Kendrick Perkins has been a divisive figure for almost his entire career. His snarling on-court demeanor, flush with hard fouls and starting passive-aggressive pseudo-fights, brought him flack when even he was an up-and-comer with Doc Rivers' Celtics teams more than a decade ago. When he was shipped to Oklahoma City in 2010 and signed a lucrative extension (four years, $36 million) shortly thereafter, he drew the ire of many NBA observers for failing to match his outsized salary with on-court production, particularly on offense.
One thing that has always been difficult to deny, even among Perkins' sharpest critics, was his defensive proficiency while he was in his prime. He was a major part of top-10 defenses in five different seasons (2007-08 through 2009-10 with Boston, and 2011-12 through 2012-13 with OKC). The 6'10" center from Beaumont, Texas played well on his teams' biggest stages, as no Boston player had a better Net Rating during the 2008 or 2010 playoff runs than Perkins. He helped the Celtics to a title in 2008, and if it hadn't been for a significant knee injury he suffered in Game 6 of the 2010 Finals, Boston likely would've brought home another.
In the midst of a mostly lost 2010-11 season (due to the aforementioned knee trouble), Kendrick, along with Nate Robinson, was traded to Oklahoma City in exchange for Jeff Green. His effectiveness began to dwindle. During the 2011 postseason, the Thunder were 5.5 points better per 100 possessions when Perkins was on the bench. In the Thunder's run to the 2012 Finals, that figure was 2.8 points. He was no longer a defensive stalwart, as his on/off defensive splits were positive, but only slightly, and his already suspect offensive game got worse. In his Boston career, he'd shot better than 56 percent from the floor. In Oklahoma City, that number dipped to 46 percent.
Everything came to a head during the 2013-14 regular season. By this time, head coach Scott Brooks was being routinely chided by observers for his obtuse devotion to keeping Perkins in the starting lineup, despite the fact that OKC often appeared to be playing four-on-five on offense when he was out there. But during the postseason, Perkins' presence on the floor was mostly a positive one, as the team was nearly four points better per 100 possessions when he was checked in. If it hadn't been for a stroke of bad injury luck (losing Serge Ibaka for two games during the Western Conference Finals), it is possible Perkins could've made Finals appearance number four, all before his 30th birthday.
Perkins continued to play well for Oklahoma City early this season. Once the team got through their nasty 3-12 start, they were nearly four points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor. The lion's share of his 981 minutes with the Thunder came without Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to pull him along to favorable (or misleading) numbers:
Perkins helped anchor the Thunder's bench unit, allowing a very respectable 45.5 percent shooting at the rim while rebounding and blocking shots at a higher rate than he had since arriving from Boston. Was he a $9 million player? Certainly not, but he helped his team stay afloat in the loaded Western Conference while Kevin Durant missed extensive time and multiple teammates sat with various injuries.
When the deadline rolled around, however, Perkins found himself as the odd man out in a deep frontcourt rotation that included Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and the emerging Mitch McGary. The Thunder used his salary (and a first-round pick) to acquire Enes Kanter, a 22-year-old center who has yet to tap into his vast potential, from the Utah Jazz. Since the Jazz were interested in buying Perkins out rather than retaining his services, it left the big man in a rather advantageous position; he was suddenly a sought-after free agent, and had his pick between joining Cleveland, Chicago or the Los Angeles Clippers.
Of course, we all know that he ultimately decided to team up with LeBron, Kyrie, K-Love and the rest of the gang in Cleveland, making his debut on February 24th versus Detroit.
Since then, everything has gone to hell for Kendrick Perkins.*
The Cavaliers are 29.3 points per 100 possessions worse when he's on the floor. Perkins commits a turnover on nearly one-third of the possessions he uses. He has logged 62 frontcourt touches since becoming a Cav, and committed 13 turnovers, or once every 4.8 touches, nearly double what his rate was in OKC. He's allowing opponents to shoot 52 percent at the rim, seven points higher than he was with the Thunder. He's blocked just two shots in 87 minutes on the court. He has nearly twice as many personal fouls (18) as field goals (10). He's sporting a 2.1 PER.
In a word, he's been abysmal. While he's primarily spent time with the second unit in blowout victories (the Cavs are 9-3 when Perkins appears, and in those nine wins, their average margin is +19.3), which means a whole lot of Matthew Dellavedova, James Jones and Mike Miller, it's not as if he's been particularly good even when he gets the opportunity to share the floor with LeBron, Irving, Thompson or Love:
When the news broke that Perkins was joining the Cavaliers, most fans reacted happily (read the comments section here, or search Twitter, or believe me when I tell you that the Fear the Sword email thread was full of positive energy on that day). Since he's had such a rough go of it, the general vibe now seems to be "I knew he was a bum all along, I can't believe we got excited about him in the first place."
But as I attempted to show above, Perkins wasn't exactly a bum, and at $434,000 for the remainder of the season, he was a great value pickup for what he seemed to be: a capable fourth big who could provide toughness (read also: six hard fouls) off the bench. Since Lou Amundson and Alex Kirk couldn't stick, Anderson Varejao is hurt and David Blatt would rather cut off a limb than play Brendan Haywood (or so it seems), the Cavaliers were happy to plop down less than half a million bucks for an experienced backup center who was contributing to a winning team. It just really, really hasn't worked out. At all.
Cleveland's coaching staff still has a couple of weeks to see if Perkins can turn it around, and if he doesn't, there's almost zero chance he'll see the floor in the postseason... unless, of course, the injury bug bites Love, Tristan or Mozgov. (But let's not think about that.) It's hard to pinpoint why, exactly, Perkins has been so bad, but suffice it to say, he hasn't adapted to his change of scenery. Plus, it isn't as though the free agent big man market was teeming with savory alternatives (Jermaine O'Neal, Hilton Armstrong or Byron Mullens, anyone?) to acquire instead.
The Cavs have to hope Perkins can figure things out and provide something, even if it's only in a worst-case scenario situation. Just about every coach in the league would tell you that it's nice to have a tough big man who can come in and be an enforcer. The caveat, of course, is that you have to be an adequate enough basketball player to actually stay on the floor.
Right now, Kendrick Perkins just isn't it.
*Note: all statistics current as of March 28th, 2015.