The Oklahoma City Thunder have started the 2012-13 NBA season with a 10-4 record, good for third best in the Western Conference so far.
After trading James Harden before the season, they are now not the same team they were last season but their biggest problem remains the same: Kendrick Perkins.
Those of you who are familiar with advanced statistics know where this is going. The stats simply don’t lie, the Thunder are much better when Perkins is not on the floor.
Perkins has the reputation of a defensive anchor of sorts, the kind of center a team like the Thunder would need to help them win an NBA title. He brings things like toughness and veteran leadership to the floor.
Perkins is averaging 4.1 points and 4.7 rebounds in 25.6 minutes per game this season. Looking more closely, the Thunder starting lineup that Perkins is a part of has an offensive rating of 101.4 this season, which is far less than the team’s overall offensive rating of 108.2 on the year. The defensive rating of the starters is 97.5 compared to 100.9 overall.
The starters play the most minutes out of any 5-man group for the Thunder. The second most played group of five is a lineup of the starters but with Kevin Martin in instead of Thabo Sefolosha. This group’s offensive rating jumps to 112.3 but its defensive rating also rises all the way to 107.7.
The two most played 5-man units for the Thunder, which feature Perkins at center, have net ratings of 3.9 and 4.6. Overall, the Thunder have a net rating of 7.3 on the year.
When Perkins is not in and is replaced by Nick Collison or the Thunder are simply going small with Martin and Sefolosha in with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the Thunder are at their best.
The lineup of Westbrook, Martin, Durant, Ibaka and Collison is the third most common for the Thunder and it is probably their best. It has an offensive rating of 110.7 and defensive rating of 98.1 giving it a net of 12.5.
The Thunder have even greater net ratings when they go small. A small lineup featuring Collison or Ibaka at the five has given the Thunder net ratings of 25.6 and 34.7 on the year.
You can make excuses for Perkins here. A lot of the non-starting units for the Thunder see more of the opponent’s bench players. Or a lot of what Perkins does doesn’t show up in the stat sheet. Or the Thunder will need Perkins if they have to play the Los Angeles Lakers and Dwight Howard.
The last point is probably the one closest to being true. Perkins may actually only have any value to the Thunder when they are playing the Lakers. Other than that, try and think of one team where the Thunder would be better off having Perkins on the floor than Collison or Ibaka and small lineups. You can’t.
The Thunder actually traded for Perkins so that they would be more prepared to deal with the Lakers. But at what cost will they be committed to starting Perkins and playing him so many minutes over a guy like Collison?
You could argue that it cost the Thunder an NBA title last season when head coach Scott Brooks did not change the starting lineup against the Miami Heat when it was so clearly the most important adjustment the Thunder needed to make. Will staying committed to Perkins mean a similar fate for the Thunder this year?
There is less room for error now with Harden gone. The second unit simply isn’t what it was last year with Harden and we’ve already seen Brooks shake up the rotation to give Durant more minutes with that group.
So is there any chance of Perkins coming off the bench? Probably not. Brooks seems committed to this starting five and doing things pretty much the way he has for the past two years. The best thing that could happen for the Thunder could actually be an injury to Perkins.
The season is still early and the Thunder have time to improve by the playoffs. Maybe this starting unit will become better than it ever has been this year. Maybe the Thunder will see the Lakers in the playoffs and be thankful that they have Perkins.
But if the Thunder suffer the same fate they did last season, it’s going to be hard not to point a finger in Perkins’ direction as to why.