The Oklahoma City Thunder finally faced the facts, benching Kendrick Perkins for all but five minutes of their massive regular-season triumph over the Miami Heat on Jan. 29.
And by acknowledging the truth they were better off without Perkins —something every pundit has been screaming about for years—the Thunder set themselves free.
To do it, OKC had to swallow its pride. Benching Perkins required an admission of sorts—an admission that what the Thunder had been doing with their rotation to this point was a mistake. That's never easy in situations like these.
And by "situations like these," I mean circumstances where a clearly inferior player continues to log minutes for reasons that aren't readily obvious. We know enough about how the NBA works to guess what those reasons are, though.
It happens all the time: A player earns a reputation as a valuable locker room presence whose leadership off the floor makes it acceptable to suffer his uselessness on it. For years, Perkins has occupied that role with Oklahoma City.
In fact, it seems the Thunder believe in the value of veteran leadership so strongly they've doubled down on it.
Blind luck and a couple of banked-in triples notwithstanding, Derek Fisher has virtually no on-court value at this stage of his career. But he's been hanging around OKC's rotation anyway because of his championship pedigree and paternal influence on a roster that's still relatively young.
Back to Perkins, though.
The Thunder have always talked about Perk's value in intangible terms, largely because his measurable contributions are basically nonexistent.
Head coach Scott Brooks, the man responsible for trotting Perkins out as a starter through so many unproductive years, added: "I wouldn't mess with him. The NBA needs more of that 'it's-about-us-against-them' mentality. And that's what he brings to the table every day."
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports summed up the way OKC viewed Perkins last season, writing:
Within the Thunder organization, they understand Perkins' value extends far beyond the modest statistics. These Thunder are undergoing the natural evolution of a rising power, where shots and minutes are rubbing egos the wrong way. Perkins plays the part of traffic cop, counseling in ways significant and slight.
This isn't a unique situation around the league.
Juwan Howard, years past his expiration date as a useful player, carved out a spot on a couple of Heat championship teams because of his veteran leadership. Fittingly, he's now an assistant.
Rasual Butler occupies a similar spot on the Indiana Pacers right now.
In the past, the Thunder might have needed the kind of intangible leadership Perkins provided. But it's harder to make that argument now that the team's core has made a handful of playoff runs and reached the Finals in the past few seasons.
Until the game against Miami, it seemed OKC was never going to change its beliefs on Perkins' value.
Pride, Money and Ego
Intangible leadership isn't the only reason the Thunder have stuck with Perkins for so long. There's also a financial element in play, one that's tied directly to pride.
Oklahoma City gave Perkins a four-year, $35 million extension before he ever logged a minute on the team. That investment seems to have made OKC reluctant to bench him. Doing so would constitute an admission of failure for the Thunder's front office.
So, he's continued to be a consistent starter and a rotation mainstay.
It never had to be this way, though.
The Golden State Warriors relegated Andris Biedrins and his six-year $54 million contract to the bench a couple of seasons ago because a lack of confidence turned the once-promising center into a player terrified to touch the basketball on offense.
Nobody ever accused Biedrins of having anything close to the leadership value of Perkins, but the point is that Golden State swallowed its pride, admitted it was a colossal mistake to have paid Biedrins so much money and removed him from the rotation.
Based on what the Thunder did with Perkins against the Heat, it seems they're finally ready to do the same thing.
We've seen Brooks toy unsuccessfully with "Perk-less" lineups in small samples before, but this is different. What happened against Miami was undeniable: OKC came to life as a small-ball unit against a team that has all but perfected that very practice.
The change was starkly evident from the second Perkins hit the pine:
Nothing about that surge should be surprising, either. Going small makes perfect sense for the Thunder—both against the Heat and as a general strategy going forward.
This season, Oklahoma City has played better on both ends with Perkins on the bench, posting a net rating of plus-11.8 points per 100 possessions during those stretches. When he's played, OKC has amassed a less impressive plus-3.4, per NBA.com.
Those splits are as profound as they've been in any year since Perkins joined the Thunder, so it's no shock critics fell all over themselves to sarcastically praise Brooks' decision to sit his center against the Heat.
Perhaps the Thunder have finally swallowed their pride for the betterment of the team's playoff prospects. Maybe Brooks and the rest of the decision-makers in the organization have given up on the belief Perkins makes the team better.
Per ESPN's Tom Haberstroh, Brooks said after the Miami game: “I thought to win this game that we had to make a decision to go with a smaller lineup. It’s just this game. It’s not something that we have to do all of the time. Perk brings so much to us."
OK, maybe not.
A Dangerous Move
You have to wonder if the reason the Thunder have continued to utilize Perkins is because they're afraid the big man would lose his off-court value if his on-court role diminished. Maybe they're worried he won't be able to swallow his own pride.
And that's the other side of this whole discussion, isn't it?
The NBA is a strange world populated by players who have always believed in their own greatness. That's a common trait among professional athletes, a necessary psychological armor against the ultra-competitive environment that would destroy the confidence of normally calibrated humans.
Perkins undoubtedly has this characteristic. He might not believe he's an All-Star, but there's no question he believes he's an integral part of the team who deserves to play big minutes. Deep down, every player on every roster believes that.
Perhaps there's concern Perkins' general orneriness means his attitude could sour if his starting spot disappears. By all accounts, he's a good guy who puts the team first. But maybe he'd sulk or stop being such a capable leader if his playing time took a permanent hit.
It's hard to know without tapping into Brooks' brain (which probably contains little more than a gif of Durant and Russell Westbrook running dribble handoffs), but it's certainly possible this worry is behind his insistence on using Perkins so much.
It's also difficult to know if OKC is ready to risk upsetting Perkins by benching him. Based on Brooks' comments, it doesn't seem to be. And as we've discussed, reducing his role would be a tacit admission of a mistake.
A Rock and a Hard Place
The Thunder's success against the Heat solidified the point that they are better without Perkins on the floor—especially against the smaller, quicker opponents that increasingly populate the upper reaches of the standings.
The right thing to do is often the hardest thing to do. OKC risks upsetting chemistry and looking foolish to fans by sending the highly paid Perkins to the bench. But they've been looking foolish for a while now by playing him, so perhaps it's a tradeoff the Thunder will eventually be willing to make.
There are competing concerns all over the place here, and pride is a factor in all of them.
The Thunder want to put the best product on the floor, but don't want to admit Perkins is a sunk cost. And there's no way to know how Perkins' ego will absorb the blow of a more permanent role reduction.
Oklahoma City has seen what its potential can be if it swallows its pride, if even for just a single game. There's risk involved, but if the Thunder want to meet that potential on a larger scale, both they and Perkins will have consider putting ego aside.
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