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The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Big Decision

Enes Kanter signed a maximum offer sheet from the Portland Trail Blazers for around $70 million over four years on Thursday. Because of his restricted free agency, the Oklahoma City Thunder reserve the right to match any offer, and general manager Sam Presti has reiterated time and time again he plans to match. But what’s the right move for Presti to make?

Whether in a movie, television show or book, when a character has a difficult choice to make, he or she is often given two tiny people to help make the decision, with one hovering over each shoulder. Although I don’t have the ability to hover over Presti’s shoulder (or become tiny or clone myself), I can provide an outlook on both options for Oklahoma City. For the sake of this argument, I’ll call them “Pro-Kanter” and “Anti-Kanter.”

Pro-Kanter

In 26 games for the Thunder last season, Kanter averaged almost 19 points and 11 rebounds on just under 57 percent shooting from the field. Only five other players averaged at least 18 points and 10 rebounds last season, and only one was particularly close to Kanter’s 61.1 percent true shooting percentage.

It’s true that what the five players did for the entirety of a season is more difficult than Kanter’s 26-game stretch, but it shows his potential as a running mate in the pick-and-roll and in other ways offensively with either Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant in the future.

Shot chart from NBAsavant.com

Shot chart from NBAsavant.com

On the left is Kanter’s shot chart in his time with the Thunder, and the right is the past season in Utah. Kanter has always been a threat around the rim, but he improved his mid-range shooting with the Thunder, giving Westbrook and the rest of the guards more room to operate around the rim.

Unlike Andrew Bogut, DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard, Kanter isn’t a candidate for the “Hack-A” strategy, as he’s a career 75 percent free throw shooter, and even upped that number over 78 percent last season.

For a player that won’t be 24 until the very end of next season, you can’t ask for much more on the offensive end than what Kanter provided.

There’s no pushback from the belief that Kanter needs to improve defensively, but with more time paired with Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams, he can guard the lesser of two evils among the big men.

If the Thunder allow Kanter to sign with the Blazers, they have no means to replace that production this summer. The Thunder have around $80 million committed for next season before including Kanter’s contract, so they’d only have exceptions available if they don’t match, and there aren’t many good options left on the free-agent market.

Anti-Kanter

Before getting to the obvious, Kanter isn’t a perfect fit with the Thunder offensively. There’s been much discussion about how the low-post game is dead, and it’s entirely untrue. However, what’s dead is the thought that you can just feed the big man in the low post and expect him to score two points for you.

Players who excel in the low post need to be good passers to take advantage of the times they’re double-teamed or just happen to find themselves in positions where they can’t take advantage of the mismatch. In his time in Utah, Kanter never averaged one measly assist per game despite maintaining a usage percentage greater than 22 percent in every season outside of his rookie season. If Oklahoma City’s offense stalls, the more apt solution is to give the ball to arguably the best post scorer in the league, Kevin Durant.

While Kanter shot just under 49 percent from 10-16 feet last season, per Basketball-Reference.com, this was by far the highest of his career from that range, which seems to point to an outlier season. Kanter’s average is just under 39 percent from that range for his career, and unless the Thunder’s developmental staff found a magic solution since acquiring Kanter, he’ll probably regress closer to that percentage.

The obvious flaw in Kanter’s game is his defense, and according to almost every advanced metric last season, he was the worst center in the league on that end of the floor. Of the 35 centers who played in enough minutes to qualify last season, Kanter finished 35th in Defensive Box Plus-Minus (DBPM) with a -2.3 rating, far surpassing the next worst man on the list, Anthony Tolliver (-1.1 rating). ESPN.com’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus stat (DRPM) had him ranked behind Andrea Bargnani as the worst defensive center last season with a -3.87 rating.

Having Ibaka in the lineup would theoretically help Kanter’s defensive numbers, however, almost every NBA set is focused around some iteration of the pick-and-roll, and with Kanter in the lineup, this could still cause problems.

If Kanter’s man is setting the screen, then Kanter will have the responsibility of containing the ball-handler – something he’s proven to be miserable doing throughout his career – and will almost certainly give the opposition a 4-on-3 advantage in the half court. If Ibaka’s man is setting the screen, then Kanter will be the only viable option as the rim protector, and opponents converted over 56 percent of their shots at time rim against him during his stint in Oklahoma City last season, per SportVU. For comparison, Ibaka allowed opponents to shoot just under 41 percent while challenging more shots per game.

Signing Kanter would also limit the Thunder’s ability to give some of the younger players enough minutes to improve over the next few seasons. With Kanter, Ibaka, Adams, Nick Collison and Durant at the small-ball forward, the Thunder wouldn’t have room to play Mitch McGary significant minutes. While McGary doesn’t have Kanter’s ability to score, he’s shown that he’s a creative passer, rebounded at an excellent rate for a rookie and would cost a fraction of what Kanter would cost.

Finally, matching Kanter’s offer sheet would limit the Thunder’s future cap flexibility. With a committed salary close to $100 million (if Durant re-signs), the Thunder wouldn’t have the room to add a player next summer who could help the team even with the expected explosion of the salary cap. And if Kanter doesn’t improve and Oklahoma City doesn’t win a title, that lack of flexibility could be a problem.

So What’s the Decision?

The decision to keep Kanter has little to do with Kanter himself. Presti has to decide whether letting another player who could help the team leave without a replacement would deter Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka from re-signing with the team during their most productive years.

If Kanter’s offer is matched and the team fails to live up to expectations, Durant could decide that the team has done everything they could to remain competitive. However, with limited resources available, he could find Washington, New York or Los Angeles as more suitable destinations.

Both the Anti-Kanter and Pro-Kanter side of me on Presti’s shoulders agree that the team should do whatever it takes to retain Durant, but a new (and hopefully more innovative) coach, another year of development from key players and a healthy trio in the playoffs – something that hasn’t happened since the Finals run – is enough for this Thunder team to be considered among the true championship contenders in the league without Enes Kanter.

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