Enes Kanter: A Panic Move for the Thunder

Enes Kanter spent three and a half seasons in Utah before the Jazz dealt him to Oklahoma City last February. The Turkish center’s strengths include post scoring and rebounding. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) last season ranked 36th among all NBA players which seemed to justify general manager Sam Presti pulling the trigger on the multi-player deal that acquired him and sent Reggie Jackson to the Pistons. Kanter also played reasonably well during 26 games with the Thunder, hitting over 56% of his field goal attempts and pulling down 11 rebounds per contest. Still, it’s hard to ignore that Kanter is a poor defender, racks up few assists, and does little to block shots despite his 6’11” frame. In July, Presti matched Portland’s four-year offer sheet to Kanter, a max-level deal worth $70 million. Did the Blazers strong-arm the Thunder into paying more for Kanter than they ever planned? Even some admirers of Presti’s work have called Kanter overpaid, and I find it hard to look at the contract as much more than a waste of resources.

Maybe this was a panic move to curry favor with impending free agent Kevin Durant. Retaining Durant is an immediate priority, and anything that might give him the perception of a better team could be seen as a positive move. Alternatively, matching the offer sheet may well have been the manifestation of Presti’s desire not to lose Kanter for nothing. After all, the primary player he traded to get Kanter agreed to stay in Detroit for the next five seasons.

Just a few months prior to becoming a very rich man, Kanter actually saw his role in Utah eroding. Rudy Gobert steadily came off the bench to take away his minutes, which is not something you’d expect to happen to a player earning more than $16 million this coming season. Despite his small sample with the Thunder, Kanter’s field goal percentage dropped to 49% in the year and a half prior to his trade, down from 54% in 2012-13.

What’s more, Kanter’s strengths come in areas where the Thunder are well covered, while his negative areas are also problematic for the team as a whole. He rebounds well, but OKC ranked first in team rebounding over the whole of last campaign. The Thunder also tied for fourth in points per game but ranked #24 in points allowed.

Defense is a major weakness for Kanter. To illustrate, both his teams last season gave up around eight more points per hundred possessions when Kanter played compared to when he was off the floor. Even more damning, his Defensive Real Plus-Minus was sixth to last among all NBA players. It didn’t help that he averaged less than half a block per game. For comparison, league leader Hassan Whiteside snatched nearly three blocks per contest.

Another area of weakness for both Kanter and his squad as a whole: creating offense for teammates. The Thunder finished 24th in assists last season, and Kanter isn’t likely to help this cause going forward. His career average is 0.6, which is paltry even for a center.

Looking at the big men on their roster, the Thunder already boast starting power forward Serge Ibaka and a center on the rise in Steven Adams. After that, young forward Mitch McGary did well in limited minutes, veteran Nick Collison has played backup for years with the Thunder, and incoming center Dakari Johnson had a strong Summer League after being drafted out of Kentucky. Only Ibaka has put up numbers rivaling those of Kanter yet this is a team that had enough depth to survive refusing to overpay him. Even Kanter’s skills in the low post look less valuable when you consider that Durant and Russell Westbrook figure to score over 25 points per game each next season. There are only so many touches to go around, and toward the end of last season Dion Waiters also took a large number of shots.

Kanter’s deal also puts the Thunder in a worsening luxury tax situation: even if Presti makes further cost-cutting moves, their bill for the upcoming season will likely exceed $10 million. The following season, Oklahoma City could face the “repeater” penalties for consistently paying more than the tax threshold. All this is ironic considering that in 2012 James Harden was traded away in part due to financial considerations.

Presti will probably hit the new cap just by re-signing Durant and picking up team options on players like Adams. A healthy Durant and Westbrook make a formidable duo, but adding a talented shooting guard next offseason would have been a major boost to the roster. Instead, that cap room is tied up in Kanter, whose compensation certainly exceeds his value to the Thunder.

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photo via llananba