Kendrick Perkins might be the NBA’s Most Valuable Player of the next decade.
He’s never been an All-Star or gotten any individual awards. He’s never led the league in a statistic. And he certainly has never won the MVP award.
And yet, I just made that quirky statement about K-Perk that at first, second and third glances looks like the hermit of all basketball-themed leads. It doesn’t belong anywhere.
Don’t haze or grill the lonely line. I’ll be the defense lawyer of said statement (nonexistent LSAT scores notwithstanding).
Perkins was traded midseason from Boston to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Immediately, Boston was shaken to its core. The vaunted starting lineup that had never lost a playoff series when healthy had their brutish enforcer jettisoned for backups while his backup, Shaquille O’Neal, was stuck on the bench with an injury. Suddenly, Ray Allen, who owes the extension of his career as a productive star to Perkins’ fabulous semi-legal screens, didn’t have his personal chauffeur showing him the clear path to the 3-point line. Rajon Rondo didn’t have his big brother. Kevin Garnett, the master of horizontal defense, didn’t have his vertical brick wall counterpart covering the paint for him. Boston was 41-14 before the trade and 15-12 after it.
Meanwhile, Perkins helped give the Thunder balance with his defensive play. With him controlling the middle defensively, the Thunder’s agile and awesomely named forward, Serge Ibaka, got to play power forward, a position he is better suited for. Despite being chiseled from stone, Ibaka is too lithe and doesn’t have the bulk necessary to play in Perkins’ heavyweight division. The presence of Perkins enables Ibaka to roam around, block shots from the weak side and use his quickness and vertical explosion to contest shots near the basket; Perkins does the sumo wrasslin’ and post defending and body blocking in the paint. Coupled with a long, athletic perimeter defense, the two young bigs dominated defensively, helping the Thunder go 15-4 after the decade-altering trade.
Perkins is the perfect fit for the Thunder. On a team built through draft picks, he is the only major piece gathered via trade. He brings to the young, inexperienced Thunder a package of information — a DNA sample, if you will — of championship pedigree and swagger, knowledge he gained from Boston’s wise Big Three of Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce after they left their prime years behind and amassed themselves together for a ring.
He’s also the perfect fit on the court. Those Wes Unseldian screens he throws at opponents that Allen loved are perfect for freeing up Kevin Durant off-ball and James Harden or Russell Westbrook in the pick-and-roll. He shoots a high percentage, recognizes what he can and can’t do and, most importantly, he makes swing passes; swing passes make champions. Defensively, he’s got his team’s back.
Oklahoma City is built to win playoff games. It has its offensive constants in the ever-productive Durant and the electrically charged alpha-athlete Westbrook, with Harden as a solid third option. Defensively, they can wrap around the court like vines on a recently abandoned house — they make you look worse than you are, which is exactly what defense is about. Perkins plays the role of the house maintenance dude who was just let go — he lets the vines pervade freely. With the basket protected, they suffuse and suffocate their opponents in the half court, which is something Boston prided itself on. Only not anymore.
Without a legitimate center, Boston folded to the Miami Heat in a five-game conference semifinal. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade averaged over 58 points per game combined in the series, running unimpeded through Boston’s defense. Maybe a healthy Shaq could have helped. Maybe Miami wins with Perkins there anyway. But not in five games. Not with such dual dominance by Miami’s slashing superstars. Miami was supposed to assume control of the Eastern Conference at some point, but such a sudden usurpation means that perhaps Miami is ready to win it all right now, that the window through which James and Wade can add to their legacies is wider than before.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City has flourished in the playoffs. It easily dispatched a hot Denver Nuggets team by outclassing them with its top-end talent, and after five games had a 3-2 lead over a tough Memphis squad that ended an era by defeating the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. Such feats are hard to envision without Perkins residing over the paint as an ironically cool, calm, collected bouncer. Imagine Serge having to fortify the Thunder defense while bodying up on Nene Hilario and Kenyon Martin in the first round, and then Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the second round.
Durant has a team that can compete for championships this year. Mind you, he’s 22 years old; a whole decade waits for him as he builds upon his legacy. The kicker is that his team is essentially as young as he is. If Ibaka can develop into a 14-points-per-game power forward with a mid-range jumper, he’ll shore up the team’s deficiency in volume frontcourt scoring. Then, you need to watch out. Yes, you.
The Perkins move changed the NBA. His presence, or lack thereof, started the chain of events last year when he was injured in the NBA Finals. After losing Perkins, the Celtics were manhandled on the boards by the Lakers. This year, Perkins’ exit proved devastating for Boston; the team’s window may have shut, which opens windows for younger teams like Miami and Chicago to rule on high earlier than expected. Perkins’ presence potentially gives the Thunder a hall pass of sorts past the learning curve that entails losing a lot before winning a lot.
James, Wade, Durant and 2011 MVP Derrick Rose have an opportunity to seize control of the league right now. Winning changes the perception of players, which in turns leads to more All-NBA teams and MVP awards — legitimately deserved or not (see Kobe Bryant’s all-defensive first-team selection this year). That affects all-time rankings. Reputations are at stake, as are legacies.
And it’s all because of a center who has averaged 6.4 points and 6.1 rebounds for his career. Your Most Valuable Player of the next decade — Kendrick Perkins. I rest my case.