The Oklahoma City Thunder have dropped three straight games after the All-Star break, all at home, marking the first three-game home losing streak for the Thunder since 2009. A lot of the focus is on the return of Russell Westbrook to the starting lineup, but he is not the problem. In the 25 games Westbrook played before needing knee surgery the Thunder were 21-4 when he played. The three-game losing streak is not his fault. The reason why the Thunder are struggling is because Kendrick Perkins is out. Perkins was injured in the first quarter of the game against the Miami Heat — he will likely be out for six weeks — and the Thunder have not been the same without him.
I can’t believe I just typed that last sentence. Perkins has been regarded as a below-average player ever since leaving the Boston Celtics three seasons ago. He spends most of his minutes on the court with Kevin Durant, so his on-court/off-court splits aren’t too bad, but any individual metric like PER has Perkins at the bottom of the league. This season Perkins is ranked as the sixth worst player in the league based on his 6.17 PER and is the worst of any player who has played more than 40 games. The PER is set so that the average NBA player for any given season is at 15; that means Perkins’ effect on a game isn’t even half as good as an average NBA player.
It is hard to argue against numbers like that or the fact that Oklahoma City is plus-7.9 points per-100 possessions better with Perkins on the bench, but he somehow has a positive influence on this team. In the three games since Perkins got injured, the Thunder have a defensive rating of 114; that is 14 points per-100 possessions worse than their season rating of 100. Even the offense has slipped; they have gone from an offensive rating of 107.2 on the season to 100 in the last three games, which is crazy considering Perkins only averages 3.4 points per game.
The Thunder have not had an easy schedule out of the All-Star break, having to play the Heat and Los Angeles Clippers in their first two games, but last night they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers 114-104 after surrendering 42 fourth quarter points. With games against the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks in the next two weeks, the Thunder better learn to play without Perkins or there will be plenty more losses on the way.
My only guess as to why the Thunder have struggled is that the trio of Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison have been together so long now that they each have a comfort zone with their positions in the rotation, and without Perkins there has been a wrench thrown in their rotation. In the absence of Perkins, rookie Steven Adams has stepped in and played at the same level, but the continuity isn’t there and it shows on the defensive end. Adams is averaging less points, rebounds and blocks per game than his season averages even though he is starting.
The rotation in Oklahoma City has not been ruined with the return of Russell Westbrook. A player of his caliber can be plugged into any team and make them instantly better; he just needs to get healthier to be more of an impact, but he has not messed with this team’s chemistry. Losing a significant role player like Perkins has caused Adams to play a role he isn’t comfortable with, and the Thunder have no one to fill Adams’ former role. The domino effect of the Perkins injury is what’s hurting the Thunder, and if they can’t figure out how to fix it soon, the next domino to fall will be their hold on the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.