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Are the Oklahoma City Thunder contenders now?

Feb 25, 2011, 12:07 PM EDT

Oklahoma City Thunder v Charlotte Bobcats Getty Images

Oklahoma City is your trade deadline winner.

Last season in the playoffs, the young and athletic Thunder tested the Lakers in the playoffs first round, but when push came to shove the Lakers shoved harder. They had Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol and the Thunder had no answer. Same thing when the two teams played a few weeks ago.

Now the Thunder have an answer.

A big answer. Kendrick Perkins, one of the most ferocious defenders in the paint the league has to offer. A shot blocker and good one-on-one post defender. A guy who will stand his ground. And he is backed up by Nazr Mohammed, so they Thunder bring a good defensive big off the bench, too. All that allows Nick Collison to play more four, where he will be more comfortable.

Combine that with the scoring you know you get from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and…

Are the Thunder title contenders?

Maybe. When a good team addresses its biggest deficiency, you have to take notice.

The key is if the arrival of Perkins sparks an overall defensive turnaround. Last season, while we were all being wowed by Durant and the Thunder offense, they were a solid defensive team. This season they are giving up 3.5 more points per 100 possessions than they did a year before as teams are shooting better and being forced into fewer turnovers. Not having a big man in the middle to protect the rim was an issue, but the Thunder didn’t have a rim-protecting big last season and did better on defense.

Plugging in Perkins and Mohammed alone will not be enough. The perimeter defense, the contesting of shots, the willingness to fight through picks has to improve also. Everything has to get better.

There are other questions. As ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz points out, Perkins has no shooting range. Having him in the game allows the big man from the other team to stay close to the rim and help defend better. Teams now will sag off the Thunder, clog the lane and dare them to beat them with the jumper

This move also comes with risks. One is Perkins knee, which is just 13 games off major surgery and already he has tweaked it again.

And there is the fact Perkins is a free agent this summer and could walk. Boston GM Danny Ainge seemed dismayed by what Perkins was asking in his next contract, so he decided to move him now. But most NBA players really only get one or two kicks at the can — the chance to get a contract that will set them up comfortably for life. In Perkins case maybe his family for generations. He gets one shot and he wants to go big, and you can’t fault him for that. This is his chance. And that may be too rich for Oklahoma City’s blood.

Whatever the outcome this was a brilliant move by Thunder GM Sam Presti. Jeff Green was going to make more than the Thunder wanted to pay him, so they shipped him out to fill their biggest need.

And if Perkins defensive energy becomes contagious, they may have a contender in Oklahoma City. And this trade will look even better.

  1. leearmon - Feb 25, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    Lets also not forget they still have Ibaka. Which gives OKC a formidable frontline when they need to have it out there in Perk, Ibaka, & Durant. I honestly don’t see how this trade isn’t a 100% success for the Thunder. They get tougher, more scoring punch off the bench (lets also not forget they got Nate Robinson too) while keeping their true “core” together. The Lakers biggest asset was and is their size. OKC possibly has their trump card now.

  2. chargerdillon - Feb 25, 2011 at 1:40 PM

    Perk was the defensive anchor of the Celtics and without him, they wont be more physical than the Magic or the Lakers.

    If you want to win in the NBA you need a dominant bigman and Perk may not be overly dominant but he makes the Thunder a lot closer to a contender and the Celtics a lot farthur away.

    Did Shaq get Lebron over the top? Do you think he’s going to be different with the Celtics now that they have to depend on him with a lack of youth on their bench.

    This did Orlando a bigger favor than any other team

    • passerby23 - Feb 25, 2011 at 6:18 PM

      “If you want to win in the NBA you need a dominant bigman.”

      Ask Michael Jordan how he did without a dominant big man. Ask John Stockton and Karl Malone how they did without a dominant big man. It certainly helps having one, but it’s not a prerequisite. It depends on the makeup of the team. Perkins is not and was not a dominant big man. He was tough, rugged, and hardworking – a great asset, but hardly dominant. The combination of Shaq, JO, and Krstic might be enough if healthy. Going forward, the Celtics have a brighter future.

      Plus, as I’ve mentioned on a few pages, with Daniels gone for the year, who exactly was going to back up Pierce in cases of foul trouble, fatigue, or injury? I think that need was much greater.

      • Kurt Helin - Feb 25, 2011 at 10:10 PM

        Times have changed in how they call touch fouls on the perimeter. Jordan and Stockton could grab guys, now a hand check is a foul. That changes the need for a big man on defense in the paint.

      • Kansachusetts - Feb 26, 2011 at 1:21 PM

        Dominance is in the eye of the beholder, and in the ring on the finger.

        Perk is a better defensive player than Dwight Howard. Howard gets his reputation for swatting shots. Perk earns his way by playing team defense and standing up to the likes of Howard and Bynum.

        Athleticism is not always a substitute for basketball IQ. Basketball IQ, in this case, includes the ability to play complex defense, to know how to move a big man away from his favored spots, and to know how to rotate as the second, third, or even fourth man on a play. Perk has that. That’s why he’s a “stealth” dominant player. The question for the Thunder will be: can they exploit Perk’s potential dominance, his ability to play team defense? Or will they expect him to just be a big body, disconnected from the rest of the team on defense?

        As a Celtics fan, I’m always appalled watching the West teams play no D. If the Thunder decide to actually play some D, the whole conference could change.

      • passerby23 - Feb 28, 2011 at 3:02 AM

        Michael Jordan was a 9-time first team NBA defensive player. John Stockton was a 5-time second team NBA defensive player. Sure, hand checks were more liberal in their day, but somehow I doubt all NBA-defensive players having the ability to hand check resulted in their deep playoff runs year after year. Jordan was a lockdown defender. Is that the same reason the 1993 Phoenix Suns were two games away from a championship – because KJ and Majerle were able to grab and hold guys on the perimeter (en route to beating a dominant centre in David Robinson)? Or, why the Sonics got to the Finals in 1996 with Jim McIlvane at centre? Or, the Knicks in 1999? Many teams make successful pushes despite not having a dominant big man. I find it hard to believe that can be solely chalked up to changes in hand check calls.

        The bruising Knicks teams of the ’90s who grabbed, held, pushed, and shoved everyone in their path WITH a dominant centre couldn’t win a championship.

  3. Chris Ross - Feb 25, 2011 at 2:52 PM

    I think this makes them legitimate contenders becuase what was lacking on their team was a defensive presence. Serge Ibaka is still a little raw and Kristic just isn’t tough enough on the inside. It’s going to be interesting to see this team play now and how they roll on offence without Jeff Green. NBA trade deadline <3

  4. musilly - Feb 25, 2011 at 5:11 PM

    Meta-comment: I just wanted to say that the new comment rating system is great. Ever since the move, the comments on this site got a whole lot better. You may now proceed to thumb this down.

  5. dysraw1 - Feb 25, 2011 at 10:08 PM

    sure they r

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