Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
When the Oklahoma City Thunder matched the Portland Trail Blazers’ four-year max offer sheet to Enes Kanter in the summer of 2015, it was amid some controversy. The idea of paying a player who wasn’t even starting a max deal was unusual at best and outright nuts at worse. Throw in Kanter’s defense — or lack thereof — and the move was even more confusing.
But Kanter had a terrific season in many regards and elevated his defense at least a little bit (more on that later). But now with Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant gone, Steven Adams improving dramatically and Victor Oladipo on board, how will things look for Kanter?
I have Kanter ranked at his ceiling here because I don’t see how a reserve player can be better than a top-40 player. However, I think Kanter will have as much impact as it is possible for a reserve to have one. Whatever else happens, his minutes will go up, and last season he averaged 21.7 points and 13.9 boards per 36 minutes. According to NBA.com, when he was on the court with Russell Westbrook, his numbers were 24.1 points and 12.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. And he’ll spend more of his time with “Westwolf” this year than last by default.
Now, you can argue that good numbers don’t mean good play, but with the Thunder’s relative lack of offensive talent in the frontcourt outside of Kanter, he should see plenty of minutes.
Kanter’s position is relatively stable. The only way I could see him having his impact diminished is if Steven Adams has an unexpected leap in his offensive game that sends Kanter to the bench more than expected. Even then, there were some very productive “Twin Tower” moments in the playoffs last year that suggest there should be plenty of minutes available this year, especially in the absence of Ibaka. While newcomer Ersan Ilyasova will probably start, expect Kanter to log more minutes. But if the starting combo clicks, Kanter’s minutes might not go up as much as I expect.
Kanter is bad on defense, but he’s also becoming one of the best scoring big men in the NBA. To illustrate, here is his basic zone shot chart.
He has range out to the three but had limited attempts. His effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoots was 55.6 percent and within 10 feet of the rim, it was 60.8 percent, per SportVU tracking data.
He was among the best in just about every way you could ask a big man to score. As the roll man in the pick-and-roll, he scored 1.09 points per possession, which placed him in the 70th percentile, per Synergy stats at NBA.com. On post-ups, he scored .89 PPP, which put him in the 65.9 percentile. On cuts, he scored 1.29 PPP, which was good for the 64.7 percentile. And on putbacks, he scored 1.20 PPP, which was good for the 77.1 percentile.
In every one of those, he was in the top 25 in total points.
This doesn’t even factor in his offensive rebounding, where he was fifth in the NBA last year, off the bench.
Kanter became only the second player to have 1,000 points and 600 rebounds off the bench since at least 1983-84. That’s as far back as Basketball-Reference’s Game Finder will go. (But considering that reserves weren’t playing as many minutes before, it’s fairly safe to conclude that there was no one before that either). Also, note the difference in minutes:
That’s why, in spite of his woeful defense, I have Kanter at No. 40.
Alright, now let’s address the defense, which is really bad. It did improve, though. Granted it went from “exorcist-style-vomit-inducingly bad” to “made-me-throw-up-in-my-mouth-a-little” bad, but it was an improvement. The difference between his offense and defense, based on Real Plus-Minus was 2.77 (1.27 ORPM and -1.50 DRPM), which was the largest of any center in the league. The Thunder surrendered 6.1 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the court, per NBA.com. And no, that’s not the stats lying. That’s them telling the cold, hard truth. Kanter is a train wreck on defense.
However, his DRPM did improve from 2014-15. There was also even a worse center in Jahlil Okafor (-1.56 DRPM). That might sound like I’m facetious, but Kanter’s DRPM was -3.87 in 2014-15, which was well over a point worse than any center in the league. And in 2013-14, he was also last among centers in the NBA. So just not being definitively the worst in the league at his position is a big step up for him.
It should be noted that when Kanter played with Adams, the defense was a bit better. It still wasn’t great and Kanter is going to be a defensive liability no matter what, but Adams can help the Thunder minimize that so they can take advantage of the big Turk’s scoring prowess.