Jusuf Nurkic going down in the manner that he did is one of the darkest timelines I could’ve imagined for this iteration of the Portland Trail Blazers. In a season that looked to be unfurling just the way the Blazers hoped it would post All-Star break, things just haven’t gone their way. However, this isn’t about the team as a whole or about Nurkic; instead it’s about his frontcourt doppelganger—Enes Kanter.
Added to the Blazers as a buyout free agent seemingly out of nowhere, Kanter was brought on board to supplement the Blazers frontcourt. Where teams were angling to get wing help where they could, Portland knew they weren’t candidates to add depth there and instead offered the whole enchilada—all of the back up big minutes—to Kanter in hopes of zigging where all the other playoff teams zagged. By adding Kanter, the Blazers could bludgeon teams to death in the paint with 14 feet and 600 pounds of center. There isn’t a team in the league that could combat that night in, night out, let alone for a seven game playoff series.
The thinking was sound and the application was off to a rousing success until a series of the most unfortunate events occurred. In their time of need, Kanter has delivered more than anyone could rightfully ask of him. In his 6 games as a starter, the Blazers have gone 4-2 with Kanter manning the middle. Granted, some of these games have featured rosters that could make up a modern version of a “Guess Who” board game, but Kanter has nonetheless delivered handily.
One of the main reasons for bringing in Kanter is that it allowed Portland’s first and second units to run the same basic offenses with varied personnel. It also allowed for Kanter to scoop a few minutes up if Nurkic picked up some cheap fouls. While Kanter still doesn’t know all of Portland’s sets, he has started to build one helluva rapport with Damian Lillard. You can see each anticipating the others moves on the pick and roll a bit quicker each night. Kanter is also making things easier on mismatches in the post by getting down the court early and often with deep post position to get a straight post up opportunity going in lieu of perhaps running a set he’s less familiar with.
The results are bearing fruit pretty quickly. On top of that 4-2 record, Kanter is averaging 19 points, 10 rebounds, and is shooting an astounding 65 percent from the floor. He’s had 20 or more points in four of the six games and two games of 15 rebounds in that stretch. The fact that the Blazers are getting that kind of production from a “back up big” is truly astounding. We can talk about next man up all we want. That kind of production doesn’t just fall off the tree—what Portland is getting from Kanter right now is downright special.
With the results from Friday night’s action in the books, it’s now more than likely that the Blazers will face Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz in the first round than anyone else. Things could go completely crazy and another matchup could be had, but for now, this is the most likely scenario. It’s set up to test a couple different narratives and/or questions: can Kanter be played in a playoff series against a pick and roll team?
Gobert and Donovan Mitchell arguably sport the most athletic combo the Blazers could face. Don’t let the Defensive Player of the Year noise around Gobert let you forget that he’s about as sure a two points around the rim as anyone in the league. Let’s put this in perspective here: Nurkic attempted 7.3 shots per game in the restricted area, that’s 15th most in the NBA, and he finished 58.8 percent of them. Gobert attempted 7.7 shots in the restricted area per game and finished 72 percent of them. So Gobert is getting MORE looks than Nurkic at the rim per night and finishing MORE of them. Don’t get it twisted—Gobert is a problem and asking Kanter to solve that problem with Damian Lillard is not a simple task.
There is a glimmer of promise over the hills. While Kanter’s defensive deficiencies are noted, it’s not for a lack of effort. He made Nikola Jokic work on the both ends of the floor in their matchup Friday night in Denver, and while that’s not near the same kind of pick & roll scheme he’ll see against Utah, it’s the latest in a growing volume demonstrating that Kanter ‘cares’ about working on the defensive end.
While—let’s be honest—it sucks something awful that Portland doesn’t get to go to the big show without the full cast, Kanter and his production gives them a puncher’s chance more than they would have without him. I know I’m not usually the one to look on the bright side, but in this case take a minute and enjoy what the Blazers are getting from Kanter. Drop the expectations for the playoffs and enjoy what may or may not come out of them. At bare minimum, enjoy Enes Kanter’s play while Portland has him.