Enes Kanter has had the most success out of any player traded to the Thunder at the deadline, and there are serious considerations about making him a starter. Our own Kevin Yeung made somewhat of a case back on February 25th:
Together, Kanter and Ibaka are an intriguing combination. That the Thunder can throw two bigs with range on their shot on the floor at the same time allows for rare floor spacing environments. Scott Brooks hasn't gotten too daring with his sets yet (shocker there) as Kanter sticks to shots at the rim, though he has experimented with a "horns pick-and-roll." Still, the simple fact that Kanter can hit a 16-footer out of a pick with Ibaka spotting up elsewhere unlocks a new degree of spacing with conventional, two-big lineups.
For a team with two top-5 scorers and an elite shooting big man already, the possibilities with adding a guy that can either convert the and-one and drill a 16-footer are countless. Even NBA defenses will be stretched thin when going up against so much offensive talent. A bit too much attention diverted to Westbrook can mean an easy shot for Kanter, and vice versa.
Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman furthered the case for Kanter on Monday with some cold, hard facts:
The Ibaka-Kanter tandem has scored 117.5 points per 100 possessions, while allowing just 98.1 points per 100 possessions. That plus-19.4 net rating is tops among all Thunder duos that have played at least 100 minutes. By comparison, albeit penalized by a much larger sample size, the Ibaka-Steven Adams combination has a net rating of plus-2.6, scoring 103.8 points per 100 possessions and yielding 101.1 points per 100 possessions.
I'm here to present the counter-argument. Here's 5 reasons why Steven Adams should start for the Thunder.
1. Kanter's Defense
Here's an exchange between a reporter and Coach Brooks after the Lakers game on Sunday:
Reporter: "Kanter's adjustment overall so far, coach. Do you think he might be one of the key players for Oklahoma in the future?"
Brooks: "Yes! I love him. I've only been around him for two weeks. I like his spirit. I like his competitiveness. I like the way he interacts with his teammates. Guys really enjoy getting to know him, and we understand what he brings to our team. He's skilled. He can make plays around the rim. He can take it out to mid-range. And he can make his free throws. And he's an offensive and defensive rebounder. So we're very thrilled to have him."
Not once did coach Brooks mention Kanter's defensive ability. Obviously Kanter brings a lot, but it says something when your coach thinks to mention free throws and both types of rebounding before saying a word about your defensive ability.
The stats seem to support this assessment. In five games of action, Kanter has registered 1 steal and 1 block. In Perk's first five games of action for the Thunder after being traded from the Celtics in 2010-11, he had 3 steals and 4 block. Even Nenad Krstic, the center historically maligned by Thunder fans for bad D, had registered 9 blocks and a steal in his first five games of action for OKC in '09. Obviously this is a limited sample size, but it is what we have to work with.
Early returns on Kanter's defense against opposing centers have been mixed. Kanter had a good day against guys like Jusuf Nurkic and Roy Hibbert, but neither of them are currently considered super-legit offensive threats. On the other hand, Kanter struggled against Al Jefferson of the Hornets on February 23rd. Jefferson managed to score 12 points on Kanter in one on one or pick and roll situations during that game. Another big that's had the best of Kanter is Alex Len of the Phoenix Suns. Len managed to register 12 points (on 54% shooting), 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks in his game against Kanter on February 26th. Kanter would finish with a comparable 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 block, but it's clear that he wasn't as effective as Len defensively.
If Kanter is performing this poorly against guys like Jefferson and Len, imagine what might happen when he has to go against a Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard, or Boris Diaw? I also shudder to think of what a Paul-Jordan or Ellis-Chandler pick and roll could do to OKC's defense.
2. Westbrook needs more shots, Waiters doesn't
At some point, the Thunder are going to need someone who can score off the bench. D.J. Augustin is a terrific floor general, but he can generate very little on his own unless he has a favorable matchup. Augustin is shooting only 37% in his first 6 games with the Thunder, and has shot only 40% for his career. Dion Waiters can do absolutely nothing right now, and continuing to give him so many shots on a playoff team simply doesn't make sense. Morrow and Singler are just shooters, while Collison and Adams can only score when someone creates for them in the post. McGary could be an option in the future, but is too raw on defense to count on for a featured role.
The players I just mentioned would be the Thunder's bench should Kanter start, and I just don't see the pieces fitting together well. Augustin isn't enough of a shooting threat to make people respect him on the pick and roll, so it will be hard for Adams or Collison to get anything in the post. Waiters will likely continue chucking, and it will be hard for Morrow or Singler to find space.
But when you put Kanter in that lineup, things suddenly change. While Augustin played with Kanter in the starting lineup against the Lakers on Sunday, it was apparent that the two formed a deadly pick and roll combo. Kanter is a really strong finisher through contact, and has a reliable mid-range shot. Kanter will form the basis for the whole offense, opening up shots for Singler and Morrow and layups for Collison. Meanwhile, Waiters can still mess around with the possessions that are left over, and Waiters can be given more if he's hot that night.
Meanwhile, the starting lineup doesn't need Enes Kanter. You've already got KD, Westbrook, and Serge. There are no plays drawn for Adams or Roberson, and any shot they take is almost guaranteed to be good one. Sure, it'll be deadly to have Russ and Enes work the pick and roll together in certain situations, as Kevin described above. But by and large, the Thunder need a big in the post to account for offensive boards and easy baskets. Ibaka seems to work just fine as a floor spacer in a full lineup, and I cite the years of success with Sefolosha and Perk as evidence.
3. Augustin, Collison, and Kanter are excellent passers
Everyone talks about seeing Westbrook and Kanter together, but what about Collison and Kanter? Nick Collison's passing has gotten better year after year, and I'd love to see what he can do with a big that can draw double teams. I mean, Ibaka's range has gotten him shots regardless of whom he's playing with. But Collison's game is much more dependent on whom gets him the ball, and I think he could really thrive next to a big that draws double teams.
Speaking of, think about how many open shots Morrow and Singler are liable to get. Singler will relish the opportunity to work around picks, and Morrow will constantly be threatening on the break and weak-side corner. Because the Thunder have serious options on offense before considering Singler and Morrow, I'd say they're square.
4. The bench was never good at defense anyway
Putting Kanter on the bench is a serious defensive downgrade for that unit. But I'd rather the bench be good at one thing than bad at two things. Simply put, Augustin and Morrow are undersized for their positions. Kanter is bad at D as discussed before, and Nick Collison's age slows him down. Singler is better than average from what I've seen, and Dion Waiters has his defensive moments. But really, this unit will do well to simply stay in front of their man. They don't have a great amount of speed or athleticism, and will likely rely on size and rebounding to pull them through most nights. Given that most opposing bench units score with lots of jumpers, I'm not all that worried about how weak our bench unit's defense might be.
5. Adams and Roberson are best buds and need to stick together
Neither of these guys ever get the ball, but I'm fairly sure that they'e both pretty close off the court. Friendships outside of basketball always lead to stronger play together within the game, so perhaps the two communicate with each other effectively while on defense.
What do you think? Adams or Kanter?