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Steven Adams-Kendrick Perkins Duo Proving Formidable for Oklahoma City Thunder

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIIDecember 24, 2014

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 16: Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on December 16, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. 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 Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Steven Adams and Kendrick Perkins are the best center combination the Oklahoma City Thunder have had in years. Before stumbling across this latest duo, the franchise went through a veritable who's who of ho-hum big men such as Nenad Krstic, Robert Swift and Mouhamed Sene.

Adams and Perkins are the basketball equivalent of a "buddy cop" movie. They are two guys with contrasting styles from distinct areas of the world who are both at different stages of their respective careers. 

Perkins is a 6'10", 270-pound roadblock from Texas in the midst of his 12th NBA season. His lack of speed and athleticism make him a liability on offense, but his size and strength make him one of the best interior defenders in the league. 

Adams is a 21-year-old phenom from the University of Pittsburgh by way of New Zealand. At 7'0", 255 pounds, he has all of the tools a team would want in a pivot man. In only his second season in the pros and his first as a starter, he's still raw at both ends of the court but has shown flashes of being a potential force inside. 

Individually, they each bring a different element to the table. Together, their brand of toughness and physicality gives the Thunder their edge. While the numbers haven't been spectacular, the play of both men has been one of the hidden gems in Oklahoma City's season. 

The Return of Big Perk

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 16: Russell Westbrook #0 and Kendrick Perkins #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder face off against the Sacramento Kings on December 16, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges an
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

It was understandable if you wrote off Perkins going into this season. He was entering his walk year and coming off one of the worst statistical outputs of his career (3.4 points, 4.9 rebounds). He finished with a player efficiency rating of 6.3, which trailed the likes of ex-Cleveland Cavaliers bust Anthony Bennett and sparsely used Washington Wizards guard Garrett Temple.

Making matters worse, he was hampered throughout training camp and preseason with a strained quad.

However, whether it was his pending free agency, or Adams gunning for his spot in the starting rotation, the fire in the aging veteran's belly seems to be revitalized. He has embraced coming off the bench, which probably should have happened sooner than it did, and his numbers are up from last season (4 points, 5.9 rebounds). 

Defensively, he's the same Perk. According to 82games.com, he's holding opponents to an effective field-goal percentage of 45.6 percent this season. He's also posting a defensive rating of 101, which is his best effort since he came to Oklahoma City in the middle of the 2010-11 season. 

Perkins' ability to turn back the clock led The Oklahoman's Jenni Carlson to call him the Thunder's biggest surprise so far this season:

The guy is a really good backup center. Of course, I’ve always thought he was a really good starting center on the defensive end. Of course, his offensive game lacked against other starting units. But against the reserves? We’ve seen Perk’s offensive game be rejuvenated. Thunder fans even seem to be warming up to Perk.

More importantly, Perk has been key in another big role: mentor. 

"It's different, but something I embrace," Perkins said, per Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman. "Good thing about it is he’s a good dude and he listens. That makes it a lot easier. He’s not a knucklehead."

Perkins' willingness to take Adams under his wing is more crucial to the Thunder's season than any minuscule production the 30-year-old can provide on the court. Oklahoma City has needed a threat down low for years, and anything Perkins can do to accelerate Adams' development would be much obliged. 

 

The Rise of Steven Adams

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 19: Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives against the Los Angeles Lakers at STAPLES Center on December 19, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

The insertion of Adams into the Thunder's starting lineup is like a breath of fresh air. For all of the Thunder's offensive weapons, they have lacked a scorer in the post. Serge Ibaka has the chops to be that guy, but he has a newfound affinity for the three-point line these days (career-high 3.4 trey attempts). 

While developing offensively, Adams can still be serviceable down low. He's averaging 7.7 points per game and is shooting 66 percent around the rim. He's doing work on the glass as well, averaging 7.1 rebounds per contest and grabbing at least 10 boards in three of his last four games. 

Darnell Mayberry @DarnellMayberry

Steven Adams averaging 8.9 points and 9.1 rebounds in 26.2 minutes over his last seven games.

Adams is also doing his part in aiding the NBA's stingiest defense (league-best 95.2 points per game allowed, per ESPN). He's averaging 1.2 blocks per game and is 16th in the NBA with a defensive rating of 100, per Basketball-Reference.com. 

These are all signs of Adams eventually becoming a complete center, which is huge for a team that hasn't had a big man who can contribute at both ends of the court in quite some time. However, the biggest recent improvement in Adams' game has been avoiding costly fouls. 

After averaging 3.2 fouls for the month of November, that number has decreased to two per game this month. In a Dec. 21 clash with the New Orleans Pelicans, he went 33 minutes without getting whistled, the first time he's done that all season. As a result, he put together one of his best all-around efforts of the year (12 points, 10 boards, two blocks, two steals). 

Although Adams has managed to stay on the officials' good side as of late, he's still finding ways to get under his opponent's skin. The latest victim of the big man's brand of agitation was Los Angeles Lakers swingman Nick Young, who didn't take too kindly to a screen by Adams and responded with an elbow to the 7-footer's throat. 

Afterward, Swaggy P called Adams a "sneaky, dirty player," per ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes

There was also this altercation with Sacramento Kings forward Ryan Hollins, where he and Adams locked arms while running down the court. 

Opposing players may take issue with Adams channeling his inner Ric Flair, but you have to give the young fella credit for his willingness to be physical without getting intimidated. That kind of toughness is something the team can rally behind and something they need more of on the Thunder.

Going forward, Adams will need to continue making strides, especially at the free-throw line (50.7 percent from the stripe). However, it's becoming clear the Thunder have something special in their new starting center. 

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - NOVEMBER 28: Kendrick Perkins #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder grabs a rebound against the New York Knicks on November 28, 2014 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The center position has been the Oklahoma City Thunder's biggest weakness for quite some time. In Steven Adams and Kendrick Perkins, that area isn't as much of a sore spot anymore. Their combined efforts allow the Thunder to not miss a beat defensively when either is on the floor. 

Offensively, they are both a work in progress. Perkins was never much of a scorer, while Adams has the potential to be the team's first interior threat in recent memory. However, the biggest thing the duo brings to the table are the intangibles. 

Perkins' willingness to teach has been huge in his young pupil's development, while Adams' penchant for physicality gives the team a certain level of toughness. 

Individually, they don't provide the same impact, but together, they've become a formidable pair. 

Note: All stats current as of Dec. 22 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. 

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