When ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski first tweeted the details of the deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Knicks fans were split about the the quality of the return: Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and the Chicago Bulls' second-round pick. Now that we have 17 games under our belt, let's take a look at how these players and assets have fared so far.
Even Kanter's harshest critics have to concede that he is a skilled offensive player. Last year, he ranked among the best in the league at post-up scoring and as the roll-man in pick-and-rolls. He is also perennially one of the best offensive rebounders in the league. Despite his impressive strengths, his defensive limitations have dominated the conversation around him his entire career. His value hit an all-time low during the first round of last season's Western Conference Playoffs, when his coach, Billy Donovan, appeared to say, "I can't play Kanter," on camera.
Kanter only played nine minutes per game during the series, after having averaged more than 20 minutes per contest during the regular season. So, when he was brought in as the headlining piece from the Carmelo trade, it was fair for some Knicks fans to think of him as just another negative asset, a bloated salary. But, as you'll see, things aren't so black and white with Kanter. Yes, his defensive struggles are still there, but he's also showing how he can contribute to winning basketball.
The Knicks rank first in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage (OR%), which is widely considered one of the four main factors to winning basketball games. Their dominance on the offensive glass can be mostly attributed to Kanter, who ranks second in the entire league in OR%, snatching up 16.6% of available misses. Often, offensive rebounds are just about desire and playing the angles. Watch him out hustle three Indiana Pacers players, all of whom start in better position:
In that clip, his play led directly to an open three-pointer by Courtney Lee. Every single possession matters in games that go down to the wire, as this one did. The fact that Kanter simply wanted the ball more made all the difference.
Not only does Kanter have the motor, but he possesses a combination of size and strength that has become more rare in the modern NBA. With all the switching that defenses do, smaller players are often left trying to handle Kanter when the shot goes up. This leads to put-back attempts, where he ranks fourth in the league in total points. Watch as former teammate Russell Westbrook is helpless on the switch:
This season, Kanter has again been excellent scoring out of the post, where he uses 28.2% of his total possessions. Out of the 28 players with at least 35 recorded post-ups, Kanter ranks first in the league in scoring efficiency at 1.09 points per possession. He doesn't even have to rely on posting mismatches, like some of the league's more notable post scorers (Blake Griffin and Kevin Love come to mind). Kanter has the size and skill to bury traditional centers like Jonas Valanciunas, and then the footwork to beat them:
Or, the strength to go right through them. I get sore just watching him establish this position on poor Jonas:
He has great touch around the rim and shoots a very strong 69.8% on more than six attempts per game from the restricted area.
The Gray Area
As good as those stats sound, it's not all positive with Kanter. Among the Knicks' nine rotation players, Kanter has the worst net rating at -2.2. He also has the team's worst differential in net rating, which means that New York is 5.6 points per 100 possessions better when Kanter is on the bench versus when he plays (note: I'm not including Michael Beasley as a rotation player).
Some of that disparity likely stems from Kanter's porous defense. The Knicks defend better with Kanter riding the pine, which is no surprise given what we know about him. What is surprising is that Kanter's rim protection numbers have actually been good. Among the 55 players to defend at least 60 shots at the rim this season, Kanter is the 15th stingiest rim protector, allowing opponents to make just 54.7% of their shots at the rim. That leads me to believe that at least part of Kanter's poor defensive metrics are the result of bad luck. Per NBA Wowy, opponents shoot 39.4% from three when Kanter is on the court and just 34.5% when he sits, on roughly the same proportion of attempts. I can't imagine that Kanter's three-point defense is entirely to blame there.
One area where Kanter is partly to blame is transition defense. A downside of crashing the offensive boards is that getting back on defense becomes more difficult. Sixteen percent of Knicks opponents' offensive possessions end in transition attempts - the fifth most in the league. Transition buckets are more reliably efficient than running traditional half court offense, so limiting those attempts is crucial for good defenses. Hornacek has likely concluded that the value Kanter adds on the offensive glass outweighs whatever value he can provide as a transition defender. It's not that Kanter should change his style and get back on defense. He's too good of an offensive rebounder. It's just a reality for Kanter's team - their defense will be more susceptible to transition opportunities while he's on the floor.
There have been games when Jeff Hornacek was forced to sit Kanter during crunch time to keep him from submarining their clutch defense (see the Cavaliers and Jazz games). There are times when he can't identify the main action happening, which leaves him out of position. For example, watch this off-ball screen for Kyle Korver during a crucial stretch against the Cavs:
Kanter seems entirely unaware that his man (a great shooter) is screening for one of the best shooters ever, who is in the process of catching fire. Also, the fact that Porzingis and Kanter are essentially in the same spot indicates that Kanter is out of place on this one. Just standard basketball intelligence would dictate that Kanter should hedge on the screen and make life a little more difficult for Korver. Even if LeBron decided that Korver was too well-guarded, he had a wide open Channing Frye on the wing because Kanter was in no-man's land. Hornacek subbed out Kanter at the next dead ball in favor of Lance Thomas.
One last quirk about Kanter's effect on the team comes on the offensive end and it has to do with shot distribution. When Kanter is on the floor, per NBA Wowy, 18.6% of the Knicks shots come on layups and 44% of their shots are taken from the midrange. When Kanter sits, those numbers greatly shift: 24.9% of their attempts are layups and 36.4% of their shots come from the less efficient midrange. The offense is only slightly better when Kanter sits, which is likely because of all the offensive rebounding that he provides. But, there is no doubt that the shot selection is better when Kanter is out. That's most likely because of the spacing that Porzingis can provide at the center position. When the Knicks play five-out, there is more room to drive and take layups. The paint becomes too crowded with Kanter skulking around for put-backs, forcing the team to settle for midrangers.
Kanter can be a confounding player. The net value he adds is not easy to determine by just statistics or the eye test alone. He's certainly one of the vocal leaders of this team and is a consummate teammate, as he showed by standing up to LeBron James after Frank Ntilikina shoved him. How Hornacek handles Kanter's minutes, especially during crunch time, will be an area to watch as the season wears on.