Enes Kanter is a bad defensive player. He has no hope attempting to slow down even moderately talented pick-and-roll operators. Kanter plods his way into the wrong position with incredible consistency, too far from ball handlers to make life difficult and just far away enough from his original assignment to recover in time to keep them from scoring easy baskets at the rim. He frequently gets blown right by in space.
Living with Kanter’s defensive warts can be anxiety inducing, and at times, damning from a competitive context, but somewhat lost in the endless cycle of breakdowns are a set of discrete, positive skills. He’s a massive body and a tireless worker who applies all sorts of pressure on opposing defenses, both from a tactical perspective and in a literal physical sense.
Kanter is a load on the block, applying his size to knock defenders off balance and drop in gentle hook shots with surprising touch. Kanter has always been an efficient scorer, a role he’s continued to fill in Boston, scoring 1.18 points per shot attempt on the season to date, per Cleaning the Glass, placing him the 60th percentile as compared to bigs league-wide.
Bite even the slightest bit on an up fake and Kanter gleefully rams his shoulder into your chest to draw a foul that feels almost unjust, a bully ball style that has taken him to the charity stripe on 14.3% of his total shot attempts, ranking him in the 70th percentile as compared to his positional peers, per Cleaning the Glass.
When Kanter’s not leveraging his ability to score in the post he’s diligently chasing down offensive rebounds. The Celtics’ offensive rebound rate spikes by an absurd 8.4% when Kanter is on the court. Second chance buckets are demoralizing, and Kanter has a knack for breaking opponents’ backs by ensuring Boston has no shortage of opportunities to score them.
The net results of Kanter’s efforts have been decidedly positive thus far. The Celtics have been 7.9 points better per 100 possessions during his minutes. That may seem like cause for celebration, but while it’s certainly nothing to be upset about, there is plenty of reason to approach things with a hint of skepticism. Kanter’s on/off numbers have only been positive once in his career, a 973 minute sample with the Utah Jazz at the end of the 2012-13 season. Every other iteration of every other team he’s ever played for has fared worse with him on the court than tied to the bench.
Reason would suggest that over time Kanter’s numbers will normalize, but there is some hope that his positive impact could persist, and it comes in the form of the Celtics’ head coach. Brad Stevens has many skills, but what he may very well be best at is understanding the strengths of his players, and putting them in situations in which they can be accentuated. He’s deployed Kanter against second units for the majority of the year.
Getting his slow-footed big man repetitions against deeper rotation players - a group that tends to include fewer menacing pick-and-roll ball handlers and slighter defensive match ups more prone to be pushed around - has enabled Kanter to leverage his strengths without surrendering quite as much on the defensive end of the court.
Stevens has cut Kanter’s minutes short when teams have enough depth to pick on him. As such, he’s served as something like a lefty reliever in baseball, applying his craft in contexts that enable success and spending some quality time on the bench when matchups favor the opponent. That’s not an encouraging sign for a potential postseason push, when having players that can’t be played off the court is paramount.
Banking on Kanter to be a productive player in the playoffs is likely a fool’s errand. Understanding that fact is central to appreciating his value in the present. Boston isn’t paying him to be a major postseason contributor, but rather a useful regular season option, and thus far it appears he’s embraced that role. At the very least he’s busting his butt every time he’s given minutes.
There’s a longer conversation to be had about whether or not allocating resources to a player that provides primarily (and potentially exclusively) regular season contributions is a worthwhile strategy, but that can be saved for another day. For now we should celebrate Kanter’s contributions. The Celtics have the good fortune of having enough talent to pick their spots about when to unleash him, and he’s taking care of business when they do.