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Trail Blazers Experiencing the Joy and Pain of Enes Kanter

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The reserve center giveth and he taketh away.

NBA: Preseason-Sacramento Kings at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

When the Portland Trail Blazers brought back Enes Kanter in the offseason, he was a known commodity at center, a familiar face for Terry Stotts to work with. Theoretically, there’s a lot of value in having someone that is at least familiar with your system return to your team, and Kanter was very familiar his potential role after helping the Blazers win a playoff series back in the 2018-19 season.

Kanter has spent nine years bouncing around the association. Other teams are well aware what he brings. They know that Kanter is one of the better inside scorers and rebounders in the league, but they also know how much of a liability he is on the defensive end. Everything he does well on offense can easily be nullified on defense.

The question the Blazers have to answer is whether or not Kanter’s offensive contributions outweigh his defensive foibles. Is it really sustainable to have one of the worst defenders in the league as your first big off the bench? Let’s dive into it.

Because we’re trying to bring positive energy into the new year, let’s start with the things that Kanter does well. The main thing that he’s brought to every club he’s played for is inside scoring. Almost every Kanter shot comes from inside the paint. This season alone, 98% of his shots have come from within 10 feet of the basket. Last year, 92% came from that close.

Enes Kanter Shot Chart 2020-21

Kanter has made 67% of his shots so far this year from inside of 10 feet. Almost all of his 47 shot attempts this season have been inside the paint and 39 of them have been right at the rim, where he’s making shots at a 69.2% clip. Last year, he made 61.2% of the shots he took at that range.

Kanter isn’t a traditional big man in the sense that you can get it to him in the post and just let him work. Of his 6.7 attempts per game, only 1.9 of those are post ups (and for what it’s worth, his points percentage on those shots is 76.9%). 34% of his shots come on putbacks, and he scores efficiently off them at a 66.7% clip. It helps when you’re a very good offensive rebounder, which Kanter is; he has the fourth highest offensive rebound percentage this year at 13.8%. Beyond that, it’s mostly the occasional dump off from a guard driving into the lane.

This highlight reel shows essentially what you’re going to get from Kanter scoring wise: putbacks, post ups, dumpoffs, the usual. Against a smaller team like Golden State who only has one 7-footer in rookie James Wisesman, Kanter can feast on the glass.

The downside to Kanter is that he lacks offensive versatility, with all his value in the paint. He’s a strong guy at 250 pounds which allows him to set solid screens, but that’s where his perimeter value ends. When compared to other bigs on the team like Jusuf Nurkic and even Harry Giles — who both provide stellar big-man passing and a little bit of range — Kanter just doesn’t do much else. He’s great if you want to do dump offs and need someone for putbacks. He’s not great for much else.

And now we’ve reached the point where we have to talk about the most glaring issue with Kanter: defense. He’s really bad on this end. It’s hard to watch because he straight up can’t move laterally whatsoever. There’s just nothing that stands out as positive when you watch him play.

Here’s a prime example of Curry getting right by Kanter like he wasn’t even there. Once Kevon Looney gets Derrick Jones Jr. out of the play, Kanter is on an island. There is probably no worse isolated matchup in the NBA than Curry vs. Kanter. Curry just has to turn the jets on and finish over Carmelo Anthony, which frankly isn’t that hard to do it seems for NBA players.

Another example of an All-Star feasting because he can drive right at Kanter: Zach LaVine gets the flip pass, and while we can’t see his eyes because of yet another wonky camera angle from NBC Sports Northwest, it’s probably safe to assume they got real big once he saw Kanter. Again, LaVine gets right by with no problem.

Let’s just do a Curry layup and call it on the clips. This was one is just a fast break layup, one where Curry once again speeds right by Kanter. Curry almost uses Kanter as a way to screen Robert Covington and the result is ideal for Curry. There’s just no way that Kanter is ever going to be able to keep up with that.

Look, Curry is Curry, and he had an all-time-Steph explosion against Portland on Sunday, so it’s probably not totally fair to use those clips against Kanter. LaVine is also one of the more explosive players in the NBA and is a talented scorer in his own right. But those clips illustrate a larger problem. When Kanter is out on the floor, teams are going to continuously attack him. Devin Booker made that clear a long time ago.

This is a big problem for a team that has been quite bad defensively these past two seasons. The hope was that adding players like Covington and Jones to the lineup and having Nurkic theoretically return to peak game shape would help elevate this defense to at least average. Instead, the Blazers are 29th in defensive rating this year after finishing last year ranked 27th. And Kanter is only exacerbating those issues.

The truth is that while Kanter certainly hasn’t solved anything for Portland, he also isn’t the main problem. He’s actually played pretty well considering his limitations to start the year, and he was one of the reasons Portland had a fighting chance last Sunday against the Warriors. Kanter’s deficiencies on defense aren’t the reason the Blazers have been off to an uninspiring start; it’s just a byproduct of it.

The answer might be to put Kanter in lineups with stronger defenders on the court. Kanter often comes off the bench and is paired with Melo, another player who hurts the team’s defense more than he helps. Putting him in lineups where there are stronger defensive wings like Covington or Jones or even Gary Trent Jr. is the best way to maximize Kanter. Not pairing Kanter and Melo together wouldn’t solve everything, but it would be a start.

Kanter is a known commodity in this league. Every team knows at this point what he can and can’t do. He’ll always be helpful scoring inside and always get destroyed by just about anyone driving towards him. More often than not, it hurts when Kanter is on the floor. The key for Portland will be to figure out how to minimize the damage.