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Should the Thunder amnesty Kendrick Perkins?

Should the Thunder amnesty Kendrick Perkins?
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When the Thunder’s season ended in Oklahoma City on Wednesday night, fans chanted “O-K-C! O-K-C!” as players walked off the floor.

But as one clever person tweeted at me, he thought they were chanting “Am-ne-sty! Am-ne-sty!”

The Thunder’s big offseason question, other than what happens with Kevin Martin, is if they should use their amnesty provision on Kendrick Perkins. Perk was asked yesterday about his future with the Thunder and he said it this way: “I’m pretty sure I’ll be back next year.” And I agree with him. Here’s why, and it has less to do with Perk as a player and more about the simple economics: It doesn’t make sense. When has the Thunder done anything that didn’t at least make some rational sense? (Don’t say say drafting Byron Mullens and don’t say signing Perk to an extension sight-unseen.)

But it doesn’t make sense because of the money, and because it doesn’t really fix anything.

(A refresh for those that don’t know what exactly the amnesty clause is than that thing your boyfriend is always yelling at the TV when Perk sets an illegal screen. It’s a one-time get-out-of-jail-not-free-at-all device that allows a team to cut a player, while still having to pay out his remaining contract. The reason you do it though is because the player’s contract comes off your cap number, thus freeing you to sign someone else or avoid the luxury tax. For a player to be eligible, he has to have been on your roster when the new CBA was signed.)

I already linked it in today’s Bolts but a reader sent an email to Berry Tramel giving a pretty ideal explanation as to why it doesn’t make a lot of sense. To the blockquote:

But the Thunder would not create any room under the cap by waiving Perkins. And Perkins is far from a questionable character (he’s welcome at my dinner table anytime). And while overcompensated for his skill at this point, he’s nowhere near the stage of a Baron Davis or Darko Milicic. So that leaves the question of tax savings.
Let’s assume (though we can never know, can we?) that the Thunder don’t do anything wild between now and after the draft. They could find themselves mildly in tax territory just by drafting with the picks they will have. Even if they wound up, say, $4 million over the tax line (a very high estimate), that would be a tax of $6 million. Does it make sense to spend $9 million (in Year 1 and over $18 million overall) to save $6 million? I’d have a hard time justifying that.
Only they wouldn’t really save that. It stands to reason that OKC would need to sign someone to replace him. The Thunder could always adopt a smaller starting lineup next season by moving Ibaka to the 5 (center) and KD to the 4 (power forward), but that’s going to require either a new coach or a major philosophical programming change in Scott Brooks.
So who’s going to be available this summer in terms of a true center? Let’s logically eliminate Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Nik Pekovic. That leaves folks like Zaza Pachulia. Old friend Byron Mullins. Chris Kaman. Timofey Mozgov (an admittedly intriguing idea a year ago). Tiago Splitter. That’s about it before you start moving from questionable ideas to very questionable ideas. Do any of those ideas move the needle at all? And if you do that, now you’re spending $13-$15 million on the center position next season with little to no improvement over what you would have had.

So that’s really well put. One little addendum though: If you amnesty a player, he goes on waivers. If someone were stupid enough to fully claim him, then that team would be on the hook for that $18 million Perk is owed, and the Thunder would no longer be. The likely thing is someone puts in a partial claim, basically a bid. Say it was for $4 million for one year. The Thunder would still be on the hook for about $15 million. Basically, the Thunder would have to owe the remainder of Perk’s contract, minus what his new team is paying him. So it’s not likely to actually be the full $18 million. Got it?

If the Thunder cut Perk, they’ll have to replace him. It’s a chic thing to say the Thunder “need a post presence,” and while everyone in the league would like the best possible players at each position, the Thunder’s offense was pretty darn good as assembled this season. So you have to ask yourself: What’s better that’s currently available? If you genuinely think Zaza Pachulia or Johan Petro is, then you’ve gone so far in your Perk hate that you can’t be saved.

But the overreaching point is that the Thunder would be paying money for someone to go away. Which is obviously in contrast of the culture and philosophy of the organization. We’ve seen it with James Harden and Eric Maynor and others — Presti doesn’t like for a player to walk for nothing. And in this case, the player wouldn’t only be walking for nothing, you’d be paying him to walk.

(Sidebar I want to stress: There’s this myth that not amnestying Perk had some kind of impact on the Thunder not re-signing James Harden. That’s one of the most incorrect and misunderstood things passed around and dropped in columns and blog posts everywhere. Amnestying Perk last summer had zero impact on Harden’s extension. Because while using the amnesty on Perk would’ve helped alleviate tax concerns, it wouldn’t have mattered one bit this season. Because Harden’s extension doesn’t start until the 2013-14 season. So like Ibaka this season, Harden was still playing under his rookie scale deal, which means Perk’s contract had zero impact. Can you be sure to pass this around to everyone you know so that we can put an end to this?)

So what are the Thunder’s options with Perk? I see five:

1) Trade him. But if the Thunder are so desperate to be rid of him, who really would want him? Plus, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but he’s owed close to $19 million over the next two seasons. And no, a traded player cannot be amnestied. So if the Thunder were going to deal Perk, it would have to be part of a larger deal, either with a draft pick or a young player like Jeremy Lamb or Perry Jones. Is it worth giving up that just to dump Perk off? It would be if the deal involved a good replacement big, but what really is there? And don’t say Gortat.

2) Bench him. Give him the Andris Biedrins treatment. The Warriors signed Biedrins to a pretty terrible extension (six years, $63 million) and after recognizing he’s kind of a horrible player, they just decided to not multiply the problem by playing him. Here’s the thing with this option though: Though some don’t want to believe it, especially right now, Perk is a much better player than Biedrins.

3) Adjust the philosophy. Use Perk as a well paid specialist. You’ve got to play him some to keep him in shape, but don’t get completely married to him in the starting five every night and playing 25 minutes a game. The NBA is going small and fast more and interior post defenders aren’t near as valuable as they were even four years ago. The Thunder could play Serge Ibaka at center, Durant at power forward and live with that a whole lot more.

4) Stick with the same thing. Brooks is famously stubborn so prepare yourself for 82 more games of grumbling. But here’s the thing with Perk: As the Thunder’s starting center, OKC won 60 games and finished with the second best offense and fourth best defense in the league. If he’s as terrible as some say, would that have really been possible with him playing 25 minutes a game? And don’t forget this part of it: Everyone’s yelling at Perk as if he’s the reason the Thunder failed in the second round of the playoffs. I’m sorry, was he the one that tore Russell Westbrook’s meniscus? I forget. Things are viewed in a much different lens had the Thunder been healthy this postseason and were currently storming their way back to the Finals. There would still be Perk gripes, but his deficiencies, especially those on the offensive end, wouldn’t be near as exposed.

5) Use the lottery pick on a big man and start grooming him as Perk’s replacement in two years. Rudy Gobert, Gorgui Dieng, Kelly Olynyk, Cody Zeller, Mason Cole Aldrich Plumlee — there are some decent options.

Perk said yesterday that Russ “gives everybody swag,” including Scott Brooks, KD and himself. Check this: In the regular season, Perk only averaged 1.6 minutes per game without Westbrook on the floor, 24.6 with him on the floor. And with Westbrook on the floor with him, Perk was an average +10.1 per 100 possessions. So in a lot of ways, Westbrook did give Perk his swagger, or at least, helped him look better. That’s called being part of a team.

Again, Perk’s postseason was really bad. Historically so. He bumbled, he stumbled, he did horrible things. He couldn’t finish simple plays, he didn’t do what he’s paid to do (defend an elite big guy) and he sure didn’t rebound. The Thunder were better off tying him to the Gatorade bucket than letting him on the floor. He’s paid to defend big guys and he didn’t do anything, outside of Game 1, to slow down Marc Gasol. Can’t defend that, even a little bit.

Though I will add this: The PER number everyone is throwing around is a bit skewed from how bad that Houston series was in terms of matchup. He had no one to guard and the game was so spread that he really had no business ever being on the floor. That’s not really his fault, though. That’s more on Scott Brooks. You can’t tell your dog to cook you dinner and yell at him when he can’t. Perk is like Liam Neeson, except not really — he has a very particular set of skills. Problem is, in the current NBA world, those skills are becoming less and less valuable. When Perk was acquired, the Lakers were just coming off a title where their twin towers and the Triangle had led the way. OKC was eliminated at the hands of it. So with that power structure set up, it was obvious OKC needed something to defend the Lakers and their Triangle.

But I don’t think the Perk that Presti signed to an extension is the Perk that Presti thought he was signing. The Perk he signed was one coming off a serious ACL injury, but one that in the year previous had averaged 10.1 points and 7.6 rebounds, and had led the league in dunks. Perk battled injury last postseason with a torn groin and a ripped up wrist. Good excuses for him. This postseason, he was healthy. If I were him, I’d undergo back surgery or something tomorrow just for PR’s sake.

I think the move for the Thunder is to keep Perk, but adjust the philosophy, while grooming his future replacement. It’s hard not to be a prisoner of the moment with the recent images of Perk dropping rebounds and throwing away inbounds passes, but he played some pretty good games this season. Remember his February and March? He was really productive and played very nice defense. Statistically speaking per Synergy (which isn’t the end-all, by any stretch), Perk had defensive numbers on par with Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. He’s a tremendous screener and brings a spirit to the team that I think really strengthens them.

People love to scream “amnesty Perk!” because he’s an easy target and it feels good to pin problems there. I think a lot of the people that yell for the amnesty don’t really understand what it even means, or what would happen because of it. It’s like Brick in Anchorman. It’s not simply cutting a guy without repercussion. It’s a move that can be helpful, but isn’t really to be done just because you think a player is bad. There are a lot more factors to it.

It isn’t a popular opinion among frustrated Thunder fans right now, I realize. And I know that some are going to characterize this as a defense of Perk. I absolutely love the guy, and I still think he helps a healthy Thunder team. He’s got his drawbacks, he was a major disappointment in the playoffs and he does bad things that make you want to jump in the ocean wearing a swimsuit made of chum.

But like the man himself said, I don’t think he’s going anywhere soon.