Enes Kanter may have settled his contract with OKC this offseason, but the Thunder’s business with him has yet to start.
Upon donning the orange and blue last February, Kanter elevated the Thunder’s offense by scoring 18.7 points and grabbing 11 rebounds per game. In the absence of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, Kanter managed to fuel the postseason-chasing Thunder within the paint. At 6-foot-11, his footwork and mid-range jumper served as asset in Thunder’s arsenal. His screen-setting and offensive-first mentality worked well with Russell Westbrook. He was a double-double machine.
However, his averaging double-double feat was offset by his defensive liability. Kanter allowed his opponents to shoot 61.2 percent from within six and 49.8 percent overall, per NBA.com and made it to Tim Kawakami’s NBA No-Defense Team. Kanter is, statistically speaking, one of the worst post defenders in the entire league.
After being a restricted free agent this summer, Kanter received a four-year, $70 million invitation from Portland before OKC matched the offer sheet. The Thunder, securing their big man, made him the third highest paid player in the upcoming season on the roster, primarily because he does two things in scoring and offensive rebounding at an elite level. Is that enough to justify the cost?
We’ve heard different voices (mostly critical) about Thunder’s move. But it’s also essential to bear in mind that what will define Kanter’s Thunder-era rests not on his past 26 games with the banged up team but on the years to come playing along side the Thunder's 3 linchpins while in their respective primes.
The Thunder hired Billy Donovan and have put their trust in him to bring both immediate and long term success. While he inherited a roster that can roll with its superstar power, he needs to wring some potential out from the sidekicks. Kanter's offensive talent and basketball intuitiveness is substantial, but thus far has not translated on the other end of the court. Kanter, so good in the pick and roll offense, has shown little grasp on the basics, if not the nuances, of pick and roll defense. Donovan, to his credit, has accumulated some great defensive success with the Gators. When it comes to the fit question between Donovan and Kanter, Ben Dowsett did not expect them to click. He thinks Kanter cannot defend at NBA level. Still, Kanter is only 23 years old and his defense can only improve from where he’s at now.
Donovan has started Kanter in only one preseason game, with Steven Adams fulfilling the starting responsibility in the rest. Donovan may be in favor of Adams as his new starter, but given how much the Thunder has paid to retain Kanter, the Turkish is expected to play some big minutes. His skill set can better enrich Thunder’s second unit offense. He is likely to get more possessions with D.J. Augustin running the offense. Kanter’s ability to clear things up under the rim serves as a complement to Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow. The cost, obviously, stems from the defensive end as he won’t be able to fight alongside Ibaka. But Donovan has expressed his scheme to rely more on guards than big men to defend pick and rolls and that can take some pressure off Kanter’s shoulder.
OKC’s stakes this year are high. Everyone will play a bigger role than he has imagined in this boom-or-bust season. Kanter has already established himself as an elite offensive weapon. Continuing his power in the paint and completing a leap to a middling defender should be more than a satisfaction to his team.