When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Enes Kanter at the trade deadline, they knew this day was coming. Kanter's contract was expiring in the summer, and he'd be due a new deal worth eight figures annually.
Next season could be their last good chance to win a championship ring for a while, and it definitely will be their last impression on Kevin Durant before he hits free agency. The Thunder should be seeking every edge possible, and trading for Kanter showed a willingness to finally break the luxury tax barrier – a long-standing line in the sand that the Thunder didn't cross for James Harden years ago. If there was ever a time to put all your eggs in one basket, there is no better basket than Durant's.
That being said, Kanter was always going to be a costly egg. He wanted a maximum contract, and through restricted free agency, he got the largest contract offer that any non-Thunder team could've made: $70 million over four years.
With gargantuan reserves of unused cap space in their post-LaMarcus Aldridge direction, the Portland Trail Blazers could've maxed out the 23 year old Kanter now, stayed under the salary cap threshold, and kept max-level room open on the books for next summer. Most teams would probably peg Kanter's dollar value well below $17.5 million per year, even with the cap rising, but the Blazers had every reason to bite the bullet.
Matching the offer sheet means that the Thunder will have $98 million owed in salary after signing first-rounder Cameron Payne, coming in $13 million over the luxury tax threshold, which means they will have a potential tax bill of $24.5 million. If they clear the contracts of Steve Novak and Perry Jones, they can wipe off roughly $17.5 million in both salary and tax payments. Salary dumping D.J. Augustin, if Payne is ready to absorb those minutes, saves them another $7 million as well.
Contrary to popular belief, the repeater tax won't kick in unless the Thunder are in the tax for three of four consecutive seasons. They paid it last season and can afford to pay it again this season while still ducking the tax in 2016-17 after a new Durant contract.
Those kind of achievable savings matter, because the bang-for-buck value ship set sail long ago with Kanter. The Thunder are simply looking for basketball upgrades, and they didn't have any other avenues to improve meaningfully. Letting Kanter go would've opened up the full Mid-Level Exception, but which players available are left to take it? Guys like Darrell Arthur and Dorell Wright are good players, but their selling point is rotational safety, not any new chess-match advantage come playoff time.
The Thunder were locked on this course the day they traded Reggie Jackson for Kanter, for better or for worse. They definitely don't want to pay the $80 million, five-year deal that Jackson got from the Detroit Pistons, but Kanter comes with his own bag of question marks. He's not a sure thing, and the Thunder just committed the max to him because he was their only chance to get better.
They're taking the plunge for a skill they didn't have before in Kanter's elite paint scoring. He shot .657 within 3 feet of the rim with the Thunder and took more than half of his attempts within that range. Almost all of his buckets last season came from two scenarios: pick-and-roll/pop and offensive rebound put-backs. He's the best roll man that the Thunder have ever had, with a change-of-pace midrange/corner three shot in his arsenal. On the glass, he finished third in offensive rebounding percentage and cleaned up misses with ease.
Playing with Durant and Russell Westbrook will make basketball the easiest game of catch-and-score ever for Kanter. He's dependent on others to create his best looks even more than your average player, but still, he makes the Thunder a better scoring team.
There was never a positional need for Kanter with Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Nick Collison and Mitch McGary populating the frontcourt, but Kanter's skillset could be a valuable chess piece in the playoffs. Their offense was plenty good already, but when defenses come with the major scheme adjustments, Kanter can command more attention rumbling down the middle than Adams or Ibaka.
That's the idealized version of what the Thunder get out of Kanter, anyway. Before he justifies this new deal, however, two things will have to happen. First, Kanter has to approach average on defense. Second, Billy Donovan has to know when he's doing more harm than good and be willing to yank Kanter as much as might be necessary.
Maybe this is my cynical side speaking – I don't know anything about Donovan, but I default to thinking he won't pull the max-contract player every time he has to. It's a tough call in any coaching scenario, and we're talking about a rookie NBA head coach. More seasoned coaches struggle with pulling players that need to be pulled, although in that regard you can only go up from Brooks, who frequently stayed too long with his personal favorites (Kendrick Perkins, Derek Fisher).
Still, there will be times when Kanter has to come off the floor. In the playoffs, teams sniff out and prey on every little flaw. Some opponents could play Kanter – a gaping hole in the middle of the lane – right off the floor. Even in March and April when teams with nothing left to play for begin to mail it in, he had a slightly negative net rating and the Thunder were 3.6 points per 100 possessions better with him off the floor. The Thunder very well might have maxed out a minus player.
You can point at any number of facts in counterargument: that Kanter is 23 years old, that he'll be playing next to a one-man rim protector in Ibaka, that the Thunder will try to drum some defensive smarts into him during their first training camp together. Probably none of it matters, because Kanter was one of the single worst defenders in the entire NBA last season. It was a Red Wedding level massacre on that end every time down the court.
Platooning Kanter with Ibaka sounds like a problem solved on paper, but that tandem allowed 109.2 points per 100 possessions in 238 minutes – barely better than the league-worst Minnesota Timberwolves' 109.6 mark. You can bank on some improvement given how little they played together before Ibaka got hurt, but Kanter has a long way to go just to scratch "almost acceptable next to an all-world defender."
He'll never be a rim protector, and teams obliterated him in the pick-and-roll. He didn't have the lateral quickness, or often even the effort, to keep the ball-handler in front of him. KANTER #0 reads as a flashing neon drive-thru sign.
To make this as clear as possible, you're working up from zero on defense with Kanter. There was absolutely nothing good there last season. Sure, he's 23, but so is my neighbour that glares me down from across the street whenever he sees me. Sometimes, you are what you are.
The Thunder are pushing all the chips to center (ayy) for Durant's contract year, simple as that. It's a $70 million gamble for an upgrade, and when looking at the Western Conference, one can sympathize with a risk-taking mentality. Kanter isn't perfect, but the Thunder can work with him to improve their hand internally. Andrew Bogut was thought of as a bad defender when he came into the NBA; Kanter is worse, but he doesn't need to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Finding his inner Kendrick Perkins will do with all he brings on offense. Basketball isn't a game of luck, and some faith in development can go a long way.
That's the absolute best way I can put the Kanter decision. I wanted to acknowledge the chance it works, because while I love making fun of him as much as the next guy, the needle in the conversation has shifted too far towards "he's a lost cause." (The national conversation, anyway; too many of you crazies reading this still swear by him. Thanks for reading!)
Kanter isn't a lost cause, but these are unfavorable odds hinging on total long shot status. A few players with his defensive problems have fixed those issues before – not many of them. If he doesn't improve, then he's either an unplayable max-contract investment or a sitting duck playing over better players.
I don't know which one is worse, but the Thunder were probably better off letting Kanter go and moving forward with Adams. Every team in contention wants that last piece to push them over the top, but a healthy Thunder team is top-5 on both ends without Kanter. Bringing him back to be a max player in contract and status jeopardizes that, and I'm not so sure that safety wasn't a better option than the plunge.