By John Schmeelk
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For someone that sits down to casually watch a Knicks game, what isn’t there to like about Enes Kanter?
He grabs rebounds. He scores in the paint. He shows great effort and it is abundantly clear he cares about winning and losing. He is tough and plays through injuries that would force many other players to the bench.
For the fans picking up the paper or reading about the team online in the morning, Kanter is gregarious and gives you a great quote. He talks tough and sticks up for his teammates. He exudes confidence. He does the things you would want a leader to do. He has even stood up to an authoritarian regime in Turkey, even at the price of being estranged from his family and not being allowed to return home.
Even for the numbers crowd he checks the boxes. He grabs a higher percentage of offensive rebounds than any player in the league. Overall, he is a top-10 board man by any measure. He averages the third-most second-chance points per game in the league. He shoots 60 percent from the field, and due to his 88 percent from the free-throw line his true shooting and effective field goal percentages are both above 60 percent.
By nearly every quantifiable measure, including the eye test, Kanter has been a good player this season. Yet somehow, the Knicks have played significantly better basketball when he has been on the bench.
For players that play big minutes, Kanter has a team-low minus-2.9 net rating (plus/minus per 100 possessions). Conversely, when Kanter is on the bench, the Knicks are a plus-2.4, nearly a five-point swing.
Why? Defense. The Knicks’ offense gets slightly better when Kanter is off the floor, but the difference isn’t significant. The problem comes on the other end. The Knicks’ defense is five points better per 100 possessions when Kanter is on the bench (102.7 vs. 107.7). You learn more when you dig deeper.
Kanter’s impact changes depending on whether or not he is on the floor with Kristaps Porzingis. When Kanter and Porzingis play together, the Knicks have a respectable plus-2.3 net rating with a defensive rating of 104.8. The story is told when the two players aren’t on the floor together. Porzingis plays slightly better without Kanter, both offensively and defensively, but that isn’t the show stopper.
What happens when Kanter plays without Porzingis is startling. The Knicks have been outscored by a staggering 16.5 points per 100 possessions, and have a gruesome defensive rating of 114.8. The sample size — 216 minutes of game action in those situations — isn’t that small, either. It isn’t just the Porzingis factor. When both players are on the bench, the Knicks actually outscore their opponents.
So why does Kanter (and the Knicks) need Porzingis on the court so badly? The easy answer is rim protection. Porzingis might be the best at it in the NBA at this point and it covers up Kanter’s defensive shortcomings around the basket. It masks his greatest weakness as a player. Without Porzingis’ help as a shot blocker, the lane is wide open for teams to attack the rim with impunity.
Why is the Knicks’ offense slightly better with Kanter on the bench? At least when Porzingis is at center, the floor is probably spread more and Porzingis can be used more in high screen and rolls instead of Kanter. Without Kanter planted near the paint under the basket, it creates more space for Porzingis as a roller after he sets a screen. It also makes it more difficult to get double-teams to Porzingis. The big Latvian takes more 3-point shots with Kanter on the bench.
So, in summation, here’s where the Knicks are with Kanter:
— His individual numbers, intangibles, and effort are terrific.
— He is an excellent teammate.
— The team plays better when Kanter is on the bench.
— Porzingis plays slightly better when Kanter is on the bench.
— The Knicks are awful when Kanter plays and Porzingis doesn’t.
So what is Kanter’s value? Are the on/off court numbers some strange anomaly that don’t reflect reality? Or do Kanter’s numbers mask other issues with his game that hurt the team more than his rebounding and paint scoring help it? Should the Knicks play Kanter exclusively with Porzingis, even though Porzingis (and the team) play better with Kanter on the bench?
It will be very important for the Knicks to figure this out over the next six weeks leading up to the Feb. 8 trade deadline. Other teams might get enamored with Kanter’s numbers and offer a significant return for him in the form of a first-round pick or a young player. Kanter might opt out this summer, and a decision will have to be made before then or he could walk away for nothing.
The Knicks are going to have to figure it out one way or another. Does Kanter help them win basketball games? And if he does, how much does he help? What is that worth to the Knicks? How they answer the Kanter question will be essential in how this season and the next couple go.
For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk