OKLAHOMA CITY -- The sound is unmistakable. It starts as a low rumble, and with each dribble it builds, eventually into a crescendo of some combination of crippling fear, morbid curiosity and tepid hope as 18,000 people unify in saying, "No no no no no!"
Kendrick Perkins has the ball in the post, and oh my, he's about to take a shot. On the occasion Perkins actually scores, it comes with the kind of elation you see when a walk-on senior hits a garbage-time bucket against Directional State University. The Thunder bench erupts with towels waving, as Kevin Durant flexes his biceps and yells, "Too small!" The crowd celebrates like the basket was worth 30 points, because it might as well be.
It's relief that for at least one more possession, the Thunder big man has avoided another appearance on Shaqtin' A Fool. It's the feeling of unexpectedly finding a $5 bill in your coat pocket.
But more than anything, it's joy for Perkins. It's happiness for a player who places his team above everything else and ignores the waves of criticism piled on him, instead only caring about the opinions of the other 14 guys in his locker room. Perkins isn't paid to score. He's paid to set crushing screens, defend the interior and establish a physical presence on the floor -- the kind of thankless tasks that don't earn accolades anywhere outside the film room. Points are found money.
Still, from getting dunked on by Blake Griffin, to somehow being blamed for the Thunder trading James Harden, to being called a "clown" by Rudy Gay, Perkins is one of the most ridiculed players in the league, an NBA champion who has spent the last four years hearing his own fan base beg for management to pay him to go away.
A lot of NBA fans don't really understand what "amnesty" actually means. It's a complicated thing, a provision installed in the recent collective bargaining agreement in 2011 that allows a team to wipe a player's salary off its cap, while still having to pay out the balance of his contract. Simply put: It's a team wanting a player gone so badly they're willing to pay him to play somewhere else.
Imagine Perkins, who was a prime amnesty candidate after signing a four-year, $34.8 million extension earlier in 2011, having to explain that to his 7-year-old son.
"It's not really all that difficult when I hear people say 'amnesty Perk' and all of that," Perkins said. "It's just what your family's got to hear. Your wife, your kids. Just stuff like that. That's the biggest thing, man."
Despite the Thunder front office steadfastly backing Perkins, never seriously considering the amnesty clause to wipe away his contract, according to sources, that conversation wouldn't go away. His contract is up after this season, so it's over now. But still, many were baffled at why the Thunder, such a forward-thinking, intelligent, well-run organization, would hang on to supposed waste-of-space Perkins when they had a get-out-of-jail card in their pocket.
"Amnesty" became a buzzword attached to Perkins, something to lash out with out of frustration when he fumbled a pass out of bounds. Forget the actual logistics and validity of it; it was essentially just a fancy way to say "get him off my team." In terms of actually applying it, it never made sense. With the team already over the cap, if the Thunder had used it on Perkins in either of the past two summers, they would've been removing $9 million off their books, with only the $5 million midlevel exception available to replace him with. You aren't finding a high-caliber starting center for that kind of money.
Then there's the Harden connection. The often misunderstood assumption was if the Thunder would've just used the amnesty clause on Perkins in the summer of 2012, they could've re-signed Harden to a max deal and not broken deep into the luxury tax. Problem with that is, Harden's extension wouldn't have kicked in until the following season, meaning cutting Perkins in the summer of 2012 would've had no impact on the Thunder's bottom line at that time. Still, that narrative follows him around, as if somehow the Thunder chose him over their Sixth Man of the Year winner.
"I've always been strong-minded," Perkins said. "I always think about different situations. For example, I was hurt in Boston and the team was still doing well with Jermaine O'Neal and Shaq. And they needed a guy, a wing guy. Which they ended up making the trade for me and Jeff [Green] because they thought they didn't need me no more.
"But sometimes you have to see what you're missing when it's gone," he said. "I don't feel like the Thunder organization feels that way about me, because if so they probably would've amnestied me. But it is hard because you do hear the outside chatter."
If the Thunder weren't going to use the amnesty on Perkins, the least they could do was bench him then, right? With second-year center Steven Adams blossoming quicker than expected, Perkins was going to have to beat the 21-year-old Kiwi out in training camp this season to keep his starting spot. But with a quad injury that kept Perkins out the entire preseason, the competition was over before it ever started. Adams was the starting center to the delight of Thunder fans everywhere, and Perkins was now just an extremely well-paid backup center.
When I step on the court, I'm not just auditioning for the Thunder, I'm auditioning for the league. When I step on the court, it's to show everybody I still got it.
"-- Kendrick Perkins
Perkins is an especially prideful player, making sure everyone knows he won an NBA championship that one time in 2008 with the Celtics. He's been a starter the past decade, so the transition of him moving to the bench was a bit of an uncomfortable situation.
"To be honest, at first it didn't sit well," he said. "It was kind of hard. The truth is, there are some things that Steven can bring to the table that I can't. And there are some things I bring to the table that Steven can't. I pretty much psyche myself into saying, at the center spot, we've just got to be productive."
The 30-year-old Perkins will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and wants another long-term NBA contract. He has been through multiple injuries and seen his skills and athleticism diminish, but he trimmed down 25 pounds over the summer to try to regain some of what once made him one of the top defensive big men in the league.
"My biggest thing is whether I come off the bench or if I start, however many minutes I get, I just got to go out there and play as hard as I can and do what I need to do," he said. "Not only just to help the team, but to help myself. When I step on the court, I'm not just auditioning for the Thunder, I'm auditioning for the league. When I step on the court, it's to show everybody I still got it. You know it's only got to take one team to catch their eye. It hasn't been easy, but it's something that I accept."
So far this season, Perkins has looked rejuvenated. Maybe it's the motivation of a contract season or the loss of his starting spot, but he's playing with more energy and making a more discernible nightly impact. He's never been a stat-stuffer, even in his best Boston days, but his numbers are noticeably up. Per 36 minutes he's averaging 11.0 rebounds, his best output in four seasons. He ranks 35th in rebound rate, ahead of players like Joakim Noah, Anthony Davis and Marcin Gortat. Opponents shoot just 46.8 percent from 6 feet or closer against him, 11 percentage points under the league average for that range. (Against Noah, 54.1 percent. Against Marc Gasol, 53.3 percent.) He leads the team in rebound percentage and is 39th overall in the league, right behind Kevin Love.
Any way you want to slice it, it's undeniable: Perkins has been a plus for the Thunder this season. As a result, those bellows for amnesty or a benching have turned to standing ovations and calls for him to return to his starting position. Perkins has gone from pariah back to fan favorite.
"Yeah I be feelin' the energy. I feel it," he said. "It's a great feeling, but you can never get too high and can never get too low. But to be honest with you, I feed off of that s---."
Perkins' role has always been twofold: do the dirty work on the floor, and be a strong leader off it. His practice antics are legendary. Adams told one story last season that in one of his first practices, Perkins and him got tangled. Perkins hit the rookie with a sharp elbow in the ribs and yelled, "I'm the only silverback!" That was Adams' official holy-crap-I'm-in-the-NBA moment.
He's also a notorious motivator. Durant tearfully acknowledged Perkins in his MVP speech, talking about the late-night texts of encouragement he'd receive from the center. One player said Perkins is almost like a team psychologist, making phone calls and sending constant texts to mentor and motivate.
"Sometimes I wonder when he sleeps," coach Scott Brooks said.
It seems like a canned cop-out to say a lot of Perkins' value lies in his intangibles, but he means something to his teammates. You can see that in the way they talk about him, the way they listen to him, the way they cheer him on.
What's lost when looking for raw statistics is that some players don't actively hunt them. Only one player can have the ball in his hands at a time, and with the Thunder, it's pretty clear who the first two choices are for that. They aren't hurting for offense. Perkins is seen as an offensive negative, but even with him starting the majority of the Thunder's games the past four seasons, they've consistently ranked in the top five in offensive efficiency. Is that in spite of Perkins? Maybe. But Perkins' place within that has been as Durant's personal bodyguard, freeing the reigning MVP up on pindowns and curls all over the floor. Or as lead blocker for Russell Westbrook, opening pockets to attack from. Next time you watch the Thunder, count how many times they score directly from a Perkins screen. It happens a lot.
Perkins epitomizes the idea of an NBA role player, someone who realizes his value isn't in what he produces, but in what his teammates around him do. He's remarkably self-aware, a player who is never going to confuse his skill set with that of a Pau Gasol or a Dwight Howard. He consistently makes fun of himself in practice, recently saying, "It happens to the best of us, me, Jordan ..." after losing a free throw contest to a teammate. After a game a few weeks ago, Perkins joked about hearing some MVP chants from the crowd, and then admitted maybe he was actually only hearing them in his head. He pokes fun at his own "one-inch vertical" as he calls it, and has no problem acknowledging what he does isn't sexy.
"When most great organizations are looking at players they want to max out, of course, yeah, they score points, and yeah, they get double-doubles, but a lot of GMs look at a person and say, 'What does he bring to the table without the ball in his hands?'" Perkins said. "I think that a lot of smart GMs, they pay people off of that. Especially max guys. What do you bring to the table without the ball? How can you help your team without the ball in your hands?"
A lot of Perkins' problem is in appearances. His game isn't pretty. He lumbers up and down the floor like he has two toddlers hanging around his ankles. He shoots like he's firing a wadded-up piece of paper across the office. It's easy to confuse his vertical leap with him just standing on his tippy-toes. But what he does do is defend the hell out of the paint.
While Tony Allen had well-deserved praise poured all over him for the job he did defending Durant in the opening round last postseason, Perkins quietly locked up Zach Randolph. Those within the Thunder organization maintain they don't get out of that series without Perkins.
He's a throwback enforcer, someone who relies on brute physicality and an acute understanding of what his skills and limitations are. It makes him an easy target for critics and provides fodder for opposing players to jab him with, but Perkins is unfazed.
"My skin is way tougher than that, man," he said. "I don't lose no sleep at night thinking about that. Ever.
"It don't matter what I do. I could go out and play well, I could go out and play terrible. There are still the same comments. It's just whatever. I think it's something that comes with it. I know since I've been here, since I got here, day one, I ain't done nothing but help the team win. Advanced to rounds and rounds of the playoffs. They can say, 'Well they was on their way anyway,' but I'm here, though, and it happened. At the end of the day, I know what I bring to the table."
It's the blessing and the curse that comes with playing with Westbrook and Durant. The glory of victory goes to them, and scapegoating starts in line behind Perkins when they lose. He accepts that -- even embraces it. Like a good screen, he's willing to take the hit for his guys. All part of the job.