Kendrick Perkins knows he hasn't had the best start to this season.
So he's decided to do something about it.
For Perkins, that typically means picking a fight.
That's what he did in the Thunder's 106-91 win over Cleveland on Sunday night. Cavs forward Alonzo Gee, in the first half, just happened to be the target. Perkins and Gee got tangled up away from the ball, with threatening elbows elevated to the neck area during a standstill staredown that had the potential to turn serious. Gee, arms raised as if to plead innocence, tried to walk away. Perkins, of course, pushed forward.
It was all part of his plan.
“I'm just trying to get myself going,” Perkins explained. “Get the team fired up.”
In the next breath, Perk confessed to his kooky ways.
“Pick somebody on the other team that I don't like,” he said, “and go at them.”
Before Gee, it was Brandon Knight, the Detroit Pistons point guard who Perkins applied full-court pressure to on Friday night. Thunder coach Scott Brooks jokingly labeled Perkins' one-man press “The Perkinator.” It was seen again Sunday night, this time against reigning Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving.
“That's Perk,” Brooks said. “He tries to get himself going, and he tries to get our players going. He's an emotional guy. Every now and then he tries to get me going, and I tell him he just needs to chill out there. But with Perk, he is that. If he doesn't do that, he's not as effective.”
Perhaps that partially explains Perkins' performance through the Thunder's first five games. Over that span, Perkins almost appeared to be coasting, playing with far less than his normal fire. He averaged just three points on a solid 50 percent shooting, with a 5.6-rebound average in those contests. But something was missing, and Brooks, as he generally does, insists it's never about statistics with Perkins.
“He hasn't played (any) basketball this summer,” Brooks reminded. “He had two surgeries that prevented him from doing that. He played occasionally during training camp. A lot of it was no contact. A lot of it was by himself. So he's only really played about a month of basketball with us. So he's still getting a feel, and he's still a ways away from where we need him to be. But I see the last couple of games his energy is better, his feel for the basketball is better.”
In the last two games, Perkins has seemed to regain his passion. His activity on the court has been up, and so has his production. Over the first five games, for instance, Perkins was a net minus-13 in the plus-minus category. In the past two games, he's been a net plus-four. In those two games, Perkins scored 19 points with nine rebounds, seven assists and only two turnovers in 54 minutes.
Yet the slow start, coupled with a misconception that Perkins' contract caused James Harden to get away, has incensed some.
While Perkins is far from perfect, the truth is there are few starting centers throughout the league better suited for the Thunder. Many are better. Few are better fits.
The all-so important financial aspect must be included in that reality.
Despite Perkins' shortcomings, he continues to be one of the most cost-efficient big men in the league. His $7.8 million salary this season ranks him 17th among all starting centers.
Of the 13 centers paid less than Perkins, six are still on their rookie scale contracts. The other seven are Marcin Gortat, Robin Lopez, Samuel Dalembert, Omer Asik, J.J. Hickson, Kosta Koufos and Brandan Wright. Of those seven, you could make a case for only Gortat and Asik as better fits for the Thunder.
A fit on the Thunder entails sacrificing scoring and low-post touches (albeit not one of Perk's strong suits), manning the paint and supplying valiant low-post defense, an ability to defend the pick-and-roll, setting solid screens to free up wing players for open shots and providing toughness and enforcement.
How many starting centers being paid less than Perkins can do all of those things? And keep in mind, Perkins is widely regarded as the best in the league at defending the post. Who among us thinks the Thunder advances past Denver and Memphis and the Lakers and San Antonio over the past two postseasons without Perkins?
Meanwhile, in the cases of Denver and Dallas, the Nuggets and Mavs have more expensive centers than Perkins coming off the bench in JaVale McGee ($10 million) and Chris Kaman ($8 million).
Perkins sits sandwiched between Gortat and Anderson Varejao on the list of starting centers by salary, a reasonable placing. Nearly everyone above Perkins is a $10 million a year player, something the Thunder can't currently afford.
It's just easy to lose sight of those facts when focusing so much on Perkins' rebounds.
“If you watch the game, and you know the game of basketball, you understand and you can see what's going on out there,” Perkins said. “I'm not the guy to be out there fighting guys for rebounds. Our starting five is a pretty good rebounding team … So I'm not really tripping on numbers. At the end of the day, I'm at the stage of my career where it's all about wins.”
On Sunday night, the number the Thunder cares most about ticked to 86. That's how many wins, regular season and postseason, the Thunder owns with Perk in the lineup over the past 1½ seasons.