The big Thunder questions of the day involve the possible terms of Enes Kanter's contract and when he will sign it. I have resigned myself to the fact that Enes Kanter will be in a Thunder uniform next season, but I have concerns. Deep seated, gut level concerns. I can't shake them.
Yes... they are in regard to Enes Kanter's defense... or more accurately, how poorly he plays defense and the possible negative effects it could have on what is the most critical season to date in Thunder history. There is no denying it, Kanter is a bad defensive player. In fact, if you want to find out where Kanter ranks, it will save you time to start from the bottom up.
Kanter's offense? Start at the top of the league's big men and go down. No arguments there.
It's all about the defense. And that brings me to my first concern.
Does Kanter's offense trump his defensive game?
Kanter not only scores points, he also rebounds the ball very well. A point used as proof that his defensive liability is overblown. When in doubt, I find it valuable to see what the best in the business have to say about a question before I make my conclusions and found this blog at NBA.com written shortly after the San Antonio Spurs won the 2014 NBA Championship. What Gregg Popovich, San Antonio GM R.C. Buford, and some of their players had to say was very revealing:
"What we found were that teams who weren’t as effective defensive rebounding were still ranking incredibly high in defensive efficiency. The areas that they were focused in appeared to us to be field goal percentage defense. So we felt like we needed to go back to parts of our system that would improve our defensive field goal percentage."
Spurs GM, R.C. Buford
"We slipped a little bit and we knew if we wanted to get back to the top, we needed to get back to where we were [defensively] when we were winning championships."
Spurs starting Point Guard, Tony Parker
"[It was] just coming in here from day one in training camp and making it a priority," Duncan said, "making them understand that every game, every film session, everything else, this is what we’re going to hang our hats on."
Spurs future Hall of Fame Power Forward, Tim Duncan
After crunching the defensive numbers, the Spurs concluded that reducing their opponent's offensive shooting percentage outweighed rebounding.
"We thought that’s what was missing against Oklahoma City [in the 2012 conference finals] that we couldn’t make stops when we needed to. We would call them ‘stops on demand.’ In fourth quarters and big games you have to be able to do it. We just worked at it, I mean, it’s basketball. There is nothing magic about it. You know, we worked at it and the guys committed to it, and we got better defensively."
Spurs Head Coach, Gregg Popovich
Pops may have understated his team's improvement a bit when he said they "got better." After finishing the 2012 season as the 11th ranked defensive team in the NBA and adjusting their focus to defensive field goal percentage, the Spurs jumped to 3rd and 4th in 2013 and 2014 and earned back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals including the championship in 2014.
Here is a sobering fact. In the 37 years since the NBA started tracking turnovers and defensive efficiency, only 3 teams have won a championship that finished the season with a defense ranked lower than 10th. That number reduces to 1, the 2000-2001 Lakers, in the last 15 years. Even the mighty Spurs and "Pop's Perpetual Scoring Machine" have never won a championship with a defense ranked below 4th.
How can a team cut their opponents' offensive field goal percentage and get those critical 4th quarter "stops on demand" Pops mentioned, if their center is giving away lay-ups and wide open 5 foot jump shots like free samples on the frozen foods aisle? They can't.
There are many that guarantee that Serge Ibaka's return to the lineup will cover for Kanter's defensive shortcomings. My question then becomes what would stop opposing teams from sending a shooter into the game that draws Serge out of the paint and then exploit Kanter's wide open paint policy over and over? The answer is, nothing. Otherwise the Thunder are allowing a shooter a chance at uncontested target practice.
We must not forget that the NBA is not some glorified game of H.O.R.S.E. Defense and championships go hand and hand, so my conclusion is, no, Kanter's offense does not trump his horrific defense. He must improve and the burden of that improvement ultimately falls to Kanter which leads to my next concern:
Will Kanter truly commit to improving his defensive game this season?
When Pops spoke of the Spurs' defensive success, he said there was no magic to it. They worked on it and his guys "committed" to it. Billy Donovan spoke about his personal views on commitment at his news conference held shortly after being named the Thunder's new head coach. You can read more about those comments here:
"Here's what I think, when you're in a highly competitive situation, you hear the word commitment used. Ok? And I just believe this in my heart to be true.There's three types of commitment.The first commitment is a verbal commitment, someone says they're going to do something. Well anyone can, that's the easiest commitment.The next commitment is a physical commitment, you know? When you're physically committed to doing something.And then the third commitment is an emotional commitment and that's when you actually give of yourself to somebody else. That you are actually emotionally connected to somebody else and emotionally take responsibility to help others...to help somebody else develop and grow."
...His fundamentals, instincts and positioning leave a lot to be desired. He can often be found standing straight up in the paint with his arms down, putting in little to no effort. He rarely boxes out his opponent and generally looks disinterested in anything that has to do with defense. He rarely bends his knees and often fails to get back in transition--doing very little to protect the paint when he does.
While it's not unheard of to see high school players competing in this nature, there's no question that man to man defense is an area that will be a major transition for him at the NBA level, something the coaching staff of the team that drafts him must be prepared for. It's tough to know how much of Kanter's lack of effort is a product of environment and how much is simply a personality trait. If it's personality based, that's more of a concern. Would a high motor player allow himself to be exposed in this manner?
To his credit, we did see Kanter exerting far more effort in settings such as the Nike Hoop Summit and the NBA Combine. But was he simply willing to go full throttle in these instances because his livelihood depended on it? It's difficult to say, which is why not having a full season of film to evaluate really makes his projection on this end of the more more guess-work than anything.(emphasis mine)
Little to no effort? Looks disinterested? Failing to get back in transition and doing little to protect the paint when he does? Yep, that's our boy.... and I am not just referring to Kanter's time with the Utah Jazz. In Kanter's last season, he was just as disinterested in playing defense during his time in OKC. Four years have passed and Givony's analysis still fits.... perfectly.
After stating he would work on his defense in multiple end-of-season interviews since entering the league, yet failing to improve each and every time, why should I suddenly believe Kanter's defense will improve this season? Because he said he would work on it at his interview this past April? What does that matter? Fourth time is a charm?
Either the physicality required to play solid post defense just isn't in Kanter's nature, or he just plain old doesn't want to, but either choice is irrelevant. In terms of defense, Kanter will never reach Donovan's most difficult to achieve emotional level of commitment if Kanter can't or won't first make the physical commitment. If it came down to betting that Kanter defense will improve, I think I would have better odds of winning with a lottery ticket.
To multiply the problem, even if by some miracle Kanter woke up this morning a completely changed man with an unquenchable defensive fire in his heart, he would still be at a 2011 experience level. The Thunder don't have time to play nursemaid to a center playing rookie level defense.
When I conclude that Kanter's offense does not outweigh the defensive liability and couple that with the unlikelihood of him showing any marked improvement in the foreseeable future, it leads to my most disconcerting concern:
How will Kanter react if he doesn't start or worse, finds himself in the chair recently vacated by Jeremy Lamb?
The Thunder enter the 2015-16 season with championship expectations. Kanter has to prove he is more valuable on the floor than he is on the bench and he has a very small window to work with. In his most recent end of season interview, Kanter said it didn't matter if he starts or not. As I have pointed out, he also said that money was not his number one consideration for returning to the Thunder sideline and has repeatedly stated he would work on his defense. I am left with little option other than taking Enes' claim about a starting role with a grain of salt.
I also disagree when Kanter's supporters claim that Utah never gave him an opportunity to develop. He started the first 14 games for the Jazz in 2013, averaging well over 30 minutes per game and Utah lost 13 of those games. The Jazz brought Kanter off the bench for his next 4 games and the Jazz won 2 of them, then started him the next 4 and lost all 4. Over the course of the 2013-14 season, the Jazz started Kanter in 37 games and won only 3 times, or just 8%. In their remaining 45 games in which Kanter didn't start or didn't play at all, the Jazz won 22 of 45 games, or 48.8%.
The Jazz enjoyed better success the next season when Kanter started under new head coach Quin Snyder winning 17 of Kanter's 48 starts, or 35%, but after shipping him off to Oklahoma City, the Jazz won 19 of their remaining 29 games, or 65.5%. Stretch that winning percentage over the entire season, it tops Portland's 62.2% mark and Utah is the 4th seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Rudy Gobert has never played with any other team besides Utah and it apparently hasn't hindered his development.
It doesn't take a genius to see that in Utah's case, more Kanter was bad, less Kanter was better, and no Kanter was best. What can we expect if that trend continues with a smaller margin of error with the Thunder?
As we learned this past season, two points can mean the difference between making the playoffs or not. Next season, that same tiny margin could equate at some point to home court advantage in a critical post-season series. Advanced statistics are numbers that Billy Donovan holds near and dear to his heart and the Thunder were 6 points per 100 possessions better last season with Kanter on the bench. Any lineup combination where Kanter's presence reduces effectiveness will lead to cutting his playing time. More lineup combinations that Kanter negatively effects will simply translate into more time on the bench.
Kanter's recent history suggests that as his minutes drop, his dissatisfaction rises. The last thing the Thunder needs with the built-in media distraction created by Kevin Durant's contract expiring at the end of next season is another disgruntled player that feels he is being unfairly treated and demanding a trade.
Playing the heavy is generally not my style. I prefer to focus on the positive side of all things Thunder related and I have sincerely tried to follow suit with Kanter. Unfortunately, red flags are all I can see when I look at Enes.