• Perhaps the most defining moment of Enes Kanter’s NBA career to date was the result of a play he didn’t make.

    In the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the first round of the 2017 playoffs, Kanter, then with the Oklahoma City Thunder, waited at the elbow as the Houston Rockets’ Patrick Beverley and Clint Capela ran a basic high ball screen. When Beverley turned the corner around the pick, Kanter began tentatively backpedaling, neither committing to the ball nor prioritizing preventing a lob to the rolling Capela. After the Rockets big man threw down an alley-oop from Beverley with neither player meeting much resistance whatsoever, the cameras turned their focus to the Oklahoma City sideline, where Billy Donovan leaned over to an assistant and uttered the phrase that will no doubt be on the minds of the Portland Trail Blazers leading up to the playoffs.

    “Can’t play Kanter,” he said.

    Kanter played 16 minutes in the Thunder’s Game 1 loss, and just 29 minutes over the remaining four games of the series. He got 21.6 minutes per game during the regular season as Oklahoma City’s first man off the bench, averaging 14.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game with a true shooting percentage a hair below 60.0.

    The Thunder, in their first season without Kevin Durant, needed all the offensive punch they could get, and Kanter provided it more consistently than any other player on the roster save for Russell Westbrook. They needed his production to keep pace with the Rockets, especially, who’d finished just behind the Golden State Warriors for first in offensive efficiency, but Donovan knew Kanter would give on defense as much as he got on the other end – and perhaps even more given the presence of James Harden, the league’s most dangerous pick-and-roll ball handler.

    Two years later, the major takeaway from Kanter’s game remains the same. What that means for his potential postseason role with the Blazers, though, is still somewhat uncertain, and will be at least until the field is set for good on April 10.

    Kanter’s numbers, like always, certainly support the notion that he would be an important piece of Portland’s playoff rotation. He’s averaging 10.0 points and 6.7 rebounds in 18.3 minutes per game since signing with the Blazers on February 21, shooting 54.2 percent from the field and 78.9 percent from the free throw line. Each of those numbers fall right in line with career norms on a per-minute basis, as does Kanter doing an overwhelming majority of his damage offensively from the restricted area and just outside of it. He’s 1-of-10 on shots taken beyond the paint, including missing all six of his above-the-break three-point attempts.

    Unsurprisingly, Kanter has been exactly the player with Portland who more ardent league followers have known well for years. His reliable offensive production tantalizes, and his negative defensive impact almost renders it completely inconsequential. The Blazers have actually fared just fine defensively with Kanter on the floor thus far; his 108.3 defensive rating is a shade below the team’s overall mark in the 13 games since his acquisition. But a more thorough examination of the numbers and film tells the same story about Kanter’s defensive performance as it always has.

    Kanter’s net defensive rating is +2.7, worst on the team. The Blazers are stingier in terms of field goal percentage against and three-point percentage against with him off the court. Opponents are shooting a scorching 67.2 percent at the rim with Kanter on the floor compared to just 59.9 percent when he’s sitting. Portland also grabs a slightly smaller share of defensive rebounds without him manning the middle, too.

    All of the defensive limitations that have plagued Kanter since he entered the league in 2014 have reared their ugly head with the Blazers. He moves in sand while sliding laterally, doesn’t have the length or leaping ability to effectively challenge shots at the rim, and is often a step slow getting into position as a help defender – extra debilitating given Portland’s ultra-conservative defensive scheme.

    Kanter does everything right initially while defending this pick-and-roll between Jamal Crawford and Richaun Holmes: He calls out the coverage, cuts off the drive by stationing himself at the elbow, and even gets back between the ball and the basket after Crawford slips a bounce pass to the rolling Holmes. None of that early work matters in the end, though, as Kanter’s choppy feet betray him while Holmes euro-steps around to the rim for an unencumbered finish.

    Kanter isn’t long or explosive enough to be a good defense’s primary last line of protection at the rim. But many solid defensive outfits get by despite employing subpar shot-blockers on something close to a full-time basis, with the player in question compensating for that weakness by maintaining the integrity of the defensive string. Kanter, unfortunately, just can’t be counted on to be in the right place at the right time, arguably the most important factor a single player brings to Portland’s system.

    In the clip below, he can be seen communicating with Seth Curry as Paul George isolates Al-Farouq Aminu at the top of the floor. Most offensive players stationed in the strong-side corner prohibit their defender from digging down to help on a drive due to the threat of a catch-and-shoot corner three, but not Nerlens Noel. Regardless, Kanter sticks to Noel as George straight-line drives to the rim and draws a foul, leaving Curry noticeably frustrated.

    Means of limiting the influence of Kanter’s defensive ineptitude grow smaller in the playoffs, when teams spend extra time game-planning to exploit the weaknesses of specific players. Coaches most easily work around that issue by matching the minutes of an imminently-attackable defender against those of the opposition’s greatest offensive threat. Terry Stotts did just that in the Blazers’ overtime loss to Oklahoma City on March 7, three times bringing Kanter in or taking him out of the lineup when Westbrook checked in or out of the game.

    Expect Stotts to take the same approach should his team match up with the Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Rockets, or Denver Nuggets in the playoffs. Finding Kanter minutes against the two-time defending champions might be impossible, and it would be nearly as difficult against Harden and Chris Paul. Stotts could match his minutes against those of Nikola Jokic against Denver, especially if Jamal Murray is also on the bench with the Nuggets’ best player. Kanter’s viability versus other playoff teams will probably depend on the flow of the game. If Donovan Mitchell or Lou Williams get hot, for instance, playing him against the Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Clippers could prove nearly as problematic as it would against Golden State.

    Of course, Kanter could force his way into a consistent role against some potential postseason opponents if he proves a bellwether for Portland offensively, but that just hasn’t been the case to this point. The Blazers score 19.2 points more per 100 possessions with Kanter on the bench, a massive discrepancy explained by major dips in true shooting percentage, assist rate, and pace when he’s on the floor. Kanter’s presence has no positive effect on Portland’s offensive rebounding numbers, either. It’s also not like he’s lacked the opportunity to play with the team’s top players. Lineups featuring Kanter and Damian Lillard, playing perhaps the best basketball of his career right now, have an offensive rating of just 101.4, well below the Blazers’ season-long mark.

    Kanter certainly brings a lot to the table offensively. He has incredible touch in the paint, the patience and footwork necessary to finish over or around longer defenders, and a canny understanding of screen-setting. Like Jusuf Nurkic, he routinely engulfs defenders while setting picks on the ball, and is also adept at the advanced art of flipping screens at the last minute, giving penetrators a new path to the rim.

    But the space Kanter yields for Portland’s drivers and shooters as a screener, and his looming threat as a roll man whose knack for finding creases in the defense creates passing lanes for ball handlers have taken a backseat to his proclivity for post-ups on the left block. In years past, that might have been an acceptable outcome of his time on the floor, but Kanter just hasn’t been effective enough with his back to the basket to warrant the number of touches he’s received as a primary option.

    He’s been used more frequently in the post since signing with the Blazers than any player in the league save LaMarcus Aldridge. Kanter is producing only .95 points per possession from the block, though, an average number beset by his problematic turnover rate and relative inability to draw fouls. Portland went to Kanter on the left box for three separate possessions late in the third quarter of a win over the Los Angeles Clippers, with no points to show for it despite the fact he was being guarded by the 6-foot-6 Montrezl Harrell.

    In the postseason, will the Blazers really be able to afford going to Kanter on the left block for several possessions a game? It wouldn’t matter as much if he made his presence felt elsewhere offensively, but he’s not cleaning the offensive glass at his normally dominant rate, and Lillard, especially, has seemed reluctant to use him as a release valve on short rolls when teams double the ball, forcing it out of his hands. Kanter isn’t nearly as comfortable making plays from the high post as Nurkic, and obviously lacks the stretch of Meyers Leonard or even Zach Collins.

    Last summer, Draymond Green popularized the term “16-game players,” referring to the rare type who can be on the floor for the duration of the postseason, irrespective of matchups and time and score. Kanter, it was made abundantly clear years ago, doesn’t fit that bill. Collins, given his versatile defensive chops and nascent long-range shooting ability, seems likeliest to cut into his minutes come playoff time, assuming Stotts continues embracing the four-out look he’s prioritized since the Blazers traded for Rodney Hood.

    But the possibility Kanter becomes an afterthought for Portland in the postseason doesn’t mean his presence won’t be felt. Every possession matters in April, May, and June, and if Kanter is able to take advantage of a favorable matchup during his scant time on the floor, swinging the tenor of even a single playoff game with a flurry of offense, his signing will have proven well worth it. Anyone expecting him to do much more than that when it matters most, though, will be sorely disappointed.

Fantasy News

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