The trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers sent reverberations throughout the league, doing more than potentially tilting the balance of power in the Western Conference away from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Chris Bosh of the defending champion Miami Heat went so far as to say the Lakers now have the best team on paper, and the Sacramento Kings may or may not have been spooked into trying to flee to Virginia.
Kendrick Perkins, if his past behavior is an indication, most likely just stared menacingly and steeled himself for the conflict.
If the Thunder players believe their role as the favorite out West has been usurped, they have done a fine job hiding their fear. Kevin Durant, who approaches every moment of adversity with the nonchalance of Vito Corleone making an offer nobody can refuse, told Yahoo! Sports, "That's what the Lakers do. They make big moves. That's part of their DNA."
At the same time, Durant's casual reaction belied what could be the key for the Thunder's hopes of repeating as conference champs this season.
"It was a great move for [the Lakers]," Durant told Marc Spears. "[Howard] is the most dominant center in the league. It's going to make it tough on other teams. But I like that challenge."
Durant is correct. Howard is the most dominant center in the league, and Perkins happens to be one of the top five defensive centers in the league. Whether the Thunder can beat the Lakers in a best-of-seven series rests largely on how Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks chooses to deploy his big men against the Lakers' massive front line of Howard and Pau Gasol, as well as how Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison perform in that deployment.
Perkins on his own will not contain Howard any more than Russell Westbrook will single-handedly shut down Steve Nash or James Harden will defend Kobe Bryant all by his lonesome. One of Perkins' great strengths is his excellent help positioning, which lets the occasionally careless Ibaka sprint out of position to add to his league-leading blocks total. When the Thunder dealt for Perkins two years ago, they recognized that their high-scoring, athletic squad might not get over the conference finals hump without an imposing interior force on defense.
The Thunder needed Perkins to come back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the San Antonio Spurs in six games in the conference finals, although as Ibaka steadily improved, the Thunder needed Perkins less and less. By the Finals, Perkins looked utterly lost trying to contest Bosh or Udonis Haslem's midrange jump shots and scrambling back into the paint late to contest LeBron James or Dwyane Wade.
For that reason, the Thunder's best shot at defeating the Lakers may be to refrain from trying to match size with size. Should Ibaka's strides continue, Oklahoma City's best lineup this year (as it was last year) could be a smaller unit with Durant playing de facto power forward. That lineup may be able to cause enough lineup problems for the Lakers to need to go small in response, which would take away their huge height, weight and skill advantage on the front line.
Perkins will have to guard Howard at least occasionally, though, and how frequently the Thunder go to such an undersized lineup relies on how Perkins performs. If Perkins completely blankets Howard — which entails merely forcing him to shoot less than 50 percent from the field — and Ibaka remains just a little too eager to chase blocked shots and costs himself good rebounding position, the Thunder would have to stick with Perkins. In the event both Perkins and Ibaka figure out some way to match Howard and Gasol, all the better for the Thunder.
The latter case would be ideal for the Thunder, but it seems unlikely. Howard and Gasol are better players offensively than Perkins and Ibaka are defensively, and neither Oklahoma City big man has enough of an offensive game to trouble the Lakers' twin towers. Howard could roam freely on defense to cut off any dribble penetration by Westbrook, since he would not need to respect Perkins' scoring ability. As tough as it will be for the Thunder to slow the Lakers' offense, the biggest challenge might be to find the right combination to score effectively against the Lakers' defense.
Perkins' involvement against the Lakers will not be some minute detail. It has significant implications for both Perkins and the Thunder organization. The Thunder smartly kept their amnesty waiver option available, and with Harden possibly headed to free agency, the team may be looking to cut overpriced contracts. If Perkins does not perform like a defensive force against the Lakers, then the Thunder will have little reason to pay more than $8 million per year to a player who is useless against their top competition for the conference title. At the same time, Perkins could prove that size still matters in the NBA, no matter how beautifully the Heat may play with James at power forward.
The Thunder remain the favorite in the West, but watch closely how their rotation evolves in their four meetings against the Lakers during the regular season. By the time the playoffs begin, we should have a decent idea of whether Perkins and the Thunder still are thinking "big" or whether the Thunder have smaller things in mind.