MIAMI — Kendrick Perkins wants you to know he isn't the savior some swear he is.
The recently-acquired center likes to think of himself as just another building block, not the final piece to the Oklahoma City Thunder's championship puzzle.
“I'm just trying to bring what I know to these young guys,” said Perkins, who won it all with Boston in 2008. “We've got a good group of young guys that work hard, stay humble and are talented. I'm just trying to do what I can to come in and fit in.”
NBA analysts gushed over Oklahoma City as a title contender before the paperwork could be filed on the four-player deal with Boston that brought Perkins to town on Feb. 24. But the history of league champions suggests Perkins' arrival simply sparks a waiting game in Oklahoma City rather than a speedier trip to a title.
The NBA is the ultimate lunch line when it comes to championship winners, and, at best, the Thunder merely has taken its number with Perkins aboard. Over the past 31 years only eight franchises have been crowned as league champions. The Los Angeles Lakers have won 10 times over that span, Chicago has captured six titles, San Antonio and Boston each secured four championships, Detroit won it three times, Houston has two titles and Philadelphia and Miami each won one.
As the Thunder and Heat square off tonight inside American Airlines Arena, they'll represent the most likely franchises that figure to be next in line.
“There's no easy path to that level. You have to earn it by working every day,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, a member of the championship-winning 1994 Rockets. “We're getting pieces to having a good team. Perk is another good piece to getting where we want to get to.”
Perkins joins a stable of young talent that is led by soon-to-be back-to-back scoring champ Kevin Durant and fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook. Together, despite both being just 22, they form the league's third highest scoring duo. And they're flanked by what appears to be the right blend of role players, a mix of veteran glue guys (Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha) and other young, untapped potential (James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Eric Maynor and Cole Aldrich).
“But it takes a lot of work, effort and good players,” Brooks said. “Not just one or two, it takes a team full of good players. And it takes some good fortune. We're building our team with some good players. We want to keep working and keep improving. I don't know when it's going to happen, but we think like champions. We do everything like a champion.”
Despite all the hype following last month's trade, the Thunder still looks to be a year away from true contention. The Lakers, Spurs and Celtics are the clear favorites for now. But as each of those teams continues to age, it's the Thunder's spry young nucleus that threatens to take over.
Growth is the name of the game at this point.
“You'll know when they're mature when they win a playoff series,” said Washington coach Flip Saunders, who reached the Conference Finals in four out of five seasons as coach of Minnesota and Detroit between 2004 and 2008. “That's their next step. And you hope that you can do that by winning your division and having home court advantage.”
The Thunder is on track, currently sitting in fourth place in the West standings with a 3 1/2-game lead over Denver for the Northwest Division title and home court advantage. Oklahoma City also is on pace to win 53 games, three more than last year's total.
“Players we have are growing,” said Durant. “It's just a matter of us bringing that all together.”
Brooks is coaching with one eye on today's development and the other on lessons for tomorrow. A buzz phrase around the Thunder is ‘build good habits.' Brooks explains good habits as fundamentals such as making the extra pass, setting solid screens, rebounding and boxing out.
“Those little things add up to big things,” Brooks said. “And players and teams can do it occasionally but to do it consistently, that's what makes real pros and makes good teams. And we want to be able to put the good habits together every night.”
Brooks also is attempting to instill a comfort with versatility, which could become vital as matchup advantages and disadvantages may shift from one series to the next in the postseason.
“You have to be able to play different ways,” Brooks said. “Not every team is going to play big. We have a team that we can play different lineups.”
With Perkins, the Thunder is now better equipped to play a towering frontcourt like that of the Lakers. But OKC also can go small and match up with, say, a Denver or Dallas if need be.
“They can get up and down and score the basketball. So they're going to have to do it their way,” said Pistons center Ben Wallace, who helped Detroit to its last title in 2004, winning with defense. “But when they get in the playoffs, they can't forget about their bigs. If they allow the bigs to play with them and help them out, I think the sky's the limit for them.
“Sometimes you get in the playoffs and you forget about the bigs. You think you just got to score, score, score. But that ain't always the case. You got to keep those big guys happy so they continue to rebound and play defense.”
For now, Perkins will happily do his part.
“I'm not trying to do too much. I'm not trying to do too little either,” Perkins said. “I've learned a lot in my eight years being in the league. I'm just trying to carry it over and bring it here and just bring a positive vibe, positive energy. I feel like these guys could get another level of confidence that they don't know that's down there.”
And someday, maybe even soon, the stars might align and the league will call the Thunder's number.
Thunder at Heat When: 7 p.m. Wednesday Where: American Airlines Arena TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD Ch. 722), ESPN (Cox 29, HD Ch. 720) Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM. THREE THINGS TO KNOW * Center Kendrick Perkins made his Thunder debut Monday at Washington, scoring six points with nine rebounds and two assists in 20 minutes. Perkins is now the full-time starter after missing nine games because of a sprained knee following his trade from Boston. * After losing a season-high five straight games, the Heat has won three in a row. Miami has defeated Los Angles, Memphis and San Antonio by an average of 23 points. * Thunder forward Serge Ibaka has tallied 15 blocked shots in the past two games. His two-game total is the franchise's most by a single player since Alton Lister in 1989.