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Enes Kanter’s trailblazing past gives a glimpse into the near future

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Kanter is not a superstar, but he is a seasoned veteran who has proven he knows what it takes to win at the playoff level. 

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Enes Kanter has received criticism for his perceived defensive ineptitude for most of his career, with his lack of lateral quickness and sub-par defensive IQ being the primary targets. Perception is everything, and while Kanter is never going to make an All-NBA defensive team, he plays his role with devotion and energy.

It’s easy to forget the 6’11’’ Turkish big was the starting center for the Portland Trail Blazers during their run to the Western Conference Finals in the 2018-2019 season, going toe-to-toe with the likes of Steven Adams, Nikola Jokic and Andrew Bogut during that run. So how did a supposed defensive liability help guide that Trailblazers team to the conference finals? And could such a skillset help the Celtics defend All-Star Eastern Conference bigs in Orlando?

I went back to the tape to look for answers. I re-watched all of Portland’s playoff games in the spring of 2019 to see how the Blazers utilized Kanter’s skillset on both ends of the floor. Then I came back to this season with the Celtics and re-watched his games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks. The similarities became apparent.

Lining up against his former teammate and friend in Steven Adams, Kanter was tasked with slowing down the hulking center, who bears a resemblance to a Dothraki straight out of Game Of Thrones.

Adams has a reputation for being a ferocious competitor who thrives on the boards while hurting teams when rolling towards the basket. The 7’0’’ horse-lord does not, however, possess a respectable jump shot when outside the restricted area.

Portland capitalized on Adam’s lack of perimeter game by placing Kanter primarily on the low help-line, allowing him to roam between the strong and weak sides but never pushing up further than the nail. Placing the Turkish center between the low blocks ensured a sturdy body waited for Adams whenever he rolled towards the hoop.

Portland utilized taggers to slow down the driving Adams, allowing Kanter time to set his feet and absorb the contact or contest the shot.

By restricting Kanter’s defensive assignments to the paint, Portland charged up their help scheme. He’d begin possessions playing drop coverage, his most effective defensive role.

Throughout the five-game series with Oklahoma City, Kanter was a force on both sides of the floor. The towering Turk averaged a double-double of 13.2 points, 10.2 rebounds. He also racked up two assists per game, all while shooting 57.4% from the floor. Defensively Kanter’s presence (along with Zach Collins) deterred many Thunder attacks on the interior, with only 37% of attempts coming within four feet of the basket per Cleaning The Glass.

When faced with interior threats who don’t project to stretch the floor, Boston has adopted a similar defensive style for Kanter throughout the current season.

There is a primary difference: the Celtics require Kanter to help with rotations in the paint to keep their defensive movement alive, which has yielded mixed results throughout the year.

In the second series for Portland, Kanter had the unenviable task of matching up with Nikola Jokic. Tall, powerful, and incredibly skilled on the ball, Jokic poses an unconventional threat. Terry Stotts, head coach of the Blazers, changed Kanter’s defensive role throughout this series, placing him on the high help-line.

Kanter performed admirably during this series, finishing with a box score of 12.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and a shade under an assist per game. Portland ran the offense through Kanter 16.1% of the time he was on the floor, which he repaid by shooting an efficient 47.4% from the field and pulled down 9.3% of available offensive rebounds. Portland ran the offense through Kanter by utilizing him as a dribble hand-off initiator, or offensive outlet on the low block.

Stotts’ also made adjustments to account for Jokic operating as the de facto point guard. The Blazers put their center higher up the floor ensured that if the Nuggets big man drove, Kanter would be able to stay between the ball and the basket to contest shot attempts.

Jokic is one of the slowest players in the league, but he is also one of the craftiest, so Kanter allowed enough space to read the floor before closing out on his opponent. Sure, there were times Joker cooked Kanter down low, going into his bag and getting smooth finishes around the rim. But no NBA coach game-plans for All-NBA players by trying to neutralize them entirely; it’s all about limiting their efficacy.

Kanter, for the most part, played enthusiastically. He got under Jokic on drives and closed out with a purpose to deter jump shots or dribble hand-offs that threatened a cut to the nail.

Brad Stevens has tried to utilize a similar defensive system when dealing with stretch bigs, placing Kanter higher up the help lines and employing his defensive specialists to hedge the floor stretchers off the three-point line.

Boston has a deeper rotation of bigs, who each specialize in different areas of play. Kanter fits better off the bench when facing stretch bigs, where he can play physically for short bursts, then return to the bench while the likes of Daniel Theis perform the more intricate defensive duties.

In the final series of Portland’s run to the Western Conference Finals, they squared off against the weakened (yet still effective) Golden State Warriors.

For their series against Portland, the Warriors turned to three players to combat the threat Kanter posed on the boards. Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Andrew Bogut all had spells dealing with Portland’s glass eating center, meaning Kanter’s task was to deal with them on the defensive end.

Both Green and Iguodala are capable of scoring from outside the three-point line, while still posing a threat on the drive or in the post. With such versatility thrown at him, Kanter’s task was to play on the block and closeout if the ball found it’s way to his man on the perimeter or a drive was to occur.

Unfortunately, the Warriors’ speed and switchability exposed the weaknesses is Kanter’s game. Golden State continually sealed Kanter on drives or placed him into rotation situations, which exploited his lack of lateral quickness.

Offensively, the Warriors did a fantastic job on Kanter, holding him to 6.8 points and seven rebounds in 17.8 minutes per game, something no other team had done during Portland’s run to the conference finals. Struggling to impact the game, Kanter was moved to the bench for the final two games of this series as Portland continued to search for answers to Golden State’s stifling defense.

Overall, Kanter outperformed the expectations of his critics in the 2018-2019 postseason. While not a plus-defender by any stretch, the lovable center was a force on the offensive glass and respectable on the defensive end, performing his role with constant effort and enthusiasm.

The Celtics are renowned for putting players in positions to succeed under Brad Stevens, and Kanter has been a beneficiary of that this season. Operating with his lowest usage rate (18.1%) since his rookie year (15.6%), Kanter has found his way into the league’s elite rebounding ranks on both the offensive and defensive glass, where he’s blocked out space above the 90th percentile in both categories per Cleaning The Glass.

With such a low usage rate and tremendous impact on the boards, Kanter is perfectly primed to elevate the Celtics once the playoffs roll around. Having been there before, the big man is capable of coming off the bench and notching a double-double with regularity.

Basketball Index has tracked Kanter’s performance on the defensive end this season and has him ranked in the 65th percentile for player impact plus/minus. Per 100 possessions, teams score 0.5 points less when Kanter is on the floor as opposed to when he’s on the bench.

For $5 million per year, Kanter has performed beyond his contract value, anchoring the defense with his intimidating size and physical presence while keeping plays alive on the offensive end. Kanter is not a superstar like some of the players he will inevitably face-off against, but he is a seasoned veteran who has proven he knows what it takes to win at the playoff level.

While the Celtics may lack All-Star talent at center, they have a bevy of situational talent that will allow Stevens to get creative with his rotations and keep opponents guessing. With the transaction window now closed for waivers and free-agent signings, we can expect to see Kanter dominating the glass over the next few months, and let’s hope he can replicate his Portland impact for Boston.