The Thunder, nearing the end of 2016, are a surprising 8 games over .500 and sit 5th in the West. That this season’s team belongs to Russell Westbrook is no surprise; the outstanding question however was always going to be, would it matter? As in, even if Westbrook were to somehow record a triple-double every other game (crazy talk!), would the rest of his team still be good enough for it to make a difference in the packed Western Conference? Steven Adams is a cornerstone, Victor Oladipo would hold some promise, but the entirety of their theoretical team concept was shrouded in mystery. And one of the odd men out, it would seem, a valuable trade piece many argued, was OKC 6th man Enes Kanter.
Elite as he is in scoring and rebounding, the argument would go, his inability to either play consistent defense or make his teammates better (a big man rarity) would ultimately render him dispensable toward more needed assets.
Well, the defense is still a question mark (but getting better?), but one thing that has been revealed in OKC’s current 5-1 stretch is that something is happening to the Thunder bench. After losing back-to-back games at Portland and Utah in depressing fashion, OKC responded with an offensive resurgence despite the injury to Oladipo, the continued absence of 2nd year PG Cameron Payne, and the spotty backup play of Semaj Christon. Yet during that stretch, the Thunder have recorded an offensive rating of 116 while shooting 50% from the floor (eFG 55.2%) and a finally respectable 36% from 3-point range. Westbrook has been otherworldly and Adams seems to have overcome his recent injuries that were inhibiting his effectiveness, but the biggest surprise during that stretch has been OKC’s bench. In those 6 games, despite being shorthanded, the bench has averaged 44 points per game, often times performing more efficiently and collaboratively than the starting five. What happened?
Success, like failure, is a team-driven formula, so many things are working right for the 2nd unit. But one thing that a bench needs to have in order to be useful within the flow of the game is an identity. It could be offensive firepower, defensive acumen, 3-point shooting, etc., but something has to provide them with an identity on which to thrive.
I would argue that what has transformed the bench from an early season disaster to their current secret weapon has been the post play of Kanter, and not only from a pure scoring perspective. To be sure, Kanter has been phenomenal, averaging 15.5 PPG on 61.3% shooting (but careful on those free throws, Enes!), but what has opened up the 2nd unit’s offense has been his ability to shape it from the post position.
Without caveat, I think it’s safe to say that Kanter is one of the top natural low post players in the league. He has nearly every tool in the tool box. He knows how to spin baseline, curl into the lane, step through defenders, shoot fadeaways, drop in a hook shot, and pick and pop. In fact one could argue that he’s a less gangly version of Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, right down to the fact that for a time McHale came off the bench for those great Celtics teams:
Scoring the ball has never been an issue for Kanter, but as the Thunder bench struggled and defenses began to get wise of how to double team him, the bench offense ground to a halt.
Thunder coach Billy Donovan has long been hailed as a man who wants to coach his offense through his big men. More specifically, he wants them to be able to scan the floor and make the necessary pass to spring the guards and wing players for open shots. The flow has come in stops and starts, and for Kanter there were early season growing pains:
Send a defender like long-armed #35 on the baseline to cut off Kanter’s spin move, and Kanter is either forced to pivot into the middle or, as Donovan desires, fire a pass to the open man. The problem was, as you can see, the Thunder’s spacing was less than ideal and Kanter’s passing a tad north of pinpoint.
But fast forward a month and we see a vastly different kind of play out of Kanter, and the result is high percentage shots and a free-flowing 2nd unit offense. What I love about this stuff is that it isn’t complicated, but swims in a sea of nuances. Furthermore, it doesn’t even manifest significantly in the box score, but that’s the beauty of post passing. It only takes a couple well-timed passes to the right spots on the floor to open up everything else. Even the great Tim Duncan, who evolved into the premier post passer over the last decade, averaged only 2-3 assists per game for most of his career. To paraphrase the great Bill Russell, it’s not that you have to pass it every time; the idea is to make the defense believe you might pass it to the open man, and that can make all the difference.
To examine Kanter’s improved passing play over the past few weeks, here are a handful of clips that demonstrate his growing command of orchestrating the offense from the post.
Our first play is a garden variety help defense breakdown caused simply by off-ball movement after the pass goes into the post. Roberson engages the offense and then, since he’s not the spot-up target on the play, cuts through the lane. Joffrey Lauvergne, who also could present himself as a spot-up option, also cuts through the lane, which confuses Evan Turner. Turner unnecessarily helps while his own man, Anthony Morrow, is only one pass away. Easy kick-out, easy shot.
On this play, the Timberwolves’ defense is properly set as Lauvergne throws the entry pass (it could have been Alex Abrines as well). Now, it is a game-within-a-game between Kanter, his defender Jordan Hill, and Abrines’ man Zach LaVine. While the defense is set, LaVine shows the double team too early, and now Kanter has him guessing. When LaVine finally commits to the trap, Abrines has properly spaced himself in the wing so that it is an easy pass for Kanter to make. LaVine is one of the best athletes in the NBA and is able to provide a hard close, which makes Kanter’s patience on the play all the more critical.
On this play vs the Celtics, the Thunder are actually not well spaced, but Kanter still capitalizes on it due to even worse defense from Marcus Smart. Kanter’s outlet, Semaj Christon, is not a good 3-point shooter (19.4%, 6-31 on the year). It is not a horrible thing to sag off of a weak shooter, but Smart fails to keep Christon in his line of sight the way LaVine did above. As a result, Kanter seizes on Smart’s horrible positioning and angle, and with quick eye contact, sends Christon to the rim where he receives the easy pass and lay-in.
This play, which is similar to LaVine’s defense, is useful in that it provides a baseline view of the problems Kanter is causing for a defense even if properly positioned and played. Tyler Johnson, guarding Abrines and positioned properly, has Abrines in his line of sight, and never over-commits. But since Kanter has already had his way down low against the Heat defense, eventually Johnson has to move both feet into the lane to take away the middle. You can almost see his decision-making process fly through his head as he finally decides to crash down on Kanter, but it is the wrong decision and Abrines is ready.
On this play, Kanter is being guarded by Paul Millsap, a capable defender but undersized in the post. Because the offense is engaged quickly, Kanter has 11 seconds to figure out what he wants to do. He can get his shot at any time vs Millsap, but patiently he is looking for either a cutter or a shooter. When Andre Roberson, guarded by Kyle Korver, curls into the lane, Korver makes the decision that Robes isn’t a threat and moves to take away the baseline. Kanter then MAKES Robes the primary threat, hitting him in stride on his way to the rim.
No-one is ever going to confuse Jared Dudley for #35 above, but the strategy is the same. He abandons Kyle Singler to take away the baseline, thinking that his defense, anchored by 7 footer Alex Len, will take away the passing angle to the far break as Golden State did in the 1st clip. Instead of forcing the tough skip pass, this time Kanter holds the ball for a full 5 seconds waiting for the play to develop. Singler and Christon switch spots, which leaves Christon’s defender to guard two men. He stays with Christon in the corner, which springs Singler free. Singler makes the aggressive cut, and a quick pass from Kanter nets an easy bucket.
Finally, the culmination of all these sequences leaves us with my personal favorite, which is actually a Kanter hockey assist to himself. Kanter is working for position against Heat power forward James Johnson, who does a great job shutting off the baseline. Wayne Ellington also does a great job quickly taking away the middle from a Kanter counter-spin while still keeping Abrines within his field of vision. When Kanter fires out of the double-team to Abrines, a play that is approaching second nature between the two because of all the iterations outlined above, Abrines is ready and in position. However, Ellington closes aggressively but not recklessly, taking away Abrines’ shot. But because of Abrines’ comfort level with this set, he quickly fires back a bounce-pass to Kanter, who has not given up his own spot, and in fact has improved on it, getting deeper position and an easier entry into the lane for his hook shot.
This is the beauty of these simple two-man games. When you have a player with as many offensive tools as Kanter, you can’t take away everything; you just have to try and take away the easiest thing. But with Kanter’s passing, even the previously hard things are becoming easy through Kanter’s quick decision-making and awareness. Even players who are known as non-threats such as Christon, Roberson, and Singler are becoming threats because of how Kanter is forcing defenses to account for every option at his disposal. And as we see in this final example, it ultimately makes Kanter himself a more effective scorer as well.
Last but not least, Kanter’s play is now giving him the confidence to do stuff like this, much to everyone’s delight: