The Case for Kendrick Perkins
*Photo via Getty Images
The NBA Free Agency whirlwind is coming to a merciful close. All the big-name stars have decided where they will play next season – some even decided twice. However, the DeAndre Jordan fiasco, for all its emoji-filled madness, may not have even been the craziest thing to happen during the moratorium. On July 1st, RealGM shocked the Twitter-sphere by reporting that Kendrick Perkins, the NBA’s answer to Homer Simpson, was drawing interest from the Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans and New York Knicks. Shortly thereafter, NBC Sports reported that Doc Rivers and the L.A. Clippers were interested in signing Perk. If you’re counting at home, that means three legitimate NBA teams plus the Knicks are considering paying Perkins money to suit up next season – and that’s if the Cavs choose not to re-sign. This is shocking, right? Perkins is a member of the dying breed of slow-footed centers who cannot operate in a pick and roll-centric league or play above the rim on either side of the ball. Wasn’t “small ball” supposed to be the six-mile long asteroid that wiped out these dinosaurs for good? To understand Perkins’ value, we must first understand why he is widely considered to be one of the worst players in the league.
There is no doubt if you have even casually followed the NBA recently, you have been bombarded by new statistics attempting to measure player “efficiency” while adjusting for all sorts of variables. Welcome to the Post-Analytics NBA where front office executives and fans alike have access to unlimited data. Since 2013, SportVU cameras (which are now installed in each NBA arena and are expanding to college arenas as we speak) can track player and ball movements at a rate of 25 frames per second, resulting in a surplus of information.
The mere fact that analytics now exist means one inevitable truth: the mainstream media (and general public at large) will have ardent opinions, both educated and otherwise. The arguments for and against analytics usually fall into one of two camps:
A. The Moreyball Approach
Rockets GM Daryl Morey has become the poster child for analytics due to his outspoken and unwavering belief in their value. Morey and his coterie of math-loving cronies (we’ll call them “Stat Brats”) have largely turned talent scouting and evaluation into a series math formulas. Critics of Stat Brats would call them vertically challenged dorks who have spent more time playing around in Excel than on a basketball court. A pick-up game may look like this:
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll have analysts like Sir Charles in the video above, who claim that the NBA is all about talent. From this perspective, you’ll hear about the NBA being “a player’s league” and that a player needs only to pass the arcane “eye test,” a power only bestowed upon a lucky few. Those who eschew analytics will typically boast about their “old-school” approach to the game and then make some dated reference to how Bird and Magic used to play (read: Byron Scott).
As with most things in life, the answer lies somewhere in the middle: a balance between using traditional talent scouting and sifting through limitless data points to understand what is actually useful. While proper utility of analytics can provide enormous value to an organization, they fail to tell the whole story. That is why I’ve decided to take the most universally maligned player in the analytics era and answer the simple question: why is he getting paid large sums of money to play basketball? Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you The Case for Kendrick Perkins.
Numbers Notoriety (Regular Season)
6th worst Player Efficiency Rating among qualified players (per Hollinger’s Statistics on ESPN.com)
5th worst Value Added (Hollinger)
16th worst Player Impact Rating among players who appeared in at least 40 games (NBA.com)
425th in Wins Above Replacement (NBA.com)
396th in Real Plus-Minus (NBA.com)
$434,547 paid to Perkins this season to add to his Will Ferrell-esque Best Of Compilation on Shaqtin’ A Fool
9 steps taken during this travel
This could easily turn into a slew of embarrassing Kendrick Perkins GIFs; however, I’m not about to let that happen…yet (scroll to the end if that’s what you’re looking for). The first question that needs answering is why would LeBron James, perhaps the smartest basketball player on the planet, recruit Perkins for his mulligan attempt to bring a championship to Cleveland? James and Perkins share a long history from being high school AAU teammates to competing as Eastern Conference rivals while Perkins was in Boston, to the 2012 NBA Finals when Perkins was a member of the Thunder. James has enough of a sample size to know what kind of player Perkins is and what he brings to the table. Bill Simmons has his “10 Percent Theory” that states:
“Even the best NBA players have holes; in a best-case scenario, they’re tapping into about 90 percent of their total potential, with the holes representing the other 10 percent. We can either dwell on the 90 percent or the 10 percent … and some holes are less glaring than others.”
What if the inverse is true for the NBA’s worst players? 90% of Perkins’ game is flawed, but that 10% represents a Liam Neeson-like very specific set of skills that are so rare and valuable in today’s NBA that you’ll put up with the overall basketball atrocity that is Kendrick Perkins. Two of those skills are often used as buzzwords when evaluating veteran players, but nowhere are they more evident than with Perk: on-court toughness and locker room presence.
Two of the tangible measures of toughness in the NBA are defense and rebounding. This is where it’s important to note that not ALL advanced stats depict Perkins as incompetent. Per Nylon Calculus, Perkins is actually a plus rim protector, when measuring the number of points saved per 36 minutes given the number of shots they contest at the rim. This ranks Perk just one spot below Dwight Howard and ahead of DPOY third runner-up DeAndre Jordan.
Additionally, Perkins is a top 15 rim protector in terms of opponents’ field goal percentage per NBA.com (among players who have defended at least 4 field goal attempts per game and played in at least half their team’s games) ranking above defensive stalwarts John Henson, Tim Duncan (blasphemy) and DPOY runner-up Draymond Green.
In addition to protecting the paint, Perkins is also an average to above-average rebounder in traffic with a contested rebounding percentage of 41.6% per NBA.com. This figure ranks ahead of fellow tough guy Zach Randolph and All Stars Paul Millsap and Demarcus Cousins.
A third way to look at toughness, is less analytical, but just as beneficial come playoff time: the ability to administer hard fouls when necessary. Since Perkins presence on the court is not required for the Cavs to be successful, he can really make the most out of all six of his allotted fouls. Perkins is a message sender and he doesn’t care who the recipient is. Watch below as Perk responds to Kelly Olynyk’s season ending foul on Kevin Love by “setting a screen” on Jae Crowder:
In the playoffs, you need a mean streak and a willingness to show the other team that they are going to have to earn every bucket. Watch below as Tony Parker turns into a Beetle Bailey cartoon attempting to drive on Perk:
Perk knows how to toe the line between hard foul, flagrant 1 and flagrant 2, but he’s willing to dole out whatever is necessary depending on the circumstances. Watch as Perkins completely takes Mike Miller out of this play by physically sitting and reclining on the fallen defender:
Perk knows exactly how long he can get away with using Miller as a La-Z-Boy before the profoundly befuddled referee will blow the whistle. What a wily veteran move – in the playoffs no less! Though the above example is a silly one, it is indicative of the kinds of tricks of the trade that Perkins has picked up over his years playing with winners like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Derek Fisher (player, not coach).
Locker room presence
Arguably Perkins’ most valuable asset is his locker room presence. Before each game, Perkins gives LeBron a pep talk to remind him of his unparalleled greatness. Perkins knows his role as the motivator and he helps his team come out with a fire and passion every night, even when he is not on the floor. Perkins allows for this Cavs team to play with an air of confidence and swagger, knowing that The Enforcer will have their back. It’s like when you and your buddies act a little more obnoxious than usual at the bar when your biggest friend is there with you.
On top of that, it turns out that Perk is apparently a pleasant and funny person to be around! NESN reported that even po-faced Kevin Love is amused by Perkins’ antics:
“Perk is hilarious. That’s something outsiders don’t understand. He is a pro. He is very serious, even in shootarounds he finds an excuse to hit you…He’s maybe, by a mile, the funniest guy on the team. He’s great.”
So no, Kendrick Perkins is not advanced analytics darling Anthony Davis, but he can still play an important part in an NBA team’s championship run when experience, toughness, and leadership are valued at a premium. The lesson is that even in today’s NBA where technology allows us to know virtually everything that happens between the lines, advanced metrics will never be able to fully capture the value added in the trenches and behind the scenes.
Now, as promised, back to your regularly scheduled program:
One more for good measure.