Enes Kanter‘s dominant statistical performances are undeniable. Beyond the box score, how should we view him, and where does he fit in with the Knicks as they set their sights toward the future?
Empty calories. Good stats, zero impact. Over the course of his career, especially in Oklahoma City and in New York, that’s been the book on Enes Kanter.
In some respects, it’s a fair accusation. His defense has improved this season from atrocious—he was, at times, virtually unplayable during his early years in OKC—to just plain bad, which this tanking Knicks front office is perfectly fine with. He’s never finished a season with more than 42 blocks, pitiful for a big of his size. To put that in perspective, Michael Beasley, renowned lockdown defender, has totaled the same rejections as Kanter this season (35). The big Turk isn’t exactly swiping steals left and right either; he’s averaging just 0.5 steals per game this season, right in line with his career averages. It’s not rocket science. Kanter’s nonexistent defense, for the majority of his career, has outweighed his offensive talents.
But here are some facts for your consideration: as of today, Kanter is rocking a career-high 24.5 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), good enough for 13th best in the league; he’s having the most efficient shooting season of his life; and he’s still one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, right behind former teammate Steven Adams and Detroit’s Andre Drummond. Those are all facts, indisputable and unassailable, and they all point toward a notion that is very much not a fact, but could be. For the first time in his career, could it be true that Enes Kanter is playing winning basketball right now?
Of course the Knicks, mired in a 1–14 stretch, can’t win anything, which makes evaluating Kanter very complicated. Does he deserve a spot in the Knicks’ future if the only success he’s shown is on a very unsuccessful team? Would he be playing at this level if he was surrounded by a competent lineup? These aren’t important questions for this season, but this season doesn’t matter. The next few seasons matter very much on the other hand, as the Knicks’ needs around Kristaps Porzingis have been exposed and will need to be addressed. The big question with a capital ‘Q’ then is how much should the Knicks offer Kanter when he hits free agency? And if he asks for more than that figure, should they let him walk?
Kanter has a player option next year for $18,622,514. Although he hasn’t made a verbal commitment to New York, you can bet the house that he’ll take that option and stay for another year. By his own admittance, Kanter loves playing here, and he’d be insane to think another team would pay him more than that this summer. So we’re really asking about Kanter’s place on this roster for the 2019–20 season.
Let’s take a cold, hard look at Kanter as an asset. He’ll be 27 in 2019, entering the back nine of his athletic prime. He’s a groundbound but quickfooted center who has zero range outside of the paint. His horrible defensive principles, on full display in this ridiculously overzealous closeout on Quincy Acy:
Sure, Kanter makes a good recovery and gets the block here, indicative of his improved effort on defense, but with diminished athleticism Kanter won’t be able to erase his mistakes like that. A 30-year-old Kanter will be stuck with the deficiencies he has, and that will play a definite factor in his next contract negotiations, especially in a league that is increasingly gravitating toward mobile defensive bigs that can space the floor.
And on offense, Kanter, um, doesn’t exactly offer a ton of spacing. According to Basketball Reference, Kanter takes more than 80 percent of his shots from within 10 feet of the basket. He’s a vanilla Al Jefferson, and I’m not talking about his skin color; Kanter is a bruising, efficient big man that flat out knows how to get buckets, minus the flashy footwork of Jefferson. His game is all flip shots, sweeping hooks, and “outta-the-way” putbacks on offensive rebounds. It’s not the prettiest basketball. I have never said to myself when watching Kanter play, “give that man $20 million a year.” Sometimes, it can be easy to forget he’s in the game.
That is, until you look at the box score and see he’s got 20 points and 10 rebounds in 30 minutes. Kanter is a scoring machine. Is it an overwhelmingly impressive machine? No. But check out this 31-point, 22-rebound pounding he put on NBA darling Joel Embiid on Christmas Day.
There’s an innate understanding of where he needs to be to score that you simply can’t teach with Kanter. That’s real. That’s valuable. Not many bigs have that in the league, and that type of skill comes in handy during the playoffs, when opposing defenses will key in on star players, the pace slows down, and the someone is left to pick up the scraps. Kanter has made a career off of eating scraps, and he knows it. He doesn’t have an inflated idea of who he is on offense. He’s the rare high-usage player that doesn’t seem like he steals possessions away from his team.
Yet there’s a creeping feeling among New York supporters that, on the dream Knicks squad with championship-level firepower, Kanter would get lost in the mix. He’s a ball-dominant player when he’s not crashing the offensive glass—although he has shown better vision this season kicking passes out to shooters—and he’s just not the kind of transcendent scorer that warrants heavy playing time in big minutes. He’d be a no-brainer max contract if he was a plus defender, but he’s below average on that end at best. I could see Kanter playing a crucial sixth man role in a playoff series as an off-the-bench scorer, but are you really paying that kind of player more than $20 million a year?
Speaking of which, let’s address the elephant in the room: where does Kanter fit with Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina? While New York doesn’t seem all the way in on Frankie, a precocious but slow point guard without much of a jumper yet, he’s a much more valuable asset for them right now on his rookie contract than Kanter. How Kanter plays alongside them, especially with KP, will probably decide his future in the long run.
The answer to that question isn’t incredibly positive. Offensively, it’s a mixed bag. Kanter and KP have great chemistry, and Kanter understands how to cut around KP’s spacing. Ntilikina’s lack of shooting doesn’t jive well with Kanter’s limited range, but Kanter sets solid screens, vital for a point general without a great first step like Ntilikina. If New York can get more shooting (perhaps by drafting Miles Bridges this summer?), it might be enough to free up space on the floor. If not, the Knicks will always have to stagger Kanter’s minutes with Ntilikina.
Defensively, Kanter just isn’t the long-term answer the Knicks need next to Porzingis. KP is one of the fiercest rim protectors in the league, and was leading the league in blocks for much of the season before going down with a torn ACL. He doesn’t need another lumbering big in the paint. He needs a hyper-mobile, small-ball four that can switch everything up top a la Draymond Green or Paul Millsap. Even someone like PJ Tucker, who stands just 6-foot-5 but is ridiculously strong in the post, seems like a more natural fit on defense than Kanter. Tucker is a dog of an on-ball defender, fights around screens, and can space the floor on the other end too.
Kanter fits great with this ragtag group of guys. In a world where the Knicks are good, though, there’s no way he’ll be able to play the way he does now. He’s an efficiency monster, but he also needs the ball in his hands to maximize one of his only real weapons: scoring. Without that, it’s hard to justify devoting him a big chunk of cap space for any real contender.
Kanter looks world class on a tanking team. He might be unplayable on a playoff squad, as he was a few years ago in OKC.
The bottom line is (surprise!) Enes Kanter will not be worth $18.6 million in two years, assuming New York adds other long-term pieces they want to keep. But how much is he worth?
The market, along with New York’s needs, will dictate the price. If the Knicks are loaded on scoring and shooting by the time 2019 rolls around, I can’t see them giving Kanter more than $11 million a season for maybe three years. Again, he’ll be 27 when they start having these talks. If the Knicks do need an off-the-bench spark plug, and the big-man market is dry that summer, I could see them going into the luxury tax to keep Kanter around for a playoff push.
Another factor to take into account is how the front office triumvirate of James Dolan, Steve Mills, and Scott Perry feel about the team. Dolan is always a wild card. Will the Knicks ever get to a point where Dolan would be willing to actually reach into his deep pockets? What are Mills’ and Perry’s plans for the direction of this team? What kind of on-court product do they want to foster over the next two seasons? How they see Kanter is huge. He could just be a stopgap for their tankathon or, at age 25, he could be a piece of their big puzzle. I think he’s worth a five-year, $50 million contract, but I have no idea what Mills and Perry think about him.
Empty calories. Good stats, bad player. It’s been the book on Enes Kanter for his whole career. The next few seasons will either rewrite that notion or set it in stone.