The Oklahoma City Thunder would be making a costly mistake if they give in to the reported contract demands of restricted free agent Enes Kanter. While Kanter's presence in the paint boosts an already-impressive offense, the team should be wary of overpaying a center who is a liability on defense.
The Thunder and Kanter are expected to discuss three- and four-year contract sheets that could reach maximum-level money with incentives, sources told RealGM.
Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman tweeted out what a max deal for Kanter would entail.
Kanter came over from the Utah Jazz in a three-way trade in February and immediately hit the ground running as the Thunder's new starting center. He averaged 18.7 points and 11 rebounds, while shooting 56.6 percent from the field in 26 games. During his exit interview in April, the 23-year-old expressed his love for playing in Oklahoma City.
I love it here. Oklahoma City was obviously a good fit for me from Day 1. They opened their arms. I just like playing with all of these guys. They give it 100 percent every time. I would definitely like to come back here.
While the Thunder want to bring Kanter back, these negotiations put the club in a tough spot. On the one hand, Kevin Durant's pending free agency next summer puts increased emphasis on competing for a title and Kanter is the interior scoring presence OKC never had prior to his arrival.
On the other, it's hard to justify paying top dollar to a center who allowed opponents to shoot 61.2 percent from within six feet and 49.8 percent overall, per NBA.com, especially on a roster that isn't exactly stout defensively and with the depth the team already has down low.
The Thunder gave up real assets at the deadline to acquire Kanter, and they probably don't want to see him walk after just a half-season with the club. However, even with the cap rising going forward, the team should be careful not to break the bank for a player with such a glaring weakness.
Besides injuries, the biggest issue that kept the Thunder out of the playoffs was the team's defense. Oklahoma City allowed 101.8 points per game in 2014-15, which was 24th in the NBA. The squad also finished 16th in defensive efficiency with a rating of 103.1, per ESPN's Hollinger stats.
The good news is that the return of Durant (foot) and Serge Ibaka (knee) from season-ending injuries will help improve that area. The bad news is that re-signing Kanter won't.
While OKC scored 109.6 points per 100 possessions with Kanter on the court, the most of any Thunder player, that offensive production was nullified by the Turkish Tower giving up 110.4 points. When Kanter sat, the team's scoring dropped to 106.2, but it also only allowed 103.3 points for a net rating of plus-2.7, per NBA.com.
In other words, the Thunder performed better with a guy averaging 18 and 11 sitting on the bench. Is that worth max money?
CBSSports' Matt Moore didn't pull any punches when talking about Kanter's brand of defense.
Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman seems to concur with Moore.
Never before have defensive deficiencies been so exposed. Kanter might have been the worst defensive center in the NBA last season. Utah’s defense went from bad to great when the Jazz traded Kanter and inserted Rudy Gobert into the lineup. The Thunder’s defense went from good to bad when Kanter started playing, though Serge Ibaka missing the final 17 games of the season certainly didn’t help.
That's not to say the acquisition of Kanter was a bust or that the big man isn't worth bringing back. Judging by the difference in the team's pre-All-Star numbers (before Kanter came aboard) and post-All-Star numbers (of which Kanter played in all but three games), he provided a significant boost in scoring and on the boards, which was especially important with Durant and Ibaka's seasons getting cut short.
However, can he replicate that production in a new system under coach Billy Donovan and with so many mouths to feed once the roster returns to full strength?
|OKC Thunder Before and After All-Star Break|
|Period||PPG||Off. Rating||Def. Rating||Net Rating||Total Reb %|
Additionally, the team allowed six more points per 100 possessions after the break, and that's with OKC playing without almost half of its roster during the first month of the season. While it's unfair to blame one guy for a team's defensive collapse, Kanter doesn't help his cause with clips like this.
Another issue in giving Kanter a max deal is his potential role with both Durant and Ibaka returning. With Durant playing in only one game after the break and Ibaka going down in March, the opportunity was there for Kanter to form a bond with Westbrook and moonlight as the team's second option.
At full strength, Kanter will likely move down a couple of spots in the pecking order. The 13.3 field-goal attempts he averaged per game will be hard to come by with the game's most electrifying scorer back on the court. Is that worth close to $16 million annually, especially on a team with two established scorers and Ibaka becoming a third option?
As of July 2, only six big men were slated to earn more next season than the $15.8 million Kanter is projected to make: Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, Brook Lopez, Paul Millsap and DeMarcus Cousins. Kanter hasn't proven he's on the same level as those guys yet.
Also, while Kanter's scoring in the post is a welcomed addition, the Thunder have been just fine without an offensive-minded center. Prior to the injury-riddled 2014-15 campaign, Oklahoma City finished no worse than seventh in offensive efficiency over the past four seasons, and that's with Kendrick Perkins as the starting pivot man. The Thunder also have another young center in Steven Adams, who is making strides at both ends of the court.
|OKC Thunder's Offensive Efficiency Since 2010-11|
Kanter may help raise the team's ceiling, but how far? And is it really worth paying big money to find out?
The Thunder would be better served offering Kanter a deal closer to the five-year, $60 million (with only four years and $45 million guaranteed) that Omer Asik reportedly signed with the New Orleans Pelicans, per ESPN's Marc Stein. Like Kanter, Asik excels at one end of the court—in this case, on defense—while not offering much at the other.
It's an offer that is more in line with comparable big men like Asik or Nikola Pekovic while still compensating Kanter for future value. With the power of restricted free agency, the Thunder can let Kanter set his own market. If another team is willing to offer more money for Enes' services, Thunder general manager Sam Presti would be wise to let him walk rather than mortgage the team's future.
So far, only the New York Knicks have shown a reported interest in Kanter, per Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, and their need for a center was later quelled by the signing of Robin Lopez. The lack of willing alternative suitors looking to give Kanter what he seeks should give Presti a little leverage in contract negotiations.
In most cases, the decision to re-sign a young center coming off a breakout season is a no-brainer.
However, while Enes Kanter's presence in the post improves an already-devastating offense, his lackluster defense doesn't warrant a max-level contract.
In February, Kanter looked like a midseason steal. In July, he could end up being a costly mistake.