Starting Steven Adams over Kendrick Perkins Is Right Move for OKC Thunder

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - May 13: Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder on the court during Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Chesapeake Arena on May 13, 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice:  Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Richard Rowe/NBAE via Getty Images)
Richard Rowe/Getty Images

We had to see this coming.

According to The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater, the Oklahoma City Thunder will use training camp to determine who mans the middle during the 2014-15 season.

"There are starting lineups to be fought for," Brooks told media. "Minutes to be competed for. This is where you make those decisions in 30 days [of training camp]. The 30 days will determine the best group."

That's a start, a sign head coach Scott Brooks is seriously entertaining the prospect of a much-needed shakeup. In this case, competition for the starting job pits 29-year-old veteran Kendrick Perkins against 21-year-old up-and-comer Steven Adams.

Perkins—who's scheduled to make $9,154,342 this season—is increasingly ineffective. Adams—who will earn just $2,184,960 in the second year of his rookie contract—is just getting started, and his stock is rapidly on the rise.

While Brooks and Co. may officially base their decision on a few practices, the writing is already on the wall.

This is Adams' job to lose.

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Perkins just wrapped up his third full season with the Thunder after the organization acquired him from the Boston Celtics during the 2010-11 season. Having established himself as a rugged defensive presence in Boston, OKC hoped to deploy Perkins as its enforcer—the kind of gritty big man capable of setting a tone.

And for a time, that's pretty much what the Thunder got.

Unfortunately, that time appears to be winding down.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 31:  Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antono Spurs drives with the ball against Kendrick Perkins #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first half during Game Six of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Ene
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

After averaging 25.1 minutes per game in 2012-13, Perkins' playing time was reduced to just 19.5 minutes per contest last season. That translated into a career-low 45.1-percent mark from the field and a general decline in Perkins' impact on the game. His 4.9 rebounds per contest constituted his worst output since 2004-05, just his second season in the league.

Though the 11-year veteran has never been an offensive force, he's become an outright liability.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Thunder scored 6.9 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor last season.

Now entering the final year of his contract, could Perkins turn things around in a bid to remain on free-agent radars in 2015?

It could happen.

NBA.com's Jeff Caplan noted via Twitter that, "Perkins dropped 22 lbs down to 276. Says he watched a lot of film this summer—of his Boston days only."

It's the kind of time-machine approach that could yield some dividends. Improved mobility would theoretically show in Perkins' defensive rotations and ability to guard the pick-and-roll. 

But even in the best-case scenario, there are reasons to give Adams a chance.

The Pittsburgh product only averaged 3.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 0.7 blocks in 14.8 minutes per game last season, but he demonstrated serious upside during several playoff appearances.

After playing negligible minutes through the first five games of Oklahoma City's opening round against the Memphis Grizzlies, Adams played a combined 45 minutes in Games 6 and 7—tallying 10 points, four rebounds and five blocks in the process.

From there, Adams' opportunities multiplied.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - May 13: Steven Adams #12 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder celebrate in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Chesapeake Arena on May 13, 20
Richard Rowe/Getty Images

He averaged five points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in six games against the Los Angeles Clippers in the conference semifinals. That included a 40-minute outing in Game 6 that translated into 10 points and 11 rebounds—Adams' first postseason double-double.

The strong play continued into the conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs, particularly in Games 2 and 3 when Adams combined for 16 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks.

While Adams' output outpaced Perkins' playoff production, numbers hardly told the story of the rookie's real value.

He's an active, aggressive presence who makes the most of his imposing seven-foot frame—the kind of big man who isn't afraid to throw some elbows or set a devastating screen. These are largely the same virtues that first endeared Perkins to the Thunder, and they may now be the principal argument for anointing his replacement.

To be fair, Perkins still brings value to the lineup—even if it's far less than his paycheck might suggest.

He's a leader with championship experience, the consummate teammate you definitely want on your side.

Consider Kevin Durant's account upon accepting last season's MVP award.

"Perk, from the minute you got here…I hated you before you got here," Durant told the audience. "The moment you got here, man, you just changed my whole perception of you. Just one of the best teammates I ever had. I just thank you so much. The late night calls after tough games, you texting me, telling me I’m the MVP. That means a lot to me, man. Thank you."

Intangibles like that count for something, yes. But they count for something coming off the bench too.

Brooks admitted as much on Monday at the team's media day.

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 21:   Head Coach Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder instructs Kendrick Perkins #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game Five of the 2012 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder at American Airlines Arena
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"I've been around Perk," Brooks told reporters. "One thing about Perk, he cares about winning. He cares about his teammates. He's given us a great opportunity over the years. He's a big part of the team. Whether he starts or doesn't start, he's going to fill a role that we need."

With the Thunder searching for an edge that might propel them back to the NBA Finals, now would be the time to start grooming Adams for increased responsibilities.

As Slater argued in a round-table discussion with other sportswriters at The Oklahoman, "It's about maximizing the roster's capabilities by the playoffs. That would include getting the young and emerging Adams as many opportunities as possible. Play him with the starters. Get him 30 minutes a night."

That kind of thinking makes sense.

Clinging to the status quo makes less sense.

Could Perkins complain about a reserve role? Sure. But frankly, he should be pleased he still has a job.

Despite waves of speculation the organization might amnesty him, general manager Sam Presti closed the door on the possibility again in June, telling reporters, "It's not something that's been considered to this point."

Given the team's cap situation, there was little to be gained from cutting ties with Perkins.

But there's even less to be gained by starting him in place of a younger, now superior option. Perkins may even understand as much, potentially assuaging any concern that a reserve role would turn him into an unhappy camper.

"To be honest with you, I think going into training camp, it's always a position battle," Perkins told reporters this week. "Every year going in, if you're not one of the $100 million (salary) guys, it's always a position battle. I'm always approaching training camp like that. That's just the way I feel."

Hopefully he stills feels that way in the event he loses said position battle.

Now slowed by a strained quad that will impede Perkins' early participation at training camp, Adams' odds of replacing him in the starting lineup are looking better by the day.

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