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Should Enes Kanter or Steven Adams Start for Thunder?

Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in franchise history, the Oklahoma City Thunder might have a controversy over who should be the team’s starting center. Well, kind of. It depends on who you ask. CBS Sports’ Matt Moore recently made a case that Enes Kanter should start at center. But many others, including coach Billy Donovan, believe Steven Adams should continue to start.

The Case for Enes Kanter

Kanter entered the season with questions about how he can contribute to a championship contending team. He’s always been excellent offensively, but his defense has been a disaster.

Kanter’s production has continued to be incredible this season. He’s averaging 21.8 points and 14.7 rebounds per 36 minutes on 58.2 percent shooting, which is phenomenal. He’s a talented scorer, great on putbacks and makes the Thunder offense harder to keep up with.

With Kanter on the court this season, the Thunder have scored nearly 107 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The defense, however, has given up 105 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, one of the worst marks on the team. I agree with Moore’s assertion that the Thunder bench lineups are best trying to win defensive matchups, but are limited because of Kanter’s presence. The starters for OKC don’t need Kanter’s offense as much, but their offense is so dominant for long stretches that his defensive liabilities are irrelevant because they simply crush everyone offensively.

Here’s a look at four key combinations with Kanter and how they perform per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.

Westbrook-Durant-Ibaka-Kanter
ORtg – 150.2
DRtg – 107.1
Net Rating – plus-43.1

Augustin-Waiters-Singler-Kanter
ORtg – 93.2
DRtg – 97.2
Net Rating minus-4.0

Augustin-Waiters-Collison-Kanter
ORtg – 95.1
DRtg – 103.5
Net Rating – minus-8.4

Westbrook-Roberson-Ibaka-Kanter
ORtg – 113.9
DRtg – 111.9
Net Rating – plus-2.0

With Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook alongside the Turkish big man, they’ve still given up 107.1 points per 100 possessions, but they’ve scored a ridiculous 150.2 per 100. This combo has only played 47 minutes together this year, but that’s a ridiculously dominant offense that can live with the poor defense.

Meanwhile, you put Kanter next to Augustin, Collison, Singler and Waiters, and the defense still isn’t good while the offense tumbles. At this point, Kanter’s defense is hurting the bench unit while not carrying the offense enough. So you could move Kanter to the starting unit and blow teams away with offensive firepower, and you close with the current starting unit when Durant gets back along with Adams. Save your best lineup to finish the fourth quarter when you need it.

The Case for Steven Adams

What Adams provides the Thunder is defense. He’s not an elite defender, unless you’re comparing him to Kanter, of course. As a starter, Adams combines with Ibaka to protect the rim, giving the Thunder a strong interior defense. We all know Durant and Westbrook can fill it up without much help, but a greater emphasis on defense will help the Thunder.

In only his third NBA season, Adams already has a good understanding of NBA rotations and schemes, while Kanter still has a bad habit of getting lost on defense. Adams can defend the pick-and-roll and offers above-average rim protection.

Against opposing starters, Kanter is prone to get roasted. Starting Adams would let him use his defensive skills to slow the opponent’s best scorers while giving him only a minor role on offense.

The Verdict

Adams has unquestionably earned the starting spot. The Thunder are plus-9.5 per 100 possessions with Kanter on the court, compared to plus-1.8 when he’s on the bench. Meanwhile, the defense is nearly nine points per 100 possessions points better with Adams as opposed to Kanter. So Adams deserves the nod.

If Kanter continues to come off the bench, he’ll still be one of the main offensive options on OKC’s second unit. He can get his post-up touches and run pick-and-rolls with backup point guard D.J. Augustin (or Westbrook or Durant, when they play with the second unit). Adams is a good screener and finisher at the rim, but he can’t create offense for himself or teammates. Bench units with him would need to look elsewhere to create shots, which would likely mean a lot of Dion Waiters chucking.

Plus, Kanter, as he has thus far, will enjoy the benefit of matching up against lesser-skilled post players. He can dominate them on the offensive end and his defensive deficiencies are less exposed.

While it still makes sense to start Adams, I do believe Kanter deserves more minutes than the 21.7 per game he’s getting, although it’s preferable to close with Adams if defensive stops are needed. Opponents like to force Kanter to guard pick-and-rolls (see OKC vs. Bulls game), where he struggles to corral quick point guards. It’ll be up to new head coach Billy Donovan to figure out the optimal rotations as the year goes along.

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