I’ve already written about the overlooked importance of Ersan Ilyasova when considering how the Oklahoma City Thunder’s frontcourt may look next season. With his three-point shooting, it makes sense that head coach Billy Donovan tries placing him in the starting lineup to space the floor around Russell Westbrook’s drives and pick-and-roll play with the interior based Steven Adams.
So, where does that leave Enes Kanter? Despite superior talent and production to Ilysova, it leaves Kanter in his current sixth man role. With 10 made threes last season, a fairly streaky mid-range game (36.5 percent from 16 feet out) and 62 percent of his shots coming within three feet, he isn’t the player to spread the floor in OKC.
Instead, he’s the player who can come in and bruise his way through second units as he always does so well. And in this post-Kevin Durant era of enhanced- triple-double Westbrook rage, Kanter is more primed than ever to put himself at the forefront of the Sixth Man of the Year discussion.
Last season, Kanter came in third place, falling to first place Jamal Crawford’s over-voted instant offense and second place Andre Iguodala’s do-it-all impact for the 73-win Golden State Warriors. The performance of Crawford and Iguodala and typically terrible defense deterred voters and kept Kanter 106 votes behind Iguodala (288 to 182).
Yet, with slight defensive improvement and increased effort from Kanter to accompany his exceptional production, it’s clear to see how he’s positioned to take off.
12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game is a thoroughly acceptable stat line for an NBA player. 21.7 points and 13.9 rebounds per 36 minutes? That’s the kind of elite production level that Kanter delivered last season. With 5.2 of those rebounds coming on the offensive glass, Kanter was a leader in defining the Thunder as the NBA’s most dominant rebounding team.
For Kanter’s opportunity to shine, the simple matter of more minutes will help. Durant spent 26 percent of his minutes at power forward last season, and with no Ibaka either, it’s hard to think that Donovan will replace their entire workload at the four among the rest of his lesser bigs. Ilysova, Mitch McGary, rookie Domantas Sabonis, and new addition Joffrey Lauvergne create a cluttered frontcourt, but there’s no doubt that Kanter tops the list even if he spends most of his minutes at center.
Such opportunity gives Kanter a chance to not only score, but improve upon his rebounding numbers of last season, too — just in case leading the league in offensive rebound percentage (16.7) wasn’t quite enough. This workload and more rebounds being up for grabs without Durant and Ibaka can only help Kanter’s numbers and Sixth Man of the Year case.
Then there’s the priority of Kanter in the Thunder’s new scoring chain. Even with Ibaka around last season, Kanter was the team’s third leading scorer with 12.7 points per game, inching past fourth place Ibaka’s mark of 12.6. And without Ibaka or Durant, Kanter can have more shots to highlight his ability to destroy second units.
With the third highest usage rate on the team last season (behind only Durant and Westbrook), Kanter was already a prominent feature of the offense whenever he entered the game. Bursts of post-up play, floor running, stellar offensive rebounding, and rolls to the basket will only be accentuated as Westbrook looks to Kanter more often in the absence of Durant.
Kanter is the best offensive player the Thunder have after Westbrook now. He’s ready to take a larger role, too. He wasn’t quite the team’s best player at driving to the basket (second to Adams), but finishing the season with a 55.8 field goal percentage on pick-and-rolls as the roll man and ranking in the 70th percentile (per NBA.com) is easily efficient enough to make him a more prominent feature of the offense.
Any amount of improved post-up success and chances to use his 51.2 percent from 10-16 feet should only encourage more voters to look Kanter’s way.
After all, by ranking 10th in PER last season (24) and fourth in offensive rating (122.7), Kanter’s production last season was already highly impressive. What if next season is even better?
So, where exactly might Kanter rank in comparison to other Sixth Man of the Year candidates? As always, predictions can only go so far. We can’t know whether someone will have breakout success off the bench or whether someone will go through the opposite and fall off in terms of their performance. But against similar names like Crawford and Iguodala, Kanter’s chances should be fairly high.
With the Thunder fighting for a playoff spot in the West’s top six seeds rather than being an easy favorite with Durant, any impact Kanter makes to help OKC win can only raise his voting numbers. More responsibility and more production helps massively, just as it did for Crawford, who shot like crazy in the absence of Blake Griffin.
It’s unlikely Crawford will be benefiting from that kind of Griffin-less spell of play late in the season again, though. With a record three Sixth Man of the Year trophies, it’s someone else’s turn next, anyway.
And as for Iguodala, a player who will still be vital after the Warriors’ depth took a hit to accommodate the “Mega Death” lineup, Durant’s scoring and playmaking ability adds a dynamic at small forward that wasn’t there with Harrison Barnes.
To a slight extent, that reduces Iduogala’s value. At the very least, he could look a little more lost behind all that boosted talent in the starting lineup. Playing a part in a record-breaking 73-win season is another bonus he won’t be having in 2016-17 to garner voter’s attention either.
Other candidates will emerge as the season progresses, but in terms of the Thunder’s need for him, the attention surrounding their fight in a post-Durant era, and an elevated role, Enes Kanter should be at the forefront of the 2017 Sixth Man of the Year conversation.