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The underdawg and the underappreciated value of Kendrick Perkins

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Kendrick Perkins may not have been much individually, but his team impact on the Boston Celtics remains greater than his numbers.

NBA Finals Game 1: Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

With every controversial opinion as a prominent member of ESPN, Kendrick Perkins has found his NBA career placed under a microscope. On the surface, he doesn’t come off well.

After being taken 27th in the 2003 draft, Perkins played 14 years in the NBA. Of course, fans looking for gasoline don’t respect his longevity. They hardly give weight to the championship he won as the starting center of the 2007-08 Boston Celtics or even the Finals appearance he made with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012.

He has career averages of 5.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. That’s where the conversation starts and ends when it comes time to put one of his hot takes on blast.

There’s no denying Perkins’ underwhelming statistical contributions, but that’s not where every NBA player makes their mark. Even after analytics provided counting numbers to the previously immeasurable, there is a level of value only the deepest of dives can fully reveal.

A trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen rightfully returned the Celtics to contender status in the summer of 2007. Actually winning the championship, however, would take the efforts of a larger share of the roster, especially the other starters alongside the Big Three.

Perkins had further come into his own in 2006-07, starting 53 of 72 games at 21.9 minutes a night. Though never a scorer of any kind, he embraced contributing elsewhere, specifically at the defensive end.

“Perk really starred in his role,” said Tom Thibodeau, a Celtics assistant coach from 2007-10. “And his role really was to do a lot of the dirty work.”

When Al Jefferson was traded that summer in a package deal to acquire Garnett, Perkins was left to assume the starting center spot. What might’ve been previously used to set up a second contract were now the high-stakes responsibilities of helping a title contender.

Lineups in 2020 wouldn’t hesitate to trot Garnett out at the five given the vast options it afforded at both ends. Perkins’ playing time would be scarce thanks to limited range and defensive mobility. But in 2007-08, rotations were constructed in a more traditional manner. Two big men occupied the frontcourt to combat the domineering size most every team was trotting out. Garnett could slide down a position part-time. Too many minutes would wear him down for the title run Boston was expected to go on.

The task fell to Perkins to serve as the Celtics’ interior anchor, a role that suited his mentality as well as his body.

“He didn’t have explosiveness as far as blocking shots,” said Texas Hoop Magazine writer Mike Kunstadt — Perk played high school ball in Texas. “But long arms and good timing and (he) was a great rim protector.”

Indeed, a mere 22-inch vertical and an undersized 6’10’ standing limited Perkins shot-blocking abilities. He made up for it with a 7’4’ wingspan and muscular 270-pound frame that aided his nightly position battle well before his opponent could get off the ground.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics, Game 2 Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

He wasn’t the easiest defender to challenge and couldn’t be intimidated. That much was made clear on February 11th, 2007, when Perkins stood tall against Garnett, then a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. The two battled all night in a 109-107 Wolves victory. After seeking each other outside the locker rooms following the game, they had to be separated.

“There wasn’t any physical altercation,” according to Celtics assistant coach Jamie Young. “But there was some verbal altercation between the two,”

Garnett was a 10-time All-Star and former MVP. The 4.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game Perkins averaged that season didn’t stop him from confronting one of the most confrontational players in NBA history.

Perk was 14th in defensive win shares around the NBA in 2007-08 and improved Boston’s top-ranked defense when he was on the court. His on-court plus/minus of 14.6 ranked second on the team behind only Garnett.

Come playoff time, Perkins averaged just 6.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, but there were still games when his stats shined through. He put up 10 points, 10 rebounds, and five blocks in Boston’s 34-point Game 7 victory in the first-round against the Atlanta Hawks. His 18 points, 16 rebounds, and three blocks helped place the Celtics one game away from the NBA Finals.

Even when the counting stats didn’t show it, Perkins continued to come through when he was asked. That meant setting reliable screens, keeping his matchup off the glass, and draining the energy out of those who tried to score on him, all while letting the Big Three control the spotlight.

His role in the 2008 NBA Finals was less than what he had grown accustomed to. Doc Rivers opted to match the Lakers’ small-ball pairing of Lamar Odom and Vladimir Radmanović — Andrew Bynum was sidelined with a dislocated left knee cap — limiting Perkins to two instances of more than 20 minutes in the six-game series.

But throughout the playoffs, it’s no coincidence that the offensive rating of Boston’s opponents plummeted 12.5 points with Perkins in the middle.

Does that mean Boston fails to win the championship in his absence? Hard to say. How many players on any title-winning team can assert such value? That doesn’t make Perkins’ contributions any less legitimate.

“He was obviously a big part of the championship team,” said Thibs. “A very hard guy to score against and offensively, probably didn’t get enough credit for setting great screens and being real active.”

Perkins came back the following season with career-highs in minutes (29.6), rebounds (8.1) and blocks per game (2.0). However, the loss of KG for the postseason sunk the Celtics’ title hopes. Perk did his best to fill in, averaging 11.9 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game along with his standard impact that made Boston’s playoff defense significantly stingier.

His absence from Game 7 of the 2010 Finals was more noticeable than one would assume on a team with four All-Stars. LA tracked down 23 offensive rebounds en route to an 83-79 victory and a second consecutive title. How much merit the “Perkins’ presence in Game 7 equals a Celtics championship” argument has been up for debate. The rebounding edge was significant, but Boston built a lead as high as 13 in the third quarter without him.

“I think he made a huge difference between us having a ring that year and not getting one,” believes former Celtics teammate Marquise Daniels.

“It actually showed the value of Perk quite a bit,” said Rivers. “It took away our enforcer. Kevin (Garnett) had to spend half the game trying to be that and play and I thought that took a lot out of him.”

Someone was needed to fill in the gaps around a team with as much star power as Boston’s in the Big Three era. Perkins did exactly that without fuss, relishing the opportunity to play and learn alongside three future Hall of Famers.

“I just followed him, I observed him, I watched a future Hall of Famer,” Perkins said of his relationship with KG. “I watched how he worked, I watched how he operated, I watched his leadership skills.”

Those leadership skills came in handy when he was traded to Oklahoma City in 2011. His veteran know-how and rugged interior defense was the piece to push OKC to its first-ever Finals appearance in 2012.

Perkins wasn’t the driving force of the 2008 Celtics or the main reason they returned to the Finals in 2010. That’s ok. Not every player can be that guy and not everyone has to. Some players are required to fill the less glamorous roles in pursuit of an NBA title. Perkins did better than most, ranking 11th in the league in defensive win shares from 2008-10 despite ranking 66th in minutes among the top 100.

More credit to him for coming to that realization. Not every player does. When you realize that, the weight of Perkins’ NBA career becomes significantly heavier. No matter how many of his takes you disagree with.