The move from starter to bench player in the NBA is not always easy, but it’s one that Portland Trail Blazers center Enes Kanter has handled gracefully. After doing well filling in for the oft-injured Jusuf Nurkic earlier this season, the Turkish big man has continued doing what he does best on the court — getting boards and getting buckets — while coming off the bench.
Since Nurkic’s return, Kanter has come off the bench in eight of the last ten Blazer games. He’s started the other two games in that span while Nurkic sat for injury management against the Pistons and for knee inflammation against the Clippers. During this stretch (including games started), Kanter has recorded four double-doubles and broken a franchise record for rebounds in a game with 30 against the Pistons. That’s a good run of form for just about any average starting center in this league.
Kanter is a flawed player. It’s something that every NBA fan has lambasted the big man for ever since he joined the league. But with the Blazers, he’s showing that he can be a superb role player, whether that’s off the bench or filling in as a starter. What is he doing that makes him so successful?
Here’s what we know about Kanter. We know that he’s a prolific rebounder and inside scorer who is one of the worst defensive centers in the league. We know that he can stuff a stat sheet with ease, but that it doesn’t always mean that he’s helping a team as much as he’s just bumping his stats up. Is that something that’s suddenly changed with Portland? Has he learned how to move laterally without giving Blazers fans a heart attack?
Well, no. He’s still bad defensively. Per Cleaning the Glass, the seven lineups that Kanter has spent the most time with this season give up an average of 117.1 points per 100 possessions. That puts those lineups in about the 31st percentile, which is pretty abysmal. This is a really bad defensive team that has posted a defensive rating 116.1 this year — 29th in the league — and Kanter has not helped at all on that end.
So if he isn’t helping out on the defensive end at al, what exactly is he doing? He’s just doing what he’s always — getting buckets and getting boards — at a better rate than at any point in his career. His scoring numbers aren’t higher, but he’s hit career marks in two-point field goal percentage (60.8%), effective field goal percentage (60.8%), and true shooting percentage (64.1%).
Kanter isn’t exactly a stretch big looking to expand his range. Almost all of his shots come in the paint, specifically in the restricted area, and he’s very good at making those shots. He’s making 66.5% of his shots in the restricted area and 65.2% of his shots within five feet of the hoop, both solid numbers.
But as nice as it is to know that if he gets the ball at the rim that he can finish, it’s even better knowing that he almost always is going to create a shot for himself because he racks up so many offensive rebounds. His 4.3 offensive rebounds per game puts him at second in the league behind Clint Capela who plays about four more minutes per game than Kanter. His offensive rebound percentage of 14.9% also puts him at second behind Capela.
Those stats, however, are what you see if you go by NBA.com. If you go on Basketball Reference, what you’ll find is that Enes Kanter is having the best offensive rebounding season of any player to put on a Blazer jersey. Basketball Reference has him at an offensive rebounding percentage of 17%, which is a solid 1.4% more than Chris Dudley in the 1994-95 season.
It’s not just his offensive rebounding that’s impressive. His total rebounding percentage of 24% on Basketball Reference ranks only behind Marcus Camby’s 24.1% in 2010-11. It has just been an incredible rebounding season for Kanter. And for the record, the 30 rebound game against Detroit was just the fourth since the 1996 calendar year per Stathead (and Marc Stein’s wonderful newsletter).
Rebounding isn’t always the best indicator of impact on a game. There are plenty of players in the NBA — such as Hassan Whiteside and (let’s make Lakers fans mad) Andre Drummond — who have gulfed up rebounds by the dozen and had it not sway the game for the better. Even with Kanter, it usually doesn’t matter in terms of overall impact on the game.
But with the Blazers, his incredible offensive rebounding specifically is so helpful in generating extra possessions. Lamar Hurd points out consistently how having Kanter on the floor means you’re not just getting one shot a possession; you have a real chance at two or three shots per possession.
Take this bucket against Detroit in the 30 rebound game. The Norman Powell floater was actually the second shot of the possession, as the first shot came on a fadeaway from Damian Lillard. Kanter grabbed that too and passed it out for a reset. That’s the value of someone like Kanter; you can afford to miss a couple shots occasionally because you’re going to immediately have a chance to make it up.
Here’s just one more Kanter putback, because I don’t think we need to belabor the point too much. He doesn’t usually soar into the lane for impressive putback dunks, so this play stands out. It also stands out because it was his third offensive rebound in the first three minutes of the game (Amazingly, Kanter’s 12 offensive rebounds is tied for the most in a game this year with — you guessed it — Clint Capela). Mason Plumlee never stood a chance.
I bring up Plumlee not to drag him for not being able to box out Kanter, but because he’s the kind of player that Kanter can feast on. The value of having someone who can start at center coming off the bench is that he’s a mismatch against numerous bigs, whether they come off the bench for a good team or start for a bad one. Even with his defensive woes, he’s still going to dominate backup centers — especially smaller ones — whenever possible.
It’s also highly important that Kanter be someone who can step up in a pinch when Nurkic is unavailable. This is an incredibly difficult and strenuous part of an already taxing season. We just saw one of the best young players in the league, Jamal Murray, have his season ended prematurely with a torn ACL. That’s just one example of how physically demanding it has been to play this season.
That’s why it’s important to give players like Nurkic and Lillard days off so that they can rest. The more a team can manage the load of their best players, the better. It makes guys like Kanter that much more important. He’s an admittedly imperfect player, but it’s a guarantee that when he starts, he’s playing his butt off and doing the most to ensure his team will win.
I’ve joked multiple times with friends about how academics will have to do studies on Kanter one day to try and figure out exactly what it is that makes him a viable option, but only when wearing a Blazer jersey. I will probably keep making that joke well into the future. But while I do that, I’ll also continue appreciating what Kanter brings to Portland.