Much of the hubbub surrounding Enes Kanter and Steve Novak’s trade out of town in the final hours of Thursday’s crazy deadline has had an eye on the future, and justifiably so. Kendrick Perkins won’t so much as set foot in the Beehive State given his buyout, meaning the only asset Utah acquired in the deal who will see potential court time this season is Grant Jerrett, who will pretty clearly be the fourth big in Utah’s rotation and might even have to fight Jeremy Evans for those minutes1. The rest of the pieces coming back will realize their value down the line: two picks added to Utah’s stockpile, the additional cap room from Perkins’ void as a potential chip this summer, and a prospect in Tibor Pleiss who is intriguing, if also having a major down year in Spain, and may or may not be joining the team in the near future.
It’s important to remember, though, just how vital the remainder of this season is on the court for the franchise despite a trade that, by necessity, didn’t do much in that area. In many ways the move signals the team’s desire to enter the next stage of their rebuild, the one where they cash in some assets and take on a win-now approach.
That isn’t just some magical flip of a switch from “developing” to “contending”; how the team performs and advances over the final couple months of the season will play a potentially huge role in Utah’s approach to the upcoming draft, their strategy in summer free-agency, and their internal personnel decisions2.
Friday night’s impressive home win over Portland and Monday’s repeat against the defending champion Spurs offered incomplete glimpses of what the product will look like post-Kanter/Novak, and many of these were strikingly positive. First of course is Rudy Gobert, who will start full time alongside Derrick Favors while finally moving his counterpart consistently to the power forward position at which he belongs3. Gobert again frustrated some of the league’s top offensive big men in LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan, seeming to develop his timing and patience on pump fakes (one of the recent issues I noted Rudy has faced in recent weeks as teams have adjusted to him) a startling amount just within these individual games. His rate of improvement continues to be phenomenal, and a chance to play him more minutes with a wider variety of lineups should give Utah’s defense a real boost.
This touches on another major theme of Kanter’s departure, that of addition by subtraction. It’s a common phrase that’s often misused, but in the case of Utah’s defensive progress, it seems relevant. There’s a reason why the Turk’s defensive RPM is dead last in the league among centers by quite a margin, and why the Jazz’s defense went from bottom-three levels with him on the floor to roughly league average when he sat. Every other member of Utah’s frontcourt, even Evans, grades out as a superior defender to Kanter, and simply replacing his minutes with these other guys, especially Gobert, is going to have an impact.
The effect was visibly present against the Blazers Friday, as one of the league’s longest4 and most talented big rotations was consistently flummoxed and ultimately handily outplayed by a Utah frontcourt no longer hindered by 25 to 30 minutes of a defensive liability. The same was true Monday, perhaps to an even larger degree as Dante Exum had perhaps his best game of the year defensively. The Jazz’s help rotations were remarkably crisp, and their interior presence was dominant. Even someone like Trey Burke had a couple of the best defensive games of his entire career, and while it’ll take some time to determine causation here rather than simply correlation, this seems a likely outcome given what we know about both Kanter and Utah’s remaining bigs.
The other end of the floor will be more of a challenge, as Kanter’s skills offensively are very real and his absence will be felt. Gobert is developing quickly on this end, but lacking Kanter’s range and touch, his ceiling is mostly limited. Lineups with both him and Favors have struggled to get beyond bottom-10 levels league-wide throughout the year, and have actually regressed just a tad over the last 15 games or so.
There are several potential reprieves, however. Kanter’s shooting will be missed, but additions here through both his trade and injury returns may fill much of the void. Jarrett is shooting just over 38 percent from 3 in the D-League on the year; if he can do enough other things well to stay on the floor for periods, the Jazz can run four-out sets in those minutes5. Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles (the latter of whom is shooting 37.5 percent from 3 since January 1st) also both returned Friday, and the ability to play at least one alongside Gordon Hayward at the wing is big, particularly when Gobert is on the floor. Elijah Millsap’s stroke has come and gone in his time with the team, but he’s still hovering in the high 30’s percentage-wise on a growing number of attempts and, more importantly, can now return to a defensive stopper role that better fits his skill set with Utah’s other wings back in the fold.
Furthermore, there’s something to be said for replacing some of Kanter’s individual offense with more of a team-oriented approach in his absence. Enes was great in the post for the Jazz this year, shooting over 53 percent per Synergy, but the Jazz have more efficient stuff up their sleeve with just their remaining players.
Consider that, on a per-possession basis, sets where either Favors or Gobert finished a play as the roll man in a pick-and-roll action were much more effective than Kanter’s cumulative post work6. Quin Snyder’s motion offense lends itself to these sorts of actions anyway, and Kanter was easily the worst per-possession roll finisher among the big rotation. More chances for the others here could end up being not only more efficient, but also better learning tools as the team continues to master the system.
Some of this is oversimplification to a point. Jerrett may have range, but there’s little doubt he’s nowhere near as talented as Kanter in an overall sense, and he or Evans will have to pick up some of the load. Novak’s subtraction also doesn’t do anything positive for the team’s cumulative shooting, even if he was just a spot-minutes player. Kanter’s skills in the post were quite useful when needing a basket in a pinch, or as a way to give Gordon Hayward a bit of a rest from his full load offensively. Utah doesn’t currently have anyone who can replace this particular skill. And no matter how much he’s improved or how much a bit more shooting on the wings might help, Gobert will simply always clog things up to some small degree offensively when alongside another of Utah’s traditional bigs.
But the two games we’ve seen since the move offered a tantalizing glimpse of how things might look going forward. The Jazz didn’t even do anything that spectacular offensively in either game, and still handled Western contenders in games they controlled the vast majority of. It’s just a couple games, but it’s hard to be anything but encouraged.
Best of luck to Enes Kanter and Steve Novak in Oklahoma City, and here’s hoping both continue their success for years to come. The remaining group has work to do, and it’ll be fun to continue watching them grow and develop together over the remainder of the season.