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Dissecting the Enes Kanter debate

Enes Kanter’s style of play has driven a wedge between Celtics fans. The stats tell one story and our eyeballs tell another. Which do we trust more?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Enes Kanter’s style of play has divided Celtics fans into two factions. One wants him traded and the other sees him as a key piece. As is the case with wedge issues such as this, there’s no middle ground, and each side has no interest in compromising with the other because you’d be working with “those people.”

So let this piece be a place of moderation. I’ll present the two sides as best I can, you all can read them, and then we can retreat back to our corners and resume throwing things at each other. Sound good?

Perspective #1: Stats don’t lie

Numbers have been very friendly to Enes Kanter. While his scoring and rebounding totals are low due to some missed games and inconsistent minutes, he’s filled up the stat sheet in every game he’s played extended minutes:

All games with 20+ minutes

His advanced numbers are great, too. He’s third on the team in box plus-minus (4.1), has the team’s best offensive rating (127), and a decent defensive rating (102). While those numbers tell us very little of what he does on the court, we can still conclude, at the very least, that Boston’s production does not fall off when Kanter is on the court. And in some instances, they do very well with him out there. If you like the individual plus-minus ratings from box scores, then you’ve probably taken notice that Kanter is typically a plus.

Kanter’s renowned rebounding has been exactly as advertised. His 18.7 rebounds per 100 possessions are on par with his best previous seasons, and his 8.1 offensive boards per 100 are tied for his career best. Even his steals and blocks are compiling at a slightly faster rate than usual.

The flip side is that playing Kanter’s best games don’t align with Boston’s best games. As you can see above, the Celtics are 3-3 when Kanter plays 20 or more minutes. When he plays less than 10 minutes (or none at all), Boston is 10-0. The reality is that none of Boston’s wins or losses have hinged on the performance of Kanter, but it is a little alarming how lopsided the results are when he plays less.

Perspective #2: I saw what I saw

Watching Kanter play defense can be torture.

I’ll play devil’s advocate for a few seconds: let’s recognize that it was Semi Ojeleye’s job to box out Kristaps Porzingis. Kanter is technically defending Dwight Powell, and very clearly conceding the corner three. He then puts a hand on Porzingis before turning to the basket, which Ojeleye probably saw as a signal to let Kanter box out, causing a moment of miscommunication. They can share the blame.

But the next part? Explain this frame to me:

Players make mistakes. This was not a mistake. Giving up on the play to communicate “where were you, bro” through arm gestures is not accidental.

Does this exact situation play out very often? No. Am I cherry picking? Also, no. Kanter gets turned around on defense pretty often and the Celtics give up a ton of points in the paint as a result.

The flip side is that Kanter has been able to guard Joel Embiid in the post, or so it may seem. In 11 minutes and 53 seconds spent guarding him over the span of two games, Embiid is 7 of 18 from the field and 1 of 3 from deep. This accounts for 20 points on 18 field goal attempts, but doesn’t factor in five free throws on eight attempts. Overall, that’s 25 points on 18 field goal attempts in 12 minutes. This, by my calculation, is a lot of points.

Ultimately, I think people will see what they want to see with Kanter and ignore the rest. Personally, I think he’s a capable offensive player who’s comically clumsy with the ball. I’d also admit that he’s a sturdy defender on post ups, which doesn’t make up for unacceptably bad help defense. As playoff games often boil down to mismatch hunting, I’d rather it not even get to the point where I have to consider Kanter’s place as a contributor in important games. As the Celtics have so few contracts that are worth dangling in trades, Kanter becomes a prime candidate to match a small salary to bring in depth at a position of need. Boston’s ceiling will be raised by player development more than Kanter playing time, so I’d rather see Grant Williams and Robert Williams get all his minutes.

Objectively, Kanter’s numbers are evidence that the Celtics can do well with him. Subjectively, we may never agree on his impact depending on how much we value offense and defense.

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