In one of the wilder trade deadlines in recent memory, Enes Kanter’s trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder slipped somewhat under the radar. After four seasons with the Utah Jazz, they gave up on the former No. 3 overall pick, shipping him along for pennies on the dollar - an expiring contract (Kendrick Perkins), a second round pick (Grant Jerrett) and a future first-round pick. The emergence of Rudy Gobert had marginalized Kanter, who never really fit with the other members of the Core Four.
The original idea was to pair Kanter, an offensive-minded big man, with Derrick Favors, a defensive-minded big man, to form a frontcourt greater than the sum of its parts. The problem, which became obvious as soon as the young big men were promoted into the starting line-up, was that neither Kanter nor Favors could stretch the floor out to the three-point line, almost a prerequisite for a frontline in the modern NBA. To succeed with a two-post alignment, a team needed veteran big men who knew how to play off each other and function in cramped spaces as well as veteran guards who could control tempo and take care of the ball. Needless to say, this was not the situation on a Utah team comprised primarily of under-25 players.
You can see the problem in some of the advanced stats. Kanter shot 70% from the restricted area when Favors was not on the floor, in comparison to 60% when he was. With the two not meshing on offense, the emergence of Rudy Gobert made one expendable. From there, given that Favors is a much better defensive player who is already locked into a below-market contract, the next move was obvious. After their last game before the All-Star break in Dallas, Kanter was saying goodbye to many of his teammates in the Jazz locker room.
Because he was dumped so unceremoniously by the team that drafted and developed him, many fans don’t realize just how talented Enes Kanter is. However, there’s a reason he went No. 3 overall in the 2011 draft despite never playing a second of college basketball due to concerns about his eligibility. What happened to Kanter is not the norm - Ricky Ledo slipped all the way out of the first round due to a similar situation at Providence.
The difference between the two is that Kanter is a 6’11 250 tank who can score the ball like a guard. He first made a name for himself at the 2010 Nike Hoop Summit, when he had 34 points and 13 rebounds in only 23 minutes, breaking a scoring record set by Dirk Nowitzki. Kanter was a man amongst boys at the event, routing a Team USA frontline that featured future NBA players like Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones and Meyers Leonard. In footage of the game, you can see Kanter’s unusual combination of skill, finesse and touch on such a massive frame.
Getting buckets was never the issue for Kanter. Whatever his problems in Utah, he never had much trouble putting the ball through the basket. In his first four seasons in the league, he had per-36 minute averages of 16.5 points on 50.2% shooting despite a career usage rating of only 22.6 and never playing with a stretch big man.
But while he was a clumsy fit in Utah, he fits like a hand in a glove with the core in Oklahoma City. The ideal partner for a center like Kanter - a gifted post scorer whose never been much of an interior defender - is an athletic rim protector who can cover out to the three-point line on defense and can punish teams from doubling Kanter on offense. Enes Kanter and Serge Ibaka should make each other better on both sides of the ball, fitting together like Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler.
One of the biggest problems for Oklahoma City over the last few seasons is the lack of offensive production from the center position. Scott Brooks loyally stuck with Kendrick Perkins through thick and thin while Steven Adams, for all his potential, is still a fairly robotic offensive player who struggles to put the ball on the floor and make plays in space. Teams could feel free to double off them and crowd the paint in an effort to stop Oklahoma City’s stars.
Kanter’s addition allows the Thunder to play total basketball in much the same way as the Spurs. They can attack you on offense from all five positions, something which they couldn’t do before. Even Ibaka, for all his offensive skills, is still a fairly limited shot-creator whom other teams could go small on with relative impunity. If you go small on Enes Kanter, he will destroy you in the post, on the glass and on the offensive boards.
While Adams and Perkins have higher numbers as roll men, they have also benefitted from playing next to Ibaka, who has turned himself primarily into a three-point shooter in order to open up the floor. Put either them in the cramped confines of the Utah offense and their numbers would shrink considerably. Neither is in Kanter’s league as a back-to-the-basket scorer, although that part of his game will probably not be a huge feature in the Oklahoma City offense.
Kanter’s flaws on defense, meanwhile, can be somewhat hidden due to the amount of length and athleticism in front of him at the other four positions. To play great defense, the rule of thumb is you need to have either great defense at C or at PG, SG, SF and PF, since the C is the second-line of defense. The Thunder stars have the tools to be great defenders - they no longer need to rely on playing limited role players like Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha to succeed on that side of the ball. Enes Kanter needed Oklahoma City and Oklahoma City needed him.
Whether or not he starts games is not a huge deal, since he has to be on his best behavior with his new team if he has any hope of garnering a massive contract once he enters restricted free agency. Kanter, along with Kyle Singler and DJ Augustin, gives the Thunder the type of sustained punch they have not received from their bench since the days of James Harden.
In the aftermath of that still controversial trade, Oklahoma City has tried to fit a number of different guys with a number of different styles into that role. From Kevin Martin to Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III and Dion Waiters, all have fallen short in comparison the ghost of Harden, who has loomed in the public imagination over everything the Thunder have built.
In a great line from the TV show Scrubs, the ex-wife of one of the main characters (Dr. Cox) finds out that he has a new girlfriend vying for his attention: “Let me guess. Let me guess. Dark haired, domineering, doesn’t take any of your crap? You see, a lesser person would mock your inability to move on. I’m going to consider it an homage.”
Over the last three seasons, the Thunder have been building an homage to Harden. The problem is that it’s virtually impossible to replace having a No. 3 overall pick coming off your bench as a sixth man. Martin, Jackson, Lamb - none of those guys could replace Harden because none of them have the talent to be the MVP of the entire league on a different team.
Enes Kanter doesn’t either, but he is a former No. 3 overall pick with the ability to explode for a 20-25+ point game at the drop of the hat. The difference between Harden and Kanter is that Kanter can be the roll-man for Westbrook and Durant while Harden would always be somewhat marginalized in Oklahoma City playing with two other ball-dominant perimeter players. For all his struggles in Utah, Kanter is still remarkably young - only one month older than Mitch McGary. If the Thunder can slide a 6’11 250+ bruiser with a soft touch into Harden’s role, the rest of the league better watch out.