HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – That’s one way to get Kendrick Perkins out of the lineup. Analytics faithful have long called for him to sit and so, too, has a growing segment of the league’s friendliest fans.
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s 6-foot-10, 280-pound brute is probably more renowned now for his imposing scowl than for his imposing, no-holds-barred approach that helped the Celtics win one title and might have cost them another when an injury forced him out of Game 7 against the Lakers in 2010.
On Tuesday, the Thunder announced Perkins will miss up to six weeks after undergoing surgery on his left groin, an injury that occurred in the third quarter of Thursday’s loss to the Miami Heat. On Sunday, the Thunder lost again to the Los Angeles Clippers, and afterwards Perkins’ former coach Doc Rivers couldn’t help but give Perkins some good-natured ribbing.
The Clippers torched the Thunder for 72 points in the first half with 27 coming on the fastbreak. Rivers was asked if OKC missed Perkins’ defense considering the plodding center probably wouldn’t have been much help chasing Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan down the floor.
“He was good for us,” Rivers said regarding Perkins in those Boston days. “That was in his younger days when he ran the 40 [yard dash] in 4.5 [seconds], I think. Now he might run it in 44.5, but I’m not sure — maybe 50, I don’t know.”
Rivers got a good chuckle out of it, but will the Thunder and their fans be laughing without the polarizing big man to pick on? Here’s Rivers again, this time being a bit more serious about the less visible impact Perkins has on his team.
“Where he helps you, even if it’s not that [in transition], he’s a voice that tells you you’re not getting back,” Rivers said. “People don’t understand how important those voices are when you have a guy talking your defense, holding people accountable, you miss that. They missed that [Sunday].”
The Thunder will likely replace Perkins in the starting lineup with impressive, 7-foot, 250-pound rookie Steven Adams, 20, a raw talent, but a physical player and a hustler. Veteran Nick Collison will likely see a bump in minutes and rising, two-way power forward Serge Ibaka will likely see more time at center in smaller lineups.
Like Rivers, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has long praised Perkins for delivering the less-heralded, but necessary aspects of the game like hard-nosed defense and bone-jarring screens that spring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and others for open looks.
Durant, too, has always had his teammate’s back.
“He’s one of those guys that sacrifice and puts it all on the line for his team,” Durant said of Perkins prior to this season as the 11th-year center returned from hefty criticism following last year’s second-round loss to Memphis. “He’s a guy that I go to war with every single night and a brother for life, so I’m behind him 110 percent.”
But by any metric it becomes increasingly difficult to defend Perkins’ 19.7 mpg, which ranks as his lowest in the last eight seasons. His inclusion against smaller, quicker lineups such as the Heat is even harder to defend. Perkins is averaging 3.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg and is shooting 44.2 percent, low for a player who attempts nearly 80 percent of his shots from within eight feet.
The Thunder’s offensive efficiency is 102.7 points per 100 possessions with Perkins on the floor and it soars to 110.1 with him off. Their defensive efficiency barely fluctuates with him on or off the floor.
The Thunder traded for Perkins in February 2011 believing they’d need him for years to come to battle the Los Angeles Lakers’ frontcourt combo of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Obviously that didn’t last and utilizing smaller lineups has become the trend throughout the league.
OKC’s regular starting lineup of Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins has played 287 minutes together with an offensive rating of 96.7 and a defensive rating of 104.2. The likely new starting lineup with Adams replacing Perkins has played 82 minutes together with an offensive rating of 100.4 and a defensive rating that nose dives off the chart at 122.0.
Numbers are meaningful, but can also be interpreted in different ways when comparing lineup combinations. All we can do now is watch the games and try to determine if the Thunder indeed miss Perkins’ nearly 20 minutes a game, or if he’s really been more of a hindrance all along.