The visitors’ locker room at the Pepsi Center was practically catatonic.
Hours after the Boston Celtics dealt Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the 2011 trade deadline, players were still processing the jaw-dropping move. A dazed Celtics squad had just watched host Denver race away with an 89-75 victory and now players were being asked to react to Perkins’ departure.
"A very tough day to play basketball,” said a somber Kevin Garnett. "To even concentrate, to be bluntly honest. It's not even about a teammate, it feels like we lost a family member today.”
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On paper, the Perkins trade that delivered Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic, and a future first-round pick to Boston made sense. Perkins was working his way back from the ACL tear suffered during Game 6 of the 2010 NBA Finals and the Celtics were hesitant to sign him to the big-money extension he’d eventually land with the Thunder.
But what Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and his braintrust might have undervalued was the emotional toll that Perkins’ departure would have on the team. Combine that with Shaquille O’Neal’s inability to get healthy and Boston's hopes of competing for a title fizzled that year as the Celtics were unceremoniously booted in the East semifinals by Miami in five games.
For the better part of the past decade, it’s hard to find a move that Ainge and Co. lost. You can quibble about situations like the 2018-19 season and whether Ainge should have made a deal to alleviate some of the talent glut on the team, but rarely has the team made a move that wasn’t a push at worst. More often, they won the deal in a landslide.
The Perkins trade, however, is one that will be forever scrutinized, even after Perkins himself came out and suggested Ainge made the right move.
Even after Boston’s playoff exit that year, Ainge remained staunch that Boston’s issues went beyond screen setting and interior defense. Still, it would be fascinating to know how things might have been different if the Celtics had seen things through with a core that Doc Rivers loved to note had never lost a playoff series when healthy.
Maybe Perkins would have never gotten healthy enough to actually help. Maybe the Celtics would have watched Perkins walk away in the offseason without recouping full value. It’s equally fair to ponder whether Krstic could have anchored the big man spot into the playoffs if he never suffered a knee bruise in San Antonio late in the year.
But it’s undeniable that — at least in the immediate aftermath of the Perkins trade — it ripped the Celtics’ heart out.
"To me, [chemistry is] everything,” Paul Pierce said in the aftermath of the trade. "It doesn't matter what type of talent you bring in or what type of talent you have on your ball club; people underrate what chemistry brings.
This is one of the tightest units, one of the most together teams that you could probably think of, especially because we've been together for so many years, it's just a number of things. How we roll on the plane, in the hotel, the camaraderie that we've been able to gather over the years. And, when you lose that, it's tough.
I’ll never forget that Denver locker room. It felt like a funeral. Just watch this video of Garnett’s postgame media session:
Now, to be fair, the Celtics ripped off a five-game winning streak right after that loss. They also had some really troubling home losses while going 13-10 over the final 23 games of the season. A first-round sweep of the Knicks showed potential but they had no answers for Miami. As Ainge fairly noted, the remaining core didn’t do enough in the postseason to carry the team.
It says a lot about Boston’s moves that it’s hard to pick a more obvious misfire. Even the Kyrie Irving deal made sense at the time, even if it delivered a similar stomach punch at the time and surely his tenure fell way short of expectations.
The Celtics still have one more asset to collect via the Perkins trade: The Memphis first-rounder they got after dealing Green away. Maybe that could help tip the balances of how this trade is viewed if Ainge digs out a gem.
Boston dusted itself off for the 2011-12 season and came one LeBron James supernova Game 6 away from a trip back to the NBA Finals.
Still, in the absence of a more glaring misstep, the Perkins trade could forever be Ainge’s biggest “what if?”