Through 3/31/18, Enes Kanter has 14.1 PPG, 11.0 RPB (7.1 defensive), 1.5 APG (vs. 1.7TOV), .5BPG, and .5SPG. He’s shooting a career high 59.2% from the field and 84.8% from the line. He has an oRTG of 122, TS% of 63%, and WS/48 of .199. If you look at the statistics, he’s having a fantastic season. Why is it then that the Knicks continue to struggle with him on the court? Of the 71 games he’s played in this season, he’s had a positive +/- in only 22 games. Even with the gaudy stats he is putting up, the team is struggling. I’m not going to pretend like he is the only reason, but, as you will see a little bit below, even though he’s a great paint scorer and rebounder, he is an issue.
When he’s on the court, the team has a higher eFG% (by .002%), TRB% (by 2.1%), and oRTG (by 1.6%) than when he is off the court. On the flip side, the opponent’s eFG% is higher by .036%, they have a lower TOV% by .7%, and their oRTG is higher by 4.2. Even though the team is scoring at a higher clip per 100 possessions more efficiently, they are allowing the other team to be much more efficient and score at an even higher clip. This leads to his expected win total to be -7 than with him off the bench, making a team with an expected win total of 34 fall to 27. (Stats taken from cleaningtheglass.com.) The efficiency differential is -5.7, which ranks in the 26th percentile in the entire NBA. That is bad. For comparisons sake, Kyle O’Quinn, someone whose box score stats are much more modest than Enes’, has a differential of +4 (74th percentile) and an expected win total of +10. One final defensive metric – Kanter’s DRAPM is below poor defenders like Jahlil Okafor, Al Jefferson, Joakim Noah, Dirk Nowtzki, Willy Hernangomez (who I was against trading and thought Kanter should have been the one shopped heavily even before this season). * For someone as efficient on offense (mainly in the paint) as Enes is, why does this happen? Why is his impact so limited? Short answer, defense. Let us take a closer look at some film.
When teams play the Knicks, they know to attack the team a few ways in particular – off ball movement (because too many players ball watch) and heavy pick and roll action. Enes Kanter’s defensive issues are at the forefront because not only does he get exposed in PnR coverage (where he gets attacked 62% of the time, according to Synergy), but his help defense leaves a lot to be desired.
The Knicks have been having their bigs drop back in coverage in PnR, opting to play a conservative style of defense since KP’s injury (although they were trying different styles before, including having the big hedge to the ball handler). Utah does this same thing with Gobert, but they have the guy guarding the ball jump the screen (something many Knicks players have issues with) and continue to shade the ball handler after the screen was set, funneling the ball into Gobert (who is arguably the best rim protector and big man defender in the NBA, with perhaps the exception of Joel Embiid). Obviously, this is much easier when you have an elite defender that understands the schemes and takes the right angle for the scheme than it is when you have someone who is a step slow and without the defensive ability.
When teams attack Enes in the PnR, a few things jump off the page – (1) he drops back too far when the ball handler defender is not shadowing the ball player, giving up wide open jumpers (22nd percentile guarding jumpers and 38th defending runners, both high volume areas out of the PnR) ; (2) hand placement is poor with his hands usually down instead of at the sides making the pocket pass more difficult; (3) lack of (or lackluster) contesting the shot and him running towards the glass instead (this is an issue in most areas with his defense); (4) lack of general awareness. These are the main reasons why he’s in the 18th percentile in defending the PnR guarding the role man and 39th percentile. His lack of contesting shots is evident in his ranking in the 11th percentile in guarding spot ups.
Let’s look at the videos for his defending the PnR.
In this clip, THJr does a good job jumping the screen and beating Noel to the spot. This forces DSJr to reject the screen and go away from it. Instead of reading this and stepping up to contest, Kanter drops back too far and gives up the open jumper (30th percentile defending all jumpers off the dribble). *I will note that giving up the mid-range is better than getting blown by in a drive to the rim, but he should have been able to close the gap a little bit here before the shot went up. Instead of fully contesting, he puts in a minimal effort contest
In this clip, Dotson does a good job getting over the screen (although he does give up a little too much room for the drive). As this is happening, Lance bumps Nurkic off his spot in his dive – this was great help. As this was happening, Kanter should have been closing the gap to Turner. Instead, he continues to sink back to go for the rebound, thus giving up the Turner finish.
In this clip, after the inbounds to Nurkic, Portland gets into a quick dribble handoff (DHO) movement with Lillard. Nurkic goes to set the screen, Kanter drops back, and Frank is at the bottom splitting the court in half as he is supposed to. However, Mudiay does not beat Nurkic to the screen and gets caught up in it, even though Nurkic half slips the screen. As this is happening, even though Kanter *should* know that Frank is in the correct spot on defense (as is THJr splitting the court off Turner at the nail), he continues to fall back instead of closing the gap on Lillard and contesting the shot. Had Kanter done this properly, the gap would have been smaller and he would have been able to help contain Lillard.
In this clip, we have a Turner / Nurkic PnR. Lance gets caught in the screen but does a good job angling Turner towards Kanter. However, Kanter is not where he is supposed to be. Lance does a good job containing Nurkic on his roll to the basket, but Kanter is too far back – this gives Turner a good 8 feet before anyone gets in front of him in his drive to the basket. By the time Kanter finally closes out, Turner is 10 feet away and it’s too late.
His help defense and rotations also have issues, as you will see below.
This clip is a straight isolation of Barnes on Thomas. On the baseline, you have Kanter guarding Noel about 15 feet away, well out of his range. The first issue is Kanter is staying too close to Noel. Instead of splitting the court, he is staying on the back quarter of the paint instead of staying on the angled area of the restricted area close to the low block (or, if you want to play super safe, splitting the court entirely and “two-nining” the middle). As Barnes begins his drive, Kanter stays attached / too close to Noel instead of rotating over for a contest. It’s possible Kanter isn’t quick enough to rotate there as Barnes puts the ball on the ground, but the issue is moot if he is where he is supposed to be to begin the play. If he is splitting the court at the angled restricted area, Barnes’ drive is impeded (at least by a little bit) by Kanter.
In this clip, Kanter makes the correct rotation. However, it is a step slow and look at his hands – instead of being up to block Turner’s line of vision, they are down. Even if they were at the sides, that would have been better than them being down (though the pass would have gotten through anyway). Even before he makes the rotation there was a mistake – look at where he is in relation to the post up. Kanter is defending Nurkic on the weak side. Instead of staying on the weak side, he should have been way closer to Turner near the low block on the strong side and splitting the court in half (two-nining the offense). Because Kanter is a step too far from Turner on the post up, he is a step late on the help / trap, and is caught with his hands down – thus allowing the easy pass from Turner to Nurkic.
Off dribble jumper.
I watched many clips before writing this article, but this one was the most bizarre one because of the time Kanter has to recover before Barnes shoots. Kanter ends up switched onto Barnes in an isolation (30th percentile defending all jumpers off the dribble). He backs up knowing that Barnes will likely get by him, but when Barnes picks up his dribble, Kanter stays where he is and contests too late. Barnes literally has the ball on the side of his hip changing hand placement on the ball for a brief period before he shoots it, and Kanter is still late on the contest.
Over the last few games of the season, watch Enes Kanter’s defense. Watch the space he gives up in the PnR, watch the late rotations, watch his hands down at his sides in PnR and help defense instead of being up or at the sides to prevent passing angles, and watch him put in a minimal contest to grab the rebound. He tries hard on offense, plays with passion on offense, rebounds well, and loves New York. I can understand why some fans like him. However, when you begin to watch with a closer eye looking for specific issues, you understand the issues other fans have with Kanter, why Billy Donovan famously yelled on National TV last year in the playoffs that he couldn’t play Kanter anymore, and why his overall impact on offense is mitigated by his defensive effort. If you want to play Kanter, you need to protect him – he needs to play with high level defenders at the other positions to help cover for his mistakes. If not, he should only be used sparingly. Some of these things are correctable (dropping too far, hand placement, poor angles, etc), so there is some room for hope. At what point are a player’s tendencies so set in stone that they are uncorrectable? Is his 7th season too late? Maybe it’ll be better in his 8th? I’m not so sure. For fans of Enes Kanter, they can only hope that it’s not too late.