted to temper fan reaction when asked if the Perkins trade was a quik-fix win-it-all-now move:

"That's not how I think," he said. "It was more of, 'We love Perkins. We want to get him in the program. We want to keep him in the program.' He is so in our DNA.

"This is not a 'win-now' move. This is not, 'Let's go for it.' This is us methodically continuing to put pieces in place that we think can help us now and in the future. We traded for Perkins with the intent that he'll be here for a while."

I don't believe his entire comment was ever truly absorbed. What registered to fans was "'We love Perkins. We want to get him in the program. We want to keep him in the program.' He is so in our DNA."

For example:

Many Laker fans clearly applauded the trade as indicated in a fan comment to an article in SBNation :

Celtics Suck

As a Lakers fan I LOVE this trade. Say hello to the most recent 3-peat champs! All of you frontrunning Celtics fans can go back to chanting MVP everytime Kobe comes around once a year.

Thunder fans saw the trade in a different yet extremely positive light.

A trade-reaction poll that accompanied an article posted at NewsOK.com was overwhelmingly positive. From a sample size of over 6400 voters, 82.23% responded "yes" to the question "Is the Thunder a better team with Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson?"

In all fairness, why wouldn't they be excited? The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel saw Perkins as the NBA's Clint Eastwood and nicknamed him after a 2008 Eastwood movie called Gran Torino. Tramel saw Perkins as the Thunder's version of Walt Kowalski, the grizzled Korean war veteran Eastwood portrayed. Mean and nasty on the outside, but on the inside a rough sense of fairness and a willingness to die for something he believed in.

Turns out, after taking over the L.A Clippers, Perkins' Celtics coach Doc Rivers backed Tramel's assertion just before the start of the 2013/14 season. In short, Rivers thought the trade was a mistake:

"I think so," reflected Rivers, "because we needed the toughness. The one thing we did by losing Perk was we removed Kevin's (Garnett) protector. I didn' t think it was a coincidence that, after Perk left, that Kevin got into all those little flicks with the other teams. Perk deflected all that."

Trade Expectations Part 2: Doubt in the Media

Two weeks after the Perkins trade, WTLC and other various outlets pumped the breaks by noting some obvious concerns about the risks the Thunder were taking by signing Perkins to a multi-year contract barely a week after Perk touched down at Will Rogers World Airport. Remember, it was still less than a year after Perkins sustained his torn MCL in the NBA Finals, and he had barely been back on the court for a month before the Celtics and Thunder made the trade. One cautionary tale was the recent example of Gilbert Arenas, who tore his MCL late in 2007. Apparently ignoring signs that he was still having knee issues, the Washington Wizards signed Arenas to a 6 year deal worth $124 mil on June 8, 2008 and Arenas didn't play again until March 28, 2009 and never regained his All-Star form. OUCHIE!

The initial concern about Perk's surgically repaired knee wasn't without merit. While Perkins avoided the all-out disaster that was Arenas' concluded career, that infamous Game 6 injury seemed to compromise Perkins' overall health and he dealt with nagging injuries throughout his time in OKC.

The visual test:

This is what the Thunder thought they were getting:

Perk brought his know how to Oklahoma City, but was never as quick as we see here. He attempted to regain that quickness and some additional overall speed by dropping weight after the end of the 2011 season. These images show the stark difference from the Perk that left Boston and the one that returned to start the lock out shortened 2011/12 season (Perk's secret? He said he stopped eating ice cream). While dropping the weight took pressure off his injured knee and reduced the risk for further injury, Perkins never fully regained his former level of lateral quickness. To make matters worse, the 31 pounds lost during that off season greatly reduced Perk's ability to impose his physical presence on his opponents.

Before and after numbers

Three particular numbers seem to indicate the Perk we saw in Celtic green wasn't quite the same guy wearing Thunder blue.

Perk averaged 14.3 total rebounds/gm per 100 possessions in his career as a Celtic, but that number dropped to 13.0 after the trade. Using the same per 100 possession chart, his blocked shots/gm dropped from 3.4 to 2.0 as well. Neither stat is eye popping, but in my opinion, relevant. The last stat I would point out is more subtle. While never to be confused with a good free throw shooter, and despite all the work Perk said he put into it, even his FT % dropped from 60.3% to 58.4%.

While the latter day Celtics would never be confused with the high-octane Thunder, the across-the-board drop in production does indicate that Perkins never regained 100% health, and unfortunately, Perkins likely never fulfilled the role Presti had in mind in 2011.

It is also important to keep in mind that Perkins lost the most important role model in his life when he lost his grandfather in 2013.

Despite the injuries and drop in production, I have to take my hat off to the big guy. He did everything in his power to earn his paycheck.

Trade Expectations Part 3: An Eerie Prophesy

On February 25, 2011, the day after the trade was announced, TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley made this statement:

"It was a good trade for the Celtics considering if they wasn’t going to be able to resign the guy," TNT analyst Charles Barkley said. "And if you look at, they only need Perkins against the Lakers if they get to the finals. They gonna have a tougher time getting through Chicago and Miami. Perkins wouldn’t have been a real big factor in that series. So if you’re gonna lose a guy…they got the best deal they could under the circumstances."

emphasis mine

Barkley was talking about the Celtics, but his prediction came true when the Oklahoma City Thunder crushed the Los Angeles Lakers in round 2 of the playoffs in 2012 but then lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Many experts point to coach Scott Brooks relying too much on Perkins in that Finals as as one of the crippling flaws in the Thunder game plan.

Re-consider Barkley's statement, add in Perkins' rebounding struggles, and take a look at this:

The Oklahoma City Thunder won Game 1 of the Finals, and never won another game the rest of the way. Game one was also the only game the Thunder out-rebounded the Miami Heat in that series, with Perkins matched up against fellow big man Udonis Haslem. Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra made one adjustment between the first and second game and stuck with it until the Heat hoisted the trophy. He replaced Haslem with 'Stretch-5' center Chris Bosh. Perkins could not keep up with Bosh on either end of the court, and the Heat slowly pulled away from the Thunder, who never adjusted.

Aside: Later, it was learned that Perkins had actually played the final 3 rounds of the playoffs with a partially torn groin. While Perkins' effort was admirable, the idea that Brooks thought he could compete against the small-ball Heat staying with the slow-footed Perkins, who also happened to be playing with a torn groin, makes the rotational decisions all the more frustrating.

The Actual Result of the Trade

For all intents and purposes, Berry Tramel's Gran Torino lived up to his expectations.

Perkins brought immediate gravitas and defensive presence that the team had been lacking with Jeff Green (side note - the trade also freed up the emergence of one James Harden). Coupled with Thunder assistant and defensive mastermind Ron Adams, the Thunder made an immediate leap that turned them into Finals contenders.

In Perkins' first season with the Thunder, he helped lead his young teammates all the way to the Western Conference Finals, losing to the eventual 2011 NBA Champs Dallas Mavericks. Perkins played a major in that run to the conference finals, particularly in a brutal 7 game slugfest with the Memphis Grizzlies that pushed OKC beyond the limits they knew they even had.

Herein lies Perk's actual value. Forget the stat sheet, Perkins has never been a flashy big numbers player. Not in Oklahoma City since the 2011 trade or in Boston before it.

He is however a blue collar warrior. His time on an NBA floor is spent fearlessly guarding the paint, willing to take on all comers, relentlessly setting bone jarring screens for his flashier stat filling teammates, and directing a defensive assault that was consistently one of the league's best.

Perkins is custom made to hold in check teams that feature a strong low post presence such as the Memphis Grizzlies and Phil Jackson's LA Lakers. Jackson's Lakers, a team that featured Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, terrorized opposing team's interiors on their way to winning back to back titles. They were humbled by the Thunder in 2012, losing 4-1 as OKC earned its revenge from 2010.

Althought 2012 didn't end the way we had hoped, there is an image of Perkins in this video soon after he hugged Sam Presti and Clay Bennett where he briefly looks directly at the camera. Perk may never have reached the level that Thunder fans hoped for, but the emotion on his face tells the story of a man who emptied himself because of his love for his team and city.


image via ABC

One trade, 16 months, two conference finals and an NBA Final. Not bad Gran Torino, not bad at all.

Final Trade Expectation : What Did Sam Presti Expect?

Let's revisit for a moment the last part of what GM Presti said immediately after the Perkin's trade:

"This is NOT a 'win-now' move. This is NOT, 'Let's go for it.' This is us methodically continuing to put pieces in place that we think can help us now and in the future. We traded for Perkins with the intent that he'll be here for a while."

emphasis mine

Presti knew Perkins would make the Thunder better, but it is also obvious that Presti recognized Perk as part of the process and a cultural building block, a step in the journey rather than the final piece of the puzzle.

Presti's young team needed some important ingredients in which they were lacking, and he got them when he added Perkins in the mix.

He needed Perk's toughness. He needed someone to come here and be an example for his kids. Show them up close the tenacity, accountability, and commitment it requires to be a champion. He needed Perkins to show this Thunder squad what a team can do when it communicates and works together as a unit, live in the moment and give them a glimpse of their potential.

And finally, he needed a man with enough willpower to never give up, regardless of odds and despite what outsiders thought of him. Presti needed a leader who wanted to teach.

He'll Be Here For a While

Webster's defines the word "while" simply as a period of time. Not a specific period of time, nor forever, but just "a while." Presti knew this when he traded for Perkins, because Presti doesn't think like most people. Time is always a part of anything Presti does.

When Presti says "put pieces in place" in regard to the trade that brought Perkins to Oklahoma City, the immediate reaction is that Perkins was physically one of those pieces, but that is looking at Presti's words in just two dimensions. Perk's physical presence was only a part of it and now that he is no longer here it is clear that the "pieces" Presti added were the intangible lessons Perkins left behind.

We see these intangibles in Steven Adams' exit interview when he talks about Perkins' effect on him directly. Perk also left a physical mark on Adams. After the two briefly tussled during practice in Adams' rookie season, it caused Perk to bellow, "I'm the only silverback!"

Nick Collison took all of Perkins "classes" starting from day one, learning all he could, and Collison's job now is to convey some of those things to other youngsters, including Mitch McGary. If Presti signs Enes Kanter in the off season, Perkins' lessons will play a part in helping Enes grow as a defensive member of the team.

Perkins was probably the most polarizing player on the Thunder roster the past 3 seasons. His offensive limitations and antiquated low-post playing style is getting phased out by today's "pace and space" NBA.  His fate was all but sealed entering this past season's trade deadline, and the acquisition of Enes Kanter meant that Perkins' time in OKC was done. But whether or not someone liked Perkins or not, I defy them to challenge either his character, his determination, his dedication, or his heart. Facts are facts, and the fact is when Presti added Perkins on February 24, 2011 he made the Oklahoma City Thunder better.

Perkins may be gone, but his presence will be felt and his "scowl" will remain "for a while."


image via www.usatodaysportsimages.com

Regular Season Grade: B-

My Personal Grade For Perkins' Overall Contribution To The Future of the Thunder: A +