On Wall Street, companies have perfected the art of setting expectations for investors. Set them too high, and even a good year can be punished by investors if those targets were not met. Set them just right, or even somewhat low, and an ordinary performance can suddenly look unexpectedly good.
Similarly, expectations play a huge role in any evaluation of Enes Kanter’s 2019-20 season for the Boston Celtics. If you came into the year expecting Kanter to take a hold of the starting center spot following the departures of Aron Baynes and Al Horford, well, then you would have been quite disappointed by the fact that the Turkish big man started just seven games all year and logged the fewest minutes per game since his second year in the league with the Jazz. But if your expectations were for him to be a decent, backup-caliber center, then it’s hard to say that Kanter didn’t do what was asked of him. Look, at this stage in his career, Kanter is what he is – a bruising, old fashioned big man whose defensive struggles put a dampener on an otherwise talented offensive player.
It feels like a lifetime ago, but after losing Baynes and Horford, much of the attention going into Opening Night was who the Celtics’ starting center would be. Of course, we now know that Daniel Theis was handed the starting spot and never looked back, but at the time, much of the debate was whether or not Kanter would be in that starting lineup. With a deadly (and ball-dominant) foursome of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Jayson Tatum, Stevens knew that the starting center may not necessarily have the ball that often in their hands, and so he opted to stick Kanter with the second unit.
“Kanter can do things and has some things he does really well that, I think, is just unique. He’s obviously going to play,” noted Stevens during the preseason. “We’re trying to figure out if it’s best with the starting unit or best to bring him off [the bench] so you can play through him a little bit more on the block and those types of things. That’s probably the case, if we continue to start all those guys on the wing.”
It was always going to be a center-by-committee deal for the Celtics this season, and in Kanter, Daniel Theis, and Robert Williams, the C’s had three uniquely talented centers to throw in during various situations. Of the trio, Kanter is the only one capable of getting a bucket on his own, but his clear defensive limitations meant that it was an awkward fit with the starting lineup. Instead, by sticking him with the second unit, Stevens allowed more of the offense to run through Kanter, who finished the year averaging 8.1 points and 7.4 rebounds on 57.2% shooting in just over 16 minutes of action a night. By sending him out with the second unit, it allowed Kanter to predominantly face backups too, where his defensive deficiencies would be mitigated as much as possible.
As we saw in the playoffs, different matchups called for different big men, and despite some of his shortcomings, Kanter was still able to provide some solid minutes for the Celtics in the postseason, especially against Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers. Embiid was the exact matchup Danny Ainge brought Kanter over for. With Theis lacking the size to deal with Joel and constantly getting in foul trouble, Kanter played a big role in (at least somewhat) limiting Embiid. Part of the reason he was able to manage against Philly was the fact that the Sixers don’t run too many pick and rolls – where Kanter really struggles against smaller ball-handlers attacking him.
Against more perimeter-centric bigs in the second round against Toronto, Kanter took more of a backseat, with Timelord instead filling in most of the minutes as the backup center to Theis.
Game 5 against the Heat, though, showed just what Kanter at his best can provide to any team. Down double digits in the second quarter of a win-or-go-home game, Brad Stevens turned to Kanter to try and give the C’s a boost, and he did just that. With both Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum struggling in the first half, the big man gave the Celtics 8 quick points in the quarter, with a series of offensive rebounds and layups, as Boston made a concerted effort to find him down low against Kelly Olynyk.
The Heat did what every other team does when Kanter comes in – they tried to run pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll on him. The Celtics just about managed to hold their own defensively, though it helped that Miami just couldn’t convert some of the good looks they got against Enes. That spurt by Kanter was key to keeping the halftime lead at 7 points, allowing the Celtics to turn a 41-point third quarter into a win to force Game 6.
Stevens tried to get the same energy boost from Kanter in Game 6 as he did in the previous encounter, but there was much less of an effort to get him the ball (2 FGA in 7:35 of action vs. 7 FGA in 10:10 in Game 5) and this, in turn, limited his productivity. He was a -11 in his time, as the Heat were able to convert some of the good looks they missed the previous night while Kanter wasn’t able to get those points back on the offensive end.
And therein lies the rub with playing a traditional, old school back-to-the-basket big man – so much of their offensive value comes with the ball in their hands that when they’re in the game it’s almost necessary to force feed them to make the playing time worthwhile, especially when they’re also a defensive liability. But the Celtics aren’t oriented to spending multiple possessions letting Kanter go to work on the low-block, and it’s no coincidence that he recorded the lowest usage rate (19.4%) since his rookie season.
When Kanter doesn’t have the ball in his hands, almost all of his value on offense comes on the glass because he is not much of a floor stretcher or playmaker. Per Cleaning the Glass, he rebounded 16.0% of Boston’s missed field goals when he was on the floor, easily the highest mark in the league. His conversion rate on the putbacks wasn’t great – logging just 1.03 PPP (43rd percentile), though some of that is also skewed by his tendency to miss bunnies right at the rim and grab the rebound himself.
But in an era shifting towards versatility on defense and shooting on offense, Kanter has neither. This places a limit on how effective he can be on any team. He is a situational big who can often be played off the court (as Billy Donovan knows all too well), but to his credit, it should be noted that the big man has managed to play solid minutes in the conference finals in each of the past two years.
As Jared Weiss and Jay King of The Athletic reported recently, “it’s more likely at this point that he is going to opt out and test the market. Kanter is happy in Boston and may even be willing to take on a more diminished role to stay, as Robert Williams and Grant Williams are likely to take even more minutes next season.” It would be an understandable decision for Kanter to opt out, as he can likely find a much bigger role in other places next season.
Should he opt in, that $5 million contract may very well be a useful salary this offseason (just as Aron Baynes was) in a potential trade as the Celtics search for upgrades around the roster. Assuming Robert Williams can build off the progress he showed in the bubble, and hopefully stay injury-free, the Celtics may very well look to shift Kanter on for more help on the bench or even a center who can truly stretch the floor. If there is one thing the Celtics are really missing amongst their logjam of centers, it’s one who can allow the team to play five out without having to go with the “best five” lineup - though if Grant Williams’ three-point shot continues to improve, he may be the long term small ball center.
In a Celtics team with a defined young core centered around guards and wings, Kanter is something of a tough fit as someone who needs the ball in his hands to succeed. After an understated season from an otherwise outspoken player, moving him on for someone more effective without the ball in their hands could help take the Celtics over the hump next season.