Why Kendrick Perkins' Injury Could Be Blessing in Disguise for OKC Thunder

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Why Kendrick Perkins' Injury Could Be Blessing in Disguise for OKC Thunder
USA Today

The Oklahoma City Thunder possibly lost starting center Kendrick Perkins for the remainder of the regular season.

Somehow, that might actually be good news for them.

Clearly, it's just the opposite for Perkins. According to the team's official Twitter feed, the big man went under the knife to fix a groin problem and may be sidelined for the next six weeks:

As for the Thunder, though, this apparent bad break could be a blessing in disguise.

With coach Scott Brooks' rotation forcibly expanded, the Thunder may well benefit from the upcoming lineup tweaks. That means more playing time for OKC's reserve bigs, more seasoning for the team's young guns and, potentially, a better spaced floor for perennial All-NBA performers Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to exploit.

In today's downsizing NBA, losing some bulk isn't necessarily a bad thing.

 

Paging Nick Collison and Steven Adams

If Brooks goes the traditional route—and judging by his insistence on employing Perkins with the starting five, that's a fairly safe bet—backup bigs Nick Collison and rookie Steven Adams will be looking at substantial increases in playing time.

According to the stat sheet, both are more than deserving of heavier workloads.

Among the five-man lineups the Thunder have played for at least 20 minutes this season, either Collison or Adams has been a part of six of the eight most efficient units. Their play has been worthy of more minutes even before Perkins went down.

Each player brings something different to the hardwood.

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Collison is a grinder with far more ability and intelligence than that role typically offers.

He's a trusty veteran, a 33-year-old with nine-plus seasons of experience to fall back on. Considering he entered the league as a heady player, this is simply a case of the rich getting richer.

"Nick has a high basketball IQ," Brooks said in 2012, via John Rohde of The Oklahoman. "Most bigs don't."

While Brooks, a point guard in his playing days, was throwing a tongue-in-cheek jab at basketball's behemoths, there's still some truth to his words. Not that post players lack for intelligence but rather that Collison's is awfully advanced in comparison to any player.

He plays within his limits, maximizing his strengths in every way possible. A 56.1-percent shooter this season, he's done tremendous damage as a pick-and-roll screener (1.30 points per possession, fourth overall) and an offensive rebounder (1.26, 12th), via Synergy Sports (subscription required).

If he's involved in any two-man game, there's a great chance something good comes out of it, according to The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry:

While Collison has reliability to sell, Adams' intrigue rests in his massive potential.

The No. 12 overall pick last summer, he has good size (7'0", 255 pounds), great length (7'4.5" wingspan) and far more mobility than his hulking frame should allow.

With only 89 games combined of college and NBA experience under his belt, he's a work in progress whose lack of exposure has plagued his consistency. He's had five games with at least six points and seven rebounds this season, but also 12 scoreless outings and 10 games with fewer than two boards.

There's a little more risk attached to him than a contending team would like in the middle of a stretch run, but the potential payoff is enormous. He's undoubtedly a key piece of OKC's future, and this is his chance to become a key contributor in the present, as The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater alluded to:

Perkins' absence could also force Brooks into thinking outside the box. If the coach is feeling a little imaginative, OKC's already lethal attack could become even more potent.

 

Progressive Game-Planning

Faulting the Thunder's offense for anything isn't easy.

After all, we're talking about the sixth-most efficient group in the NBA (107.2 points per 100 possessions).

Still, with Durant (31.6 points) and Westbrook (20.8) in the mix, that feels like something of a basement. At the least, it falls shy of this team's ceiling by a considerable amount.

There are a number of offensive weapons more than ready to shine in a small-ball system if Brooks would allow it. Even if the coach isn't ready, Perkins' injury may have forced Brooks' hand, as Mayberry suggested:

Might we see more of the two-point-guard look with Westbrook and Reggie Jackson?

The numbers certainly say we should. In 258 minutes of shared floor time, the pair has led OKC to a blistering 116.7 offensive rating and a stonewall 94.3 defensive mark, good for a staggering plus-22.4 net rating. In comparison, the Indiana Pacers lead the NBA with a plus-8.3 net rating.

Neither player is the most disciplined (combined 6.3 turnovers per game) nor the best long-distance shooter (Westbrook has a 31.0 three-point percentage; Jackson is at 30.9 percent). But they get more than they give away, thanks to an otherworldly combination of quickness, speed and an insatiable drive to attack.

Serge Ibaka is a matchup nightmare at the 5. If he isn't overwhelming with athleticism, he's frustrating foes with a deft shooting stroke that now extends past the three-point line (35.7 percent).

He's also strong enough to withstand the interior abuse at the opposite end, holding centers to a respectable 15.9 player efficiency rating on the season, via 82games.com. Throw in the fact he's torching those same centers to the tune of a 24.6 PER offensively, and you can see just how well this position has complemented his strengths.

He can race around plodding centers or simply finish over the top of those still standing in his way.

With Ibaka at center, Brooks has options to fill his other forward spots.

Durant is going to score no matter where he's employed, but his growth as a defender allows him to serve prolonged stretches at the 4. He's been stifling his matchup at either position, holding small forwards to an even 10.0 PER and opposing 4s to an 11.8 mark.

If Brooks wants size without sacrificing athleticism, he can keep KD at his natural 3 spot and play sophomore forward Perry Jones III at the 4.

With a 6'11" frame and 7'1.75" wingspan, Jones has all the physical tools needed for the job. He's also a 36.8-percent shooter from distance with tremendous quickness and explosive hops.

If KD's getting more burn at the 4, that should open up more consistent minutes for swingman Jeremy Lamb.

That could be a tremendous lift for the sophomore sniper. Since Westbrook rejoined the fold after the All-Star break, Lamb has struggled mightily with his shot (2-of-11 from the field, 0-of-7 from three) and seems to be searching for his niche.

For a smooth athlete with a three-point cannon, that should never be the case. If his minutes start to stabilize and his confidence returns, he'll help widen the floor for OKC's high-flyers.

The Thunder could grow without Perkins, but the big man will still be around to help them get through the process.

 

Bringing the "Nasty"

When San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is calling for "nasty," that speaks volumes about its importance.

That's where Perkins can play such a big role for this team, even when he's not on the floor.

He has a toughness that you can't teach.

He's supremely confident and intense, traits that help him fuel Westbrook's fire. He's got that "nasty" that Popovich was talking about, the thing that's helped KD shed some of his nice-guy reputation.

Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

Perkins can still bring that ferociousness to this team from the sideline. It's not that different than what he's already been doing from his home.

"I get phone calls at all hours of the night from different teammates," he told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports in 2012. "The game ends, you go home, take an hour break and then I know it's mentoring time."

Mentors don't need minutes. It's not as if he was backing up his words with sizzling stat sheets before the injury.

Perkins has been to the NBA summit and has a shiny championship ring to show for the journey. His is a voice that carries the same weight during an in-game huddle or a postgame counseling session.

On the floor, he'll leave a void that may take the Thunder some time to fill. The proof is in the numbers, according to Slater:

But now there's time to plug that vacancy, as opposed to simply throwing a Band-Aid on for the night.

There's a growth process for this team to endure, developments to unfold that will only strengthen OKC's championship credentials.

The Thunder might have lost one of their biggest engines just as this race was entering its final turn, but they might be surprised to see how much mileage they can get out of their reserve tanks.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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