Kendrick Perkins sat down for his season-ending interview with reporters Thursday and was told, to his surprise, that he was sweating.
“Well I just left out of Sam's office so I might be sweating,” Perkins said of his exit interview with Thunder general manager Sam Presti.
“That was a joke,” Perkins immediately added.
The Thunder's polarizing center has nothing to worry about.
Two days later, Presti essentially put an end to the rampant speculation that Perkins would possibly be waived under the NBA's amnesty clause.
“We just haven't considered using the provision,” Presti said. “I wouldn't necessarily directly attribute that to any player on our team. Every team looks at the amnesty provision different based on their different circumstances. But it's not something that we've really explored.”
When pressed, Presti went on to praise Perkins.
“We think Perk has a lot of value to our team,” Presti said. “He's a member of a team that won 60 games and helped us to our third division title in three years. I don't know that we can discount that. I'm sure he'd like to have had a better postseason. But I'm sure that's pretty universal for the whole group. And we accept that.”
The amnesty clause is a provision in the league's new collective bargaining agreement that allows each team a one-time opportunity to waive a player whose contract was signed prior to July 1, 2011. Any team that exercises that clause must still pay the player his full salary, but that contract would no longer count against the team's salary cap or potential tax payment.
Perkins will earn roughly $18.6 million over the next two seasons, a salary that at this point surpasses his production. Perkins averaged 2.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 0.5 blocks while playing 19.1 minutes in the Thunder's 11 postseason games. They were his lowest playoff averages since his postseason debut in his second season, a year in which Perkins' statistics were only marginally worse despite averaging just 4.7 minutes.
“He's somewhat of an easy target because of his stats,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He's never going to be a statistical guy. He brings toughness. He brings experience. He brings things that help you win. He makes winning basketball plays. Did he have good moments in the playoffs? He had some. He had some not so good. What he does with our team, he helps us win games. When we had everybody whole, he was a big part of what we do. Going forward, I expect that to be the same.”
When starting point guard Russell Westbrook sustained a season-ending knee injury, nearly every Thunder player's production eventually dipped. Perkins looked the worst. He ended the playoff run with as many turnovers (24) as points. By the end of the Thunder's second-round series against Memphis, Perkins had compiled the worst plus-minus of anyone. He finished a minus-40, meaning the Grizzlies outscored the Thunder by 40 points when Perkins was on the floor.
Numbers like that look especially bad when the five-game series was decided by only 24 combined points. Not to mention Perkins' specialty is defending post players like the Grizzlies' tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Although Perkins' defense on Gasol was largely solid — Perkins forced Gasol into taking scores of contested jump shots — the box score disparity was disturbing. Gasol averaged 19.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.8 blocked shots in the series. Randolph averaged 18.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists in the series, the last two games being his best despite Perkins primarily defending him.
To top it off, Perkins set the Internet on fire when it was revealed that he finished with the worst PER, or player efficiency rating, in playoff history. His minus-0.7 PER was the first time a player who logged at least 200 minutes has ever finished with a negative rating. The rating, however, largely is a measure of offensive performance and doesn't take into account a player's defensive impact beyond blocked shots and steals.
The Thunder, though, is sticking by Perkins. The team believes Perkins' character and past success is more indicative than a bad stretch of what the organization actually has.
“He's a guy that's contributed to this team over the past three years,” Presti said. “He would like to play at a higher level in the postseason than he did. But at the same time, I think that can be said for a lot of our guys. And I think he's going to go back and work and come back improved. But he does things that we value and against certain teams that we have to go through on a nightly basis.”
It might be easy to forget how Perkins greatly improved the Thunder's defense from the moment the team acquired him from Boston midway through the 2010-11 season. But the Thunder hasn't forgotten how Perkins helped the team get past Denver and Memphis in the 2011 playoffs with his defense on Nene and Gasol, or how he pestered Dirk Nowitzki, Andrew Bynum and Tim Duncan in the 2012 playoffs.
“He's a part of the group that's had success, and we value that,” Presti said. “We don't split that up and weigh it based on eight games or things of that nature. We look at it a little more wholistically and collectively.”
Beyond that, booting Perkins via the amnesty clause serves little to no purpose for the Thunder.
Oklahoma City still would have to pay Perkins his full salary. The team would be relieved of only a partial amount if another team that is under the salary cap bids on Perkins and brings him in. For instance, if Toronto made a $2 million bid for Perkins in the amnesty process, the Thunder would be on the hook for the remaining $16 million and change.
Still, the Thunder would be left with a gaping hole in the middle. Some have floated the idea of playing smaller by moving Serge Ibaka to center, or starting Nick Collison. But both proposals have their respective problems and above all would represent a radical transformation in the Thunder's philosophy.
Because of constraints in the CBA, adding a replacement isn't nearly as easy as it sounds. If the Thunder amnestied Perkins, the team's payroll still would be around $58 million, which is where the league's soft salary cap was set for the past two seasons. That means the Thunder wouldn't have any room under the cap to sign a free agent. All the team would have available would be a few exceptions, most notably the midlevel exception (roughly $5 million) that would allow it to exceed the soft cap.
The next challenge would be locating a player as good as or better than Perkins willing to play for midlevel money. Keep in mind big men historically command more coin. If that player is out there somewhere, the Thunder would have to be willing to pay Perkins his money, as well as the replacement. The center position suddenly would cost the Thunder $14 million next season instead of $9 million.
“When you're under the cap,” Presti said, “by connotation it also means that your payroll and cash payment is at a different level, so therefore you'd be able to absorb a full salary of a player and it might be more beneficial because you'd be able to exceed that player's salary based on the salary cap space that you're using. So generally, teams are using those provisions as under-the-cap teams.”
Meanwhile, the man who has stumbled into all this scrutiny is simply taking it in stride. Perkins was neither agitated nor angered by the topic Thursday. His beads of sweat, he said, must have stemmed from the stage lights that illuminated his face for television purposes.
“Well, Mark Cuban said (the Lakers) could have amnestied Kobe Bryant,” Perkins joked. “So I mean anybody capable of getting amnestied. But at the end of the day, no, I don't feel that way. It's easy to point the finger at somebody, or if something don't go right it's easy to say ‘Oh, let's just make a change.' And then you make a change and what if the change don't work? And then you need to make another change.
“At the end of the day, you don't see San Antonio just sitting up here making changes all of a sudden. They stick with what they believe in. At the end of the day, I'm pretty comfortable and I'm pretty sure that I'll be back here next year. So I'm not worried about that.”