We got attached.
And then suddenly Kendrick Perkins — our big, lovable, lunch-pail-toting center — was gone. His replacement, Nenad Krstic, gets dunked on a lot. Suddenly the Celtics are losing. We aren’t tough anymore. Our brilliant general manager has somehow been duped.
The paragraph above hyperbolizes the sentiments of a large percentage of Celtics fans who seem to think the Perkins trade was a disaster. In a recent Boston.com survey, 40 percent of you are genuinely worried about this team. Callers to both sports talk radio stations in town frequently suggest that the Celtics’ title hopes this season ended when Danny Ainge let Perk go.
On the surface, the Celtics’ recent play backs up that concern. The Celtics have gone 11-8 in their last 19 games (they’re 13-8 since dealing Perkins) after starting the season with the Eastern Conference’s best record at 43-15. During that time they went from first to third in the East. They’re now in a battle with Miami for the No. 2 seed, while the No. 1 seed and overall homecourt advantage seems to be out of reach.
One thing that happens when a team makes a trade is that, right there, you’ve given fans a built-in excuse. Krstic gets dunked on? Bad trade. Jeff Green misses a few shots? Bad trade. You lose a few games? It’s the trade! Perkins was dunked on plenty during his time here (gasp), but no one tried to draw conclusions from it. He was one of us. He won a title here so he got a pass.
The current Celtics deserve a pass, but for some reason they aren’t getting it from the majority of fans and media. March NBA games are an unfair sampling in which to pass judgment on a team. It’s certainly an unfair sampling to pass judgment on Green, Krstic, Troy Murphy, Carlos Arroyo, and the rest of Boston’s deadline acquisitions. This is a team that’s been to the Finals twice in the last three years. They’ve never missed the Finals with a healthy Kevin Garnett. They closed last season with a 27-27 record in their last 54 games and made it to Game 7. Are any Celtics fans really doubting the Lakers this year after Los Angeles’s up-and-down season? Why do those same fans judge their own team more harshly?
The Celtics went 9-7 in the month of March, but offense, not defense, was the problem. The Celtics did not struggle in March because they missed Perkins’s career average of 6.1 points per game. They did not — as some have suggested — struggle because Perkins set great screens, and without him Celtics shooters were having a hard time getting open. The offense will come in the postseason. With Green and Delonte West coming off the bench, the Celtics may have more ways to score than ever.
The C’s remain the best defensive team in the NBA this season, holding opponents to 90.79 points per game. They’ve maintained that average with Perkins missing all but 12 of Boston’s games. Don’t you think we might be trying a little to hard to pin something on a player who barely contributed to the team this year?
In other words, perception, not facts, was driving much of the conversation surrounding the trade. The deal felt worse for everyone involved in part because Perkins was such a stand-up guy. Having covered the team in five of Perk’s eight years in Boston, there wasn’t a nicer guy to be around in the league. Perk balanced his good temperment off the court with his trademark scowl on it. He looked tough. Krstic, on the other hand, did not pass the initial eye test, and when DeAndre Jordan put up a dunk-contest-worthy performance in a Clippers win in Boston, people panicked. Oh my god our defense is gone.
It wasn’t true. If you look at the numbers, the Celtics’ defense never left. Perkins may be gone, but so were Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal, players the Celtics plan to lean on in the playoffs as much as Krstic. Jermaine O’Neal is back, and if he and Shaq can get right for the playoffs — admittedly no sure thing — they’ll take Krstic out of a lot of the situations he was forced into shortly after the trade. That trio has 18 fouls between them to give. O’Neal (photo above) has shown a propensity to mix it up. You want a tough guy enforcer? Why not him? Are teams going to mess with the Celtics physically with Shaq and Glen Davis on the floor?
Using stats to measure Perkins’s value doesn’t tell the whole story, but they’re a part of the conversation. A popular rebuttal to those who pray at the Altar Of Perk is that Perk isn’t Bill Russell. Granted. But he’s not Andrew Bynum — or even Emeka Okafor, either. In 2007-08, the year the Celtics won the title, Perkins averaged 6.9 points and 6.1 rebounds in fewer than 25 minutes per game. His numbers were similar in 25 playoff games. Perk’s numbers improved the following two regular seasons, to the point where he was averaging 10.1 points and 7.6 rebounds last season before he got hurt in the playoffs.
All of that would be fine if Perkins didn’t regress offensively toward the end of last season, leading Doc Rivers to comment on Perk’s regression several times as the playoffs approached. Rivers said the coaching staff was baffled that Perkins had reverted back to his old habit of bringing the ball down and gathering himself before going up with a shot. For big men, that’s offensive no-no No. 1. For a player in his eighth NBA season, it was alarming.
For that reason, the Celtics have used a small lineup featuring Glen Davis at center to close out games for the last few years. But it wasn’t just end-of-game situations where the Celtics went away from Perkins. The playoff minutes doled out to Rasheed Wallace — who Celtics fans universally panned after last season — show just how much the Celtics felt Perkins limited their offense. Wallace played 17 minutes per game in the postseason to Perkins’s 25 and averaged more points. Perkins’ absence was (again) a convenient excuse for Boston’s loss to the Lakers in Game 7, but Garnett’s health is conveniently ignored in that argument. If Garnett — who wasn’t himself the entire season — doesn’t get outrebounded 18-3 by Pau Gasol in that game, the Celtics win.
Perkins took his tough-guy persona and good reputation with him to Oklahoma City and promptly signed a contract extension. In 12 games with the Thunder Perkins is averaging 5.7 points and 8.2 rebounds. Again, Celtics fans don’t miss the points and rebounds, but the extension doesn’t help the perception that the C’s let someone important get away. One of the problems with letting Perkins go is that Celtics players, coaches, and management were too enamored with Perk as a person to bash him on his way out of town. Perkins deserved to be treated well, but in that process the team lost the PR battle on the deal. Perk had flaws, but you wouldn’t know it by talking to his teammates. The Red Sox bashed Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez on their way out of town — players with much more talent who meant much more to their team than Perkins. It’s a sad part of the business, but it’s the way things are usually done.
The surest way for Ainge to be proven right is for the Celtics to win a title this season, while an early playoff exit will affirm everything Ainge’s detractors believe. That shouldn’t be so. The Celtics won the title in 2008 with Perkins averaging 25 minutes per in 25 playoff games, but Perk’s minutes declined as the playoffs went on. In the Finals, against a Lakers team known for it’s size, P.J. Brown played more minutes than Perkins in 4 of 6 games (Perkins missed Game 5 with a left shoulder strain).
Perk’s importance is often talked about in the context of guarding Orlando’s Dwight Howard, but the presence of Perkins wasn’t the deciding factor in last season’s playoff win over Orlando, either. Howard torched the Celtics for 30 points in Game 2, a game in which the Celtics won. Howard scored 32 points on Perkins in Orlando’s win in Game 4, and the Celtics eventually won the series after Perkins was ejected in Game 5 and Howard scored 28 points in Game 6, won by the Celtics. It’s nice having Perkins to guard Howard, but the Celtics can use 24 fouls from Krstic, Davis, and the two O’Neals on Howard should the teams match up again. As the Celtics have proven, letting Howard get his points doesn’t translate into wins for Orlando.
All of this isn’t to say that Perkins had no value to the Celtics. Believe Ainge when he says he agonized over the deal. But we underrate Krstic’s value, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of Green’s. Celtics players were legitimately upset that one of their brothers had been traded. This team was close, and some of the their poor play in March must be attributed to conflicting emotions. Just like the rest of us, they got attached to Perk. Just like the rest of us, they’ve had to let him go.