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Sounds of Thunder: are the Oklahoma City Thunder building a defensive wall for Kanter?

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The Thunder need more Kanter’s scoring punch, but to get it they need more from him on the defensive end.

In order to stay near the top of the NBA’s Western Conference in the post-Durant era, the Oklahoma City Thunder need to devise a way to make up the deficit between the Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, and themselves. There are few options:

  1. Find a way to score more points with the current roster
  2. Find a way to reduce opponents scoring
  3. A combination of both.

Any of these options present a tall order, considering the former Thunder star averaged 28.2 PPG last season and an overall Net Rating of 11.2.

My guess, and this hardly qualifies as any leap of faith, is that Billy Donovan will opt for Plan C from the options above, a combination of both. And the most logical place to start finding this balance of the two involves getting Enes Kanter more minutes, but it won’t be easy.

The Kanter Conundrum

Kanter averaged 21 min/gm last season and finished the season in the top ten for PER, 24.0, and third best on the Thunder roster. He was tops in the league in Offensive Rebounding percentage at 16.7, thus the best rebounder for the Thunder last season, and his adjusted 36 minute stat line for scoring is impressive at 21.7 PPG. That number would likely put Kanter in the league’s top 15 if the Thunder can figure out a way to get him the extra 15 minutes.

Since season’s end, the Thunder’s 2015/16 starting five has been reduced by two: Durant’s defection to Golden State and the Serge Ibaka trade with Orlando for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the 11th overall pick of the 2016 NBA draft, Domantas Sabonis. Between the pair, Durant and Ibaka combined for 67.9 minutes of court time, and normally the extra 15 minutes the Thunder need out of an offensive juggernaut like Kanter would be a no-brainer. The problem for Billy Donovan and the Thunder is that the good news about Kanter’s potential to add offensive punch for the team ends on that offensive end of the court.

Throughout his NBA career, Kanter has not just been a defensive liability, he has been a defensive disaster. A prime example of that came after the 11th hour trade in February, 2015 that shifted Kanter’s “defenseless” skill set from Utah to Oklahoma City. Prior to the trade, the Jazz’s Defensive Rating was a woeful 106.1, or 26th in the NBA, and after the trade that number improved to 94.8, tops in the league and almost 5 points better than their closest competition.

To his credit, Kanter did show some defensive improvement last season. His footwork was better and there is no denying he played a huge role in the Thunder’s stunning playoff victory over the San Antonio Spurs. But to be the best you have to beat the best and the big Turk’s effectiveness ended in the Western Conference Finals against the defending 2015 NBA champs, Golden State Warriors.

The Kanter Solution: Part 1

The first option to the Kanter problem is for Enes to improve defensively. Hopefully, his newfound commitment to said improvement continues and the best place to begin would be learning the proper technique for taking a charge. I may be wrong, but since coming to OKC, Kanter has yet to set his feet and draw a charging call. To my knowledge, and I have challenged Jazz fans to scour their memories, and neither they nor I have witnessed Kanter taking a charge in his entire NBA career. After observing him closely for the past 19 months, the reason for that is pretty obvious. Enes avoids collisions like I avoid shark infested waters. (Ever since 1975 and the movie Jaws, I have made it a hard fast rule to never go anywhere that I am not at the top of the food chain.)

Close contact, no matter the size of the opponent, no matter how physical, doesn’t appear to phase Kanter one bit. In fact, as we saw in the playoff series with the Spurs, he thrives on it. But when his opponent is coming at him from a distance, no matter how much of a size advantage he may have, he can’t set his feet properly and either gives up an easy lay-up or is called for a foul as he dances away.

Kanter’s avoidance of collision is a natural defense mechanism programmed into every human’s DNA. We are all born with it. From Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Development by Robert L Burgess and Kevin MacDonald, Chapter 7, Human Emotions as Multipurpose Adaptations: An evolutionary perspective of the development of fear, subsection Fear of Collision, page 200:

Contrary to popular belief, basketball is a contact sport, and in order to be effective defensively, a player needs to take the occasional charge. That means overcoming our natural fear of collision, something Kanter has apparently never conquered.

(On a side note: If you are reading this Enes, you are not alone. I was never able to overcome this particular phobia either. The good news is there are techniques to help and since you tweeted this response:

to Colin Cowherd’s absurd assertion that no one wants to play with Russell Westbrook, I am behind you 100%)

There is a right way to take a charge, and a quick bit of research produced these Youtube videos on the subject:

Obviously these instructors are not working with NBA level players, so I looked and found this video that Shane Battier, a tremendous NBA defensive player who was assigned the task of stopping Kevin Durant in the 2012 NBA Finals, made on the subject:

For the record, I am not under the delusion that Enes Kanter will be a “great” charge taker like Battier or Nick Collison, but he must overcome his fear and set his feet when an opportunity arises. As it currently stands, opposing players know he won’t hold his position and they attack him with complete confidence because they know at the moment of truth he will move away from the collision and they will either score and get the and-one call or get two free throws if they happen to miss.

This is precisely why opposing offenses immediately begin to attack the paint with total abandon whenever Kanter enters a game. That has to change. To have any chance to be moderately effective on defense Kanter must, as Battier put it, begin to “cast doubt in the mind of the offensive player” and most importantly, remember Battier’s rule of protecting oneself if the offensive player is Dirty Dray....

or try:

Fortunately, most NBA offensive players set limits on just how “low” they will go, but in both videos above, the fear of collision was addressed. Battier said courage is the most important element necessary to taking a charge. He and Sefu Bernard both confirmed that this particular element of defense hurts, and as we learned from the study on human development, it just isn’t natural to stand in front of a world class athlete as he is barreling toward you if there is time to get out of the way.

Aside: one of the most memorable moments of the disastrous 2014-15 season occurred when rookie Mitch McGary took his first official NBA charge. Just a regular season game somewhere around halftime, but McGary’s reaction was such that one would think he just nailed the winning shot in game 7 of the NBA Finals.

He ran to the Thunder’s guru on taking charges, Nick Collison, in a show of jubilation that had nothing to do with the fact that he got the call or that the Thunder gained a possession. McGary was celebrating the conquering of a primal fear, and the smile on his face was exactly the same the look of exhilaration a toddler has when they take their first steps. He did it! and more importantly, he knew he could do it again.... and did.

Personally, I think Kanter’s development on defense will always be compromised until he overcomes his fear of collision in the paint. In the meantime...

The Kanter Solution: Part 2, Build a Wall Around Him

In the debates that proceeded the Thunder signing Kanter to his current contract, there was a widely held opinion among his supporters that the return of Serge Ibaka would improve Kanter’s defensive woes. It didn’t.

The one encouraging sign that came out of those first few months with the Thunder at the end of the 2015 season was Kanter’s +1.2 Box Plus/Minus (“BPM”). It was a first in his career to not finish in the red in that stat. Unfortunately, rather than that number improving with Ibaka’s return, it swooned to - 1.7, and his -3.1 DBPM last year was the worst of his career.

How that drop may have factored in on the decision to trade Ibaka is unclear, but it became obvious in the WCF’s that until Kanter can hold his own in the paint against the rhythm and flow type of offense that Golden State runs, he needs more help from the Thunder’s perimeter defense than he could get from Ibaka.

Enter Victor Oladipo, stage right.

Yeh, that’s the kind of help I’m talking about!

Whoops!

ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?! Call the cops!! THAT MAN WAS ROBBED!!!

I give up... forget the gifs.... just watch the whole thing!

OLADIPO!!! A player whose perimeter defense is so good it makes me salivate like one of Pavlov’s dogs and gives me a Riddler joy-gasm.

Just a few more tasty VO5 tidbits from a New Year’s Day article at NBA.com’s Pure Magic:

  • Amongst players who have appeared in at least 20 games and defend at minimum three 3-pointers per game, Oladipo ranks sixth in the NBA in guarding the 3-point line (LeBron James, Rodney Hood, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Nicolas Batum are only players with better mark).
  • Nearly 42 percent of his opponent’s shot attempts come from behind the 3-point line. Oladipo does a terrific job preventing opponents from driving past him. He has outstanding lateral quickness and a knack for foreseeing an opponent’s movements. Oladipo often forces his opponents into step-back jumpers. (ala Waiter’s Island)
  • Oladipo is the Magic’s best player at drawing charges. He is willing to take the contact and is good at planting his feet and staying outside the restricted area. Oladipo is on pace to lead the team in charges taken for the second straight season. (attention Enes Kanter, take notes)
  • Oladipo is very good at timing shot attempts and coming up with big blocks. Amongst all guards in the NBA, Oladipo is tied for fifth in blocked shots per game. He is also excellent at contesting shots at the rim and avoiding fouls.

And the cherry on top? Oladipo can score... and has improved every year he has been in the league:

Basketball-reference.com

Combine Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson’s own elite defense, Russell Westbrook’s defensive potential (meaning it can be elite whenever he wants it to be), and the brute force of Steven Adams in the paint, and the image of a protective wall for Kanter to hide behind begins to emerge.

Behind that wall defense could become the Thunder’s stock and trade and it might become contagious. Great defense requires total team effort, which promotes a team first mentality, which in turn could translate into better team offensive production.

Oladipo will take a charge, Westbrook and Roberson will take a charge, and Adams will even take one in the buttons. If Kanter will ever take his first charge and join the fun, he will catch the defensive bug and the Thunder could find themselves in the hunt for a championship yet again.