Enes Kanter had 21 points and 17 rebounds against the Houston Rockets on Sunday, the third game in a row the Oklahoma City Thunder big man notched at least 21 points and 16 rebounds. While that’s great and all, the Thunder lost all three of those games because their defense wasn’t able to stop anybody, leaving Oklahoma City just a half-game up on the New Orleans Pelicans for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Kanter has been a big part of that problem.
Before diving into the Thunder’s defensive woes, let’s take a little trip back in time, when Kanter was still a member of the Utah Jazz. The Jazz really struggled at the beginning of the year, thanks in large part to a porous defense that gave up 106.1 points per 100 possessions prior to the All-Star break, per NBA.com. That defensive rating jumped to a wretched 108.0 points per 100 possessions with Kanter on the floor.
Meanwhile, the defensive rating was just 102.3 with second-year big man Rudy Gobert on the floor. Sure, Kanter’s offensive ability helped juice up a mediocre offense and the Jazz struggled offensively with Gobert on the court, but Gobert’s net rating was still better than Kanter’s.
Gobert began to get more and more playing time as the year went on, and Kanter’s frustration boiled over to the point where he asked for a trade right before the All-Star break. Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey acquiesced that request, a decision made even easier with Gobert waiting in the wings and Kanter set to hit restricted free agency in the summer. Utah traded Kanter to Oklahoma City in a deal that theoretically would help both teams. It allowed Gobert to become the full-time starter at center in Utah, and the Thunder got the offensive threat at the 5 that had been missing forever.
On the surface, the deal has helped both teams. With Gobert manning the middle, the Jazz have been the best defensive team in the NBA post-All-Star break, and it hasn’t really been close. Kanter has been super-productive with the Thunder, averaging 18.4 points and 11.6 rebounds while shooting 56.4 percent from the field. He has been an ideal pick-and-roll partner for Russell Westbrook, showing the ability to both finish at the rim and knock down jumpers. Kanter is shooting 63.2 percent in the restricted area with the Thunder and a solid 40.7 percent from mid-range, per NBA.com.
A 22-year-old putting up 18 and 12 would seem to be in line for a massive contract as a restricted free agent, and Kanter certainly could get a huge contract. However, just like in Utah, Kanter’s defense has been a major problem in Oklahoma City, and his awful defense should give the Thunder and other potential suitors pause when thinking about shelling out the big bucks this summer.
As mentioned, Kanter has had a huge impact on Oklahoma City’s offense, and the Thunder have scored 108.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, per NBA.com. But Oklahoma City’s defensive rating sits at a whopping 109.5 with him on the court, compared to 104.5 when he’s on the bench. While that 104.5 number certainly isn’t good, that difference is significant.
Kanter struggles in two of the most important areas of defense: guarding pick-and-roll and protecting the rim. The non-existent rim protection is an especially debilitating flaw. He has never averaged more than a half-block per game, and while blocks aren’t always the best indicator of strong rim protection, the fact that he blocks so few shots as a near 7-footer is stunning. And taking a look at the SportVU numbers, Kanter is allowing 57.5 percent shooting at the rim in Oklahoma City. That’s after allowing 57.3 percent at the rim while in Utah this season. His combined 57.3 percent mark is the worst in the league for players who have played at least 12 games and defended at least five shots per game at the rim.
Things were especially ugly in a 135-131 loss to the Dallas Mavericks last Wednesday. Here’s what the Mavericks’ shot chart looked like:
Dallas had 72 points in the paint, and that 75.6 percent mark at the rim is an abomination. Kanter doesn’t deserve blame for all of these woes, as breakdowns on the perimeter certainly contributed to this nightmare of a defensive performance, but this doesn’t happen with good rim protection.
Now, it’s true that Serge Ibaka has been out with a knee injury, and Ibaka is the Thunder’s defensive anchor. Theoretically, a Kanter/Ibaka pairing should be fine defensively because Ibaka would be able to cover for some of Kanter’s weaknesses. On the contrary, as lineups with Kanter and Ibaka on the floor together have given up 109.2 points per 100 possessions in 238 minutes, per NBA.com. That’s a small sample size, but it’s a horrid number that would be the worst defensive rating in the league.
When it comes down to it, Kanter has value because of his ability to score and rebound. But his value is diminished greatly, at least at the moment, because of his inability to be even a mediocre defender. He’s still just 22 years old, so there can be improvement, but this is his fourth year in the league and we haven’t seen much improvement yet. The Thunder, or any team thinking about signing him to an offer sheet, must think long and hard about what type of deal they want to offer him. If there’s no defensive improvement, a huge deal could be crippling, even with the salary cap set to skyrocket in 2016.