It's been nearly seven months since Kendrick Perkins(notes) crumbled to the court and clutched his right knee in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Seven months that included reconstructive surgery, a lengthy rehabilitation process and a whole lot of sitting and watching. Seven months to wonder what could have been.
Through it all, Perkins has never wavered from his belief that had he not been injured in the opening minutes of Game 6 and missed Game 7, the Boston Celtics would have secured their one missing victory over the Los Angeles Lakers and celebrated their second title in three years.
"For sure," Perkins said, "we would have won the championship."
Perkins is still recovering from the injury – which included a tear of his anterior cruciate ligament – and hopes to make his return next month, at the latest. For now, he's just one of the many wounded Celtics. Kevin Garnett(notes) and Delonte West(notes) remain sidelined, Rajon Rondo(notes) just returned and Shaquille O'Neal(notes) and Jermaine O'Neal(notes) also have missed significant time this season.
The Celtics have somehow managed to cling to the Eastern Conference's best record, which is why Perkins believes they will win this season's championship if they're all healthy for the playoffs.
"In seven games I don't think we can be beat by any team," he said. "Too deep. Too much experience. Too many hard-working guys. Too many guys that have a chip on their shoulder."
Perkins might be more driven than any of the Celtics, considering the way his season ended. While Rondo, Garnett, Paul Pierce(notes) and Ray Allen(notes) get most of the credit for Boston's success in recent years, Perkins has done a lot of the dirty work that often goes unnoticed – until he's not around to provide it.
"Over the past three years the guys have grown a trust in him," said Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. "He means a lot."
Perkins says the best-case scenario has him returning in late January. He doesn't expect to immediately start, but given his experience with the system and Shaq's foul problems, he'll probably win back the job at some point. Perkins says the Celtics aren't pressuring him to return quicker with Garnett out after straining his right calf. Ainge thinks Garnett might even be back before the initial two-week diagnosis.
"I'm thinking right before the All-Star Break I will get a few games in, but maybe a little sooner than that," Perkins said. "Things are going well. I haven't had any setbacks or anything like that."
Perkins also has another important reason to make sure he's healthy before he returns: He's in the last season of his contract. The New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and New Jersey Nets are among the teams that expect to have salary-cap space after the season. One NBA executive whose team will have cap space this summer said Perkins' health will be the biggest concern for his possible suitors.
Perkins, 26, is from Beaumont, Texas, and figures to draw interest from the Rockets and Thunder. Still, he'd prefer to return to the Celtics, whose payroll for next season is already projected to be about $74 million, provided Allen and Shaq don't opt out of their contracts.
"I will show that I'm back and there are no issues with my knee," said Perkins, who is making $4.4 million this season. "I will have a bright future as far as free agency. We will see how this season turns out and how it goes from there.
"I want to be with the Celtics, but I got to think about my future."