Sans Westbrook, OKC’s Real Issue Comes to the Fore

I could talk all day about how the Russell Westbrook injury cost the Thunder their chance to repeat as Western Conference champs.

Unquestionably, the Westbrook injury left the Thunder clueless on offense and restless on defense. They lost their electric fastbreak offense, having to slow their game down into a find-Durant-through-three-defenders saga. But blaming their five-game series loss to the Grizzlies on Westbrook’s injury would just be a lame coverup for the real reason behind their early playoff exit.

As it turns out, the Thunder don’t have any capable big men, and it’s the reason they couldn’t hang with the Griz. We’re told constantly that center Kendrick Perkins is some defensive genius that does “dirty work that just doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.” Apparently he’s some underrated mastermind that wins games with his hustle and desire. On top of that, everyone seems to approve of the defensive play of Serge Ibaka, an All-NBA power forward the last two seasons. If all that praise is justified, the combination of Perk and “Serge Iblocka” should have been the perfect antidote for the deadly combo of the Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

Well, as the five-game series showed, Perk and Serge didn’t play a lick of defense, as Gasol and Randolph combined for 37.8 points/gm throughout the series. Gasol lit up the Thunder from 18-20 feet, nailing top-of-the-key jumpers as easily as free throws, while Randolph destroyed Perkins on the low block, using his strength and finesse to find high-percentage opportunities.

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Kendrick Perkins, left, and Serge Ibaka had a rough series trying to guard the Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

Their defense was only part of the problem. On offense, Perkins and Ibaka were disastrous. I don’t even need to comment on Perkins; his supporters agree he’s one of the least effective offensive players in the league. But Ibaka, a talented mid-range jump shooter, shockingly missed almost every open opportunity. It got so bad by Game 5 that you could see him wince in agony after every bricked attempt. When Perkins wasn’t fumbling cupcake inbounds passes, Ibaka was playing knock-out with the rim’s iron.

Moreover, Perkins and Ibaka failed to do anything effective on the glass. They allowed Gasol and Randolph to post a combined 19.2 rebounds/gm, compared to their 10.4 rbs/gm. (Most of those 10.4/gm came from Ibaka; Perkins only posted a measly 3.0 rbs/gm.) On their own, they were allowing the Grizzlies a nine-rebound advantage every time out on the court. If there’s one way to lose a series, it’s by rebounding like an AAU team.

To be sure, Ibaka wasn’t nearly as big of an issue as Perkins. Serge had a bad series, but he was merely a blemish compared to the talent-sucking black hole of Perkins.

Perk is one of the most overrated centers in the game – and that’s saying a lot, since he’s hardly ever talked about. He’s paid $9 mil a year to stand around, puff his chest, and yell at younger players for making mistakes while he struggles to hit the rim on free throws. Handle your own game, Kendrick, before you start ragging on others that are better than you.

The intense combination of Westbrook and Durant has been so effective at controlling and winning games during the last few seasons that it kept Oklahoma City’s big man issues disguised for this long. Only when Westbrook went down, shifting the full load onto Durant’s shoulders, did the public get to see what an embarrassment OKC’s four and five positions were.

Ibaka will get his game back with time. Taking a rest for a while will help him clear his head and get back to where he was during the regular season. He’s a solid defender in most cases, and a good all-around shooter. He also has a fantastic team-first mentality that meshes well with head coach Scott Brooks’ team vision.

As for Perkins, he’s a cancer – a useless poison that has no real talent. If there are two things the Thunder need to do this offseason, it’s to get rid of Perkins as fast as possible and replace him with an actual center that can hold on to the ball on offense, play capable defense, and grab rebounds – you know, things that centers are typically able to do.

If the Thunder can plug their low-post hole, they will be a truly great team next year, arguably even better than the Heat. But if they can’t, they’ll be forced to suffer painful early playoff losses year in and year out, just like they did this year to the dominant combo of Gasol and Randolph.

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