Is there a more fascinating player this Utah Jazz season than Enes Kanter? Probably not.
Understandably, much of the conversation has been directed elsewhere. Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors are quietly putting together All-Staresque campaigns. Rudy Gobert has taken a massive leap forward. Dante Exum and Trey Burke have given us a lot to talk about. But what’s happening with Kanter may be central to some of the more important questions facing the Jazz in the calendar year — especially since the Turkish big man has been playing some of his best basketball in late January.
Just in the last two weeks, Kanter has put together some of the best games of his pro career, at least on paper. He has had three 20-and-10 games in his last six outings, including two beastly rebounding performances. He’s also evidently become the team leader in mojo, with a testy interview about playing with an “edge” following the Clippers-Jazz cage match, and then his brazen1 remarks going into the Golden State game. He’s put himself back in the conversation as a potential piece to what the Jazz are building.
But beyond the raw numbers and the bold words, Kanter’s season is still hard to describe in terms of absolutes. To compound the enigma, a lot of advanced metrics don’t even agree with each other in terms of summing up Kanter’s contributions. PER has him at a career-best 17.7, which is certainly above average2 and would make him the fourth best rotation player on the Jazz. But stats like ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus have him tracking significantly worse. At -3.46, RPM would have you believe that he’s the least positively impactful Jazz player and one of the 50 worst in the NBA. Bridge that gap: top 60 in PER, bottom 50 in RPM.
The question with Kanter, at varying degrees of fairness, has always been whether or not he helps the team win or simply gets empty numbers because of his handful of real strengths. I’ll be the first to admit that it seems harsh to a solitary player on a team that may not hit 30 wins, but on the other hand, very few players have as strong a correlation between their best games and losses for their team. I sorted Kanter’s best outings by B-ref’s GameScore3 and examined what the team outcome was.
Caveat time: there’s an obvious flaw here. Kanter is, at best, the third or fourth best Jazz player at present. So if there’s a game where the Jazz are relying on him to the tune of 16+ points, it likely means that somebody better than him is missing or struggling. So don’t fall for the temptation to over-linearize this information and jump to some conclusions that ignore a whole lot of other information4. But it does re-raise an important question…
Can Enes Kanter help the Utah Jazz be better?
So far, it’s a mixed bag as we try to answer that. But there are definitely some things he is doing better over the course of the last several weeks, and some things where familiar questions persist. Let’s take a look.
Nobody will be shocked to hear that Kanter is rebounding particularly well, and turning a lot of those opportunities on the offensive end into second-chance points. He accounts for 3.6 second chance points all by himself, and that doesn’t into account the extra possessions he generates for his teammates. That number has crawled up to 4.3 in December and January, per NBA.com’s stats.
He has also been running the floor pretty well, which is saying something since he is such an attentive rebounder. On the season, just 9% of his points have come in transition, significantly lower than the team’s 13%. In January that’s up to 15%. Let’s be clear: that’s still only a bucket a game, but in a league where transition points make up such a small percentage of a team’s offense, a bucket a game from one player is at least enough to put some pressure on transition defenders, as Kanter has done quite nicely in some recent games. Look at how often he’s one of the first down.
It should surprise nobody that he’s an above-average finisher in the restricted area, converting on 67.7% of those opportunities compared to a league average of 62.8%, and this despite being primarily an under-the-rim player. He is getting much better at reading the defense in those situations and knowing when to bully his way through defenders and when to employ an expanding range of nifty footwork moves.
If he’s scoring well off the glass, in transition and in close but his overall scoring is flat, then it stands to reason that he’s dropped off elsewhere: jump shooting.
He’s barely making a third of his mid-range shots on the season, and in January that dropped to 23%. You simply can’t be a “stretch four” that helps your team space the floor when you miss three of every four midrange jumpers. He has stopped taking above-the-break three-pointers5, which is the only zone he was shooting particularly well from, and his corner three remains an iffy proposition at best.
This is particularly a problem for the Jazz when it affects spacing. A lot of NBA research indicates that actual performance on midrange shots matters less than the perceived threat. More often than not, Kanter still draws at least a half-hearted contest, but moments like the one below are becoming a lot more common as teams sometimes play the percentages and give him room on the jumper. This is the opposite of gravity6.
On defense, Kanter has had a much better January than any month I can remember. Some of the proof points of this are just behavioral things where you can see him trying harder to help and get back, rotate the right way, etc., but it’s also showing up in the outcomes. His DRtg for January is down to 103.4 compared to 109.1 for the year. At a team level, 103.4 would be good enough to teeter at the edge of the top 10, so he deserves some credit for making improvements to help the team defend better.
In fact, Kanter’s negative impact to Enes might not be as widespread as you’ve been led to believe. Among his most common 5-man units7, only two perform significantly worse than team average on defense. The problem is that both those lineups are heavily used: the original starting lineup of Burke, Hayward, Favors, Alec Burks and Kanter, and then the replacement lineup with Joe Ingles in Burks’ spot.
Still, this graph makes one wonder if Kanter’s overall poor DRtg is more reflective of a larger defensive problem with that group.
This doesn’t mean Kanter’s a good defender, by any stretch, especially where it counts. His rim protection numbers are second-worst among players who guard at least four attempts a game at the rim: 60.1%.
But it’s possible to be a non-rim protecting big and still play at an All-Star level for a good team. Just ask Paul Millsap, Kevin Love or Chris Bosh. It just helps when you’re playing with guards who can contain their guy on the perimeter. When you have sieve-like defense outside and non-rim protecting bigs back behind, that’s where you have trouble. Maybe some of that is evident by the lineups above. The fact that you can guard at 114.7 per 100 (the original starting five) and then replace one guard and defend at 81.5. Or 115.6 with the the next lineup down, all the way to 93.2 when you throw Exum in there8. The Jazz just have to defend if that’s who they want to be: a team that constantly needs to compensate either for the lack of help down low or for the containment problems on the perimeter.
So back to the original question: can Kanter help the Jazz win? He still hasn’t had a positive net rating in any month this year, so if you believe the answer is yes, then the argument is based on two weeks’ play. The Jazz are +11.4 in those six games, roughly corresponding to the lineup change that resulted in Kanter running more minutes with one of his best defensive combos. So if the Jazz are going to win with Kanter on an ongoing basis, he’s going to have to keep some things up, but the Jazz are likely going to need some continued lineup alchemy to make it work.
Whatever happens, it’s fascinating. The Jazz have time on Gobert, time on Exum, time on Burke. They don’t have the luxury of a lot of time to decide on the Turk. There’s urgency to figure out what Kanter means to this team, and this January stretch has furnished plenty of talking points for both sides of the argument.