Diagnosing Oklahoma City Thunder's Weak Link in 2014-15

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIISeptember 4, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 27:  Kendrick Perkins #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder gestures to the crowd in the third quarter against the San Antonio Spurs during Game Four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 27, 2014 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

With his skills diminishing, center Kendrick Perkins is the Oklahoma City Thunder's weak link. 

The Thunder acquired Perkins in a midseason trade with the Boston Celtics back in 2011 to help bolster their defense in the post. At the time, Perkins was one of the league's best interior defenders, and Oklahoma City would find itself in the NBA Finals not long after he came to town. 

These days, Perkins has been more of an active member of Shaquille O'Neal's blooper reel than of the franchise that pays him. His inability to make an impact on either side of the ball combined with his flair for making frustrating mental errors have made him fodder for social media critics. 

Despite his ineffectiveness, Perkins still managed to start every game he played in last season (62 regular-season games, 19 playoff games) and will compete to do the same this year. However, with Serge Ibaka establishing himself as one of the game's premier rim protectors and Steven Adams developing nicely, there's less of a need for Perkins' presence in Oklahoma City. 

Why Kendrick Perkins Is Oklahoma City's Weak Link 

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 25: Kendrick Perkins #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts after a play in the second quarter against the San Antonio Spurs during Game Three of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Kendrick Perkins' deficiencies on the basketball court go beyond the numerous "Shaqtin' A Fool" videos you'll find on YouTube. For starters, he's vastly limited offensively. He hasn't shot above 50 percent from the field since coming to Oklahoma City. Last season, Perkins shot a career-low 45.1 percent from the field. 

The problem is Perkins isn't very effective as a scorer unless he's around the rim. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the big man converted 52.5 percent of his attempts that he took near the basket. From between three to 10 feet, that number dips to 44.8 percent.

Even when he's in the paint, he doesn't have a ton of go-to moves. He's not a great post-up scorer, despite being a monster of a man at 6'10" and 270 pounds. He can knock down a jumper once in a while, but it's far from a consistent weapon.

Perkins contributed just 3.4 points per game last season, which was his lowest mark since his second season in the league (2004-05). For an NBA starting center, that's pretty putrid. Even with the explosive weapons Oklahoma City has throughout the roster, it would be beneficial to the team have a big man inside that can provide more than a couple buckets a game. 

Kendrick Perkins' 2013-14 shot chart.
Kendrick Perkins' 2013-14 shot chart.Credit: NBA.com/Stats

Shotchart via NBA.com.

To Perkins' credit, he understands he isn't much of a scorer, which is why he doesn't take a ton of shots. He averaged 3.1 attempts last season, which was his lowest output since the 2006-07 season with Boston.

There's also the issue of Perkins' rebounding, which has declined each year over the past four seasons. After averaging eight boards per game in his two combined stops with Boston and Oklahoma City during the 2010-11 season, here are his numbers on the glass since then:

  • 2011-12: 6.6 rebounds per game
  • 2012-13: Six rebounds per game
  • 2013-14: 4.9 rebounds per game

Perkins' 4.9 boards a night was tied for 83rd in the NBA with the likes of Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler as well as fellow declining big men Elton Brand (Atlanta Hawks) and Amar'e Stoudemire (New York Knicks). How many starting centers have been outrebounded by a shooting guard and two aging reserves playing limited minutes?

With his numbers trending downward, you can't help but wonder about Perkins' production this upcoming season. 

Lastly, there's Perkins' contract. While the 29-year-old's deal expires at the end of the season, he's still owed $9.1 million for 2013-14. That's a pretty hefty price tag for a guy with Perkins' limitations. A trade isn't impossible (more on that later), but it seems unlikely. 

When you add all this up, you get a big man who can't score, can't rebound and is on an expiring contract that won't be easy to move. Luckily for the Thunder, they have better alternatives, so they aren't completely stuck with Perkins. 

Still, as long as head coach Scott Brooks keeps insisting on having Perkins as his starting center, the team will suffer. The mental mistakes and lack of production will continue to hinder this team's championship aspirations as long as he's on the court. 

How Oklahoma City Can Fix This

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 27:  Kendrick Perkins #5 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder react after a play in the second quarter against the San Antonio Spurs during Game Four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Che
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

On the surface, the situation with Kendrick Perkins is a lose-lose for Oklahoma City. In order to build Perkins' value, the team has to play him. If it plays him and he doesn't improve, the team will suffer. If you don't play him, you're letting a $9.1 million roster spot sit at the end of your bench. 

The Thunder could try to trade him, but the market is likely to be thin.  ESPN's Chris Broussard (subscription required) wrote back in June that the Miami Heat were interested in Perkins. 

"I am also told that Pat Riley intends to make a run at Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins, who has one year left on his contract," Broussard said. 

Of course, months have passed, and Perkins is still on the Thunder roster, so the interest couldn't have been that high. Like the Thunder, potential suitors will need to be inspired by Perkins' play this season before they consider making an offer.

One way the team can light a fire under its embattled big man is the spirit of competition. During his exit interview, Brooks put it out there that there are starting spots up for grabs this season (h/t to the Daily Thunder's Royce Young).

"That remains to be seen. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done this summer. Obviously [Perkins] been a big part of what we’ve done over the years," Brooks said. "Positions are available. I can say that."

Note that he said "positions," as in more than just the shooting guard spot vacated by Thabo Sefolosha. What other position might Brooks be referring to? Power forward? Nope. Point guard? Definitely not. Small forward? Child, please. 

Given what the team has seen from Perkins lately, it's only right it reassesses what it has at center as well. Whether Adams is ready to start or not, it's hard to imagine him being a less enticing option. 

In his own exit interview, Perkins stressed the importance of improving this summer:

I know this offseason is going to be the biggest offseason of my career. It’s going to be the first time approaching a time where I’m going to be an unrestricted free agent. So I definitely have to come back in better shape and get back to the basketball I played in Boston. That’s my goal.

Perkins should be less motivated by his impending free agency and more concerned with the 21-year-old from New Zealand who will be breathing down his neck. Oklahoma City also used a first-round pick on Michigan big man Mitch McGary. 

Still, whether it's one last payday or competition from youngsters, the important thing is Perkins is motivated. Ibaka, Adams and McGary may be the future of Oklahoma City's frontcourt, but Perkins could stave them off with a bounce-back year. 

As with any team, regardless of how young and talented it is, the Thunder's championship window won't stay open forever. The Western Conference seems to get tougher and deeper every year. With one of the NBA's best tandems in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City will remain in the title hunt. 

However, to get over the hump, the Thunder will need a boost from those surrounding the team's dynamic duo. That starts with Perkins. While he's still an adequate defender down low, he needs to improve in other areas to warrant the team's faith in him as well as get it back to the Finals. 

Entering his 12th season, it's up to Perkins to decide what kind of player he wants to be in his walk year. Will he help the Thunder move forward or continue to hold them back? 


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