Apr 26 2013 10:58AM

How The Thunder Drowns Out The Noise


Christian Petersen/NBAE/Getty Images

I am not the biggest Kendrick Perkins fan.

I do not dislike Perk.

I just think--like a lot of other advanced stats people--the Oklahoma City Thunder would be better served playing Kevin Durant more at the 4, while Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison played the 5 spot for most of the game.

I would value Perkins on my squad, especially when matched against teams with scoring centers (Spurs, Lakers, Grizzlies), but I probably wouldn't play him 25 minutes per game over the course of a regular season like Coach Scotty Brooks does.

That said, I admire Brooks' approach to sticking with the same five-man starting lineup for three seasons now, ever since OKC acquired Perk in February 2011.

I admire the fact Coach Brooks ignores the noise and stays loyal to his Thunder core: Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Thabo Sefolosha, Russell Westbrook, along with his sixth men (James Harden in the past; Kevin Martin now) and seventh man off the bench (Nick Collison).

That foundational belief in developing chemistry is probably how the Thunder can trade an emerging superstar to Houston and still improve as a team, record-wise, for the fourth straight season.

There is no doubt the Thunder's time together as a unit helped Perkins-Ibaka-Durant-Sefolosha-Westbrook grow as a starting five-man crew.

In 2010-11, this Thunder 5 had a good +5.3 net rating in only 271 minutes together, which is a relatively low number for a starting core since Perkins was acquired in a mid-season deal. This unit underachieved in the 2011 NBA Playoffs, posting a -7.2 net rating in 228 minutes together.

In 2011-12, this Thunder 5 had a good +7.6 net rating in 664 minutes together, which ranked fourth among the league's 10 most popular units. In the 2012 NBA Playoffs, however, this unit came up short again, with a -4.9 net rating in an NBA-high 264 minutes together.

In 2012-13, this Thunder 5 had a great +12.3 net rating in an NBA-high 1307 minutes together, which was tops among the league's 10 most popular units. And in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, they stand as the top quintet after two games, posting a +36.8 net rating in an NBA-high 38 minutes together. None of the 23 teams with combos logging more than a dozen minutes together have a net rating as high.

So it is understandable for people to question Brooks for taking the same approach in these playoffs as he did in 2012 and 2011. Only thing is, in the first two games, this unit has played great against Houston.

Many people are praising the Houston Rockets today--and rightfully so--for going entirely with a small-ball lineup in Game 2 to--in Rockets GM Daryl Morey's words--"increase the variance." Houston only lost by 3 points while playing 48 minutes of small-ball in Game 2, which is a big improvement after getting blown out by 29 with big lineups playing 19 minutes together in Game 1.

But where folks err in criticizing the Thunder's stubbornness for playing big-man lineups is saying that it allowed the Rockets to go on a 21-2 run that got Houston back into the game in the fourth quarter.

Perkins wasn't playing for most of that Houston comeback.

The Thunder was countering Houston's small-ball lineup (Patrick Beverley, Harden, Carlos Delfino, Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik) with a small-ball unit of its own (Westbrook, Martin, Reggie Jackson, Durant and Collison, with Sefolosha and Ibaka replacing Jax and Collison in the midst of that run).

It wasn't until Houston cut 15 points off the lead to tie the game at 91 that Perkins finally re-entered and helped the Thunder later get back on track.

Perkins finished the game with a strong +8 plus-minus score in 29 minutes Thursday.

He was far from the problem.

That is not to say I have changed my mind in thinking OKC's best lineups would feature the small-ball core of Westbrook, Martin, Sefolosha, Durant and either Ibaka or Collison at the 5 (the Ibaka lineup has a +10.5 in 135 minutes in 2012-13, while the Collison lineup has a +19.8 net rating in 91 minutes together).

I am just saying, Do not fully discount the equity built up by these five men over the past three seasons.

Perkins is one of the leaders. And Brooks will make sure a leader like Perk stays as invested in this team as anyone.