Why it’s time to move on from Enes Kanter, like right now

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Y’all know me.

Y’all know me.

I am not one for hot takes. My takes are cold. My takes are a refreshing Snapple on a sunny July afternoon. There’s enough crazy out there as it is. The last thing I want to do is add to the fray.

So when I woke up the morning after the Knicks lost 131-109 to the Philadelphia 76ers and the urge came over me to write this piece, I had to check myself. Was I really sure I wanted to put this idea out into the ether? I dwelled and dwelled and dwelled some more and finally came to the conclusion that, no, I can’t let this idea just fester in my mind.

The Knicks need to part ways with Enes Kanter, like right now.

I don’t care if it’s on a buyout agreement1 or whether they simply waive him and absorb the full amount left on his 2018-19 salary, it is time to move on.

Before I get into the reasons why, let me first go through a couple of the reasons why not.

First and foremost, I’m not writing this because I blame Enes Kanter. Right now, the Knicks are 9 and 23. If Kanter hadn’t been around all year, they’d still be 9 and 23. Maybe they’d be 10 and 22, or 8 and 24. I don’t know, and I don’t care. The Knicks stink with Enes Kanter and they’d stink without Enes Kanter. He’s no more or less to blame than anyone else on the roster. That’s not what this is about.

This also isn’t personal. If you’ve followed or read me for a while, you know I’m incredibly hard on Kanter, perhaps unfairly so. In fact, definitely unfairly so. I often kill him for physical limitations that are out of his control and gloss over the incredible amount of effort he brings to many facets of the game, not to mention his penchant for playing hurt. He seems, by all accounts, to be a wonderful influence on the young guys, which I never give enough credit for.

I promise though, this doesn’t come from a place of negativity. It comes from a place of reason. That all starts with where the Knicks are, and where they’re trying to go.

De…fence?

This season is, in a word, about growth. Growing the young players, growing sustainable systems, and growing a culture. In one way or another, Kanter either has stood in the way of all of these things or will so before the season is over.

Let’s start with the most glaring issue. You’ve probably noticed that the Knicks have become a bit of a tire fire on defense. While Kanter is by no means solely to blame for this –  his on court rating is actually better than Timmy, Mudiay and Knox – there is a significant difference with the big man. His presence on the floor inextricably alters everything they do defensively. Allow me a moment to explain why.

If you’ve watched New York recently, you’ve seen stretches of defensive possessions where the Knicks’ players aren’t guarding any one man, but rather guard an area of the court. This is called a zone. If you only watch pro basketball and no college, you may not have ever seen this before. That’s because, save for short stretches of games where a coach will employ it to catch an opposing team off-guard for a few minutes, it has essentially been proven unsustainable in the NBA. Pro athletes are smart and athletic enough to penetrate it after they’ve become accustomed to it. As Mike Vorkunov notes in his recent piece on the topic, the Heat play the most zone in the NBA, and it is still under 5 percent of the time.

Starting last Friday, David Fizdale began employing it is a regular part of his defense. He says it’s because he’s meeting his young players where they are. I have a different theory, but instead of telling you myself, I’ll let the Suns’ Devin Booker do that for me:

Booker was referencing the worst kept secret in the NBA, which is that if Enes Kanter is on the court and you are not attempting to engage him in a pick and roll, you are committing basketball negligence. This has only gotten worse with the prevalence of big men in today’s game that also have extended range.

Billy Donovan famously said it best when Kanter was still in Oklahoma City and the Thunder played Houston in the playoffs. Even his former teammate and good friend Steven Adams joked about it earlier this year. Kanter, by himself, is a walking, talking, often goofing around bottom-five defensive rating.

It is not getting better, a fact which the stats more than back up. According to Cleaning the Glass, when Enes Kanter is on the floor this season, opponents effective field goal percentage increases by 2.9%, which is in the 10th percentile of the NBA. Over the previous six seasons, the increases in opponent shooting when Kanter is playing have ranked in the 11th, 35th, 11th, 3rd, 7th and 9th percentiles. How does the old saying go…once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a trend, seven times is Enes?

This isn’t even about the Knicks getting off to these horrendously bad starts, although eventually that will begin to wear on a team morale that has, thus far at least, remained high. It’s about the fact that as long as Kanter is in the rotation, the progress of instituting any semblance of a defense-first culture is stagnating. We have enough evidence to conclude that he is often unable to execute the types of basic defensive principles a team needs to play competent NBA defense.

To drive this point home, imagine, for a moment, that you had five widgets with which to construct a machine. The sturdiness of several of the widgets is suspect, but also potentially viable in a given configuration. One of the widgets, however, was apt to disintegrate into dust at any given moment. How does one go about constructing a working machine? You can’t. It’s impossible.

That’s where we’re at with Kanter. Yes, of course Tim Hardaway Jr. and Emmanuel Mudiay and Kevin Knox are bad defensively. But they also have the physical ability to at least be passable on defense – ability that will be easier to employ the moment they no longer have to worry about the bomb in the middle of the floor that will self-destruct at any given moment. As long as Kanter is there, it’s impossible to properly evaluate those players because they’re guarding against an inevitability, while also trying not to stink up the joint in their own right.

Here are the defensive ratings for the five starters with and without Kanter on the court:

Emmanuel Mudiay – Kanter on: 116.7, Kanter off: 115.9

Tim Hardaway Jr. – Kanter on: 115.9, Kanter off: 114.3

Kevin Knox – Kanter on: 120.1, Kanter off: 115.7

Noah Vonleh – Kanter on: 114.1, Kanter off: 110.72

The Knicks deserve the last half of this season to see if they can at least climb out of the basement of the league in an area for which New York used to pride itself on. The evidence speaks for itself.

But wait…there’s more!

Your first instinct is probably to say “wait a minute…we’re painfully thin at center as it is. David Fizdale already told us that Mitchell Robinson shouldn’t start because he picks up fouls like they’re on sale at Costco. If Kanter gets bought out, who the hell starts?

This gets into the second primary reason a buyout makes sense. Right now, Noah Vonleh – not-so-arguably the Knicks best player this season – has to start if “keep what you kill” has any teeth left whatsoever. The problem is that, by modern NBA standards at least, he’s playing out of position at the four. At the five, in place of Kanter, not only will the Knicks defense stand a fighting chance, but it’ll open up spacing on the other end3.

If the goal is to put systems in place that will sustain long into the Knicks future, beginning to duplicate how the offense will look with KP on the floor might as well start now. If you don’t want to start Knox at the four because you feel he’s not ready, fine…give Lance Thomas the Keith Bogans treatment, slide Knox over from the three after a few minutes, and bring in Dotson so you can surround either Mudiay or Frank with three shooters on the pick and roll4.

Having those additional minutes available will also alleviate the minutes crunch that’s only going to get worse once Alonzo Trier is back. Mitch still gets the backup minutes when he’s back to full health, and Kornet is always ready and waiting in the garage.

Speaking of the offense, you might be wondering if it’ll suffer without Kanter on the floor. Putting aside the fact that the Knicks score at a lower rate with Kanter on the floor than when he’s off, he’s also someone that demands touches – 7.5 post ups a game, to be exact. Shockingly enough, it doesn’t always end well. He turns it over 8.9 percent of the time on such possessions, second highest among the 11 players who average at least six post ups per game. His assist percentage of 6.1 is also the second lowest among those same 11 guys. For an offense trying to find its footing, having a black hole down low isn’t exactly ideal.

Ok, fine…so he’s maybe not suited for the starting lineup…but cut him? For nothing? Why not just have him come off the bench? Or trade him for something? Anything?

I understand. It seems drastic. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

As I wrote about last month, Kanter is virtually untradeable if you’re only accepting expiring money in the deal. You could stick him on the bench, but as we saw earlier this season, that might not go over so well with the big man. The locker room survived that little tantrum, but his effort was also noticeably reduced during the minutes he played as a reserve. Now imagine how he’s going to feel playing out the string for a team with no hope of a playoff birth and who is mere months away from renouncing your cap hold.

Ultimately, that’s what this comes down to. For all the obvious reasons, barring him taking an almost unfathomable pay cut, Enes Kanter is not going to be a Knick after this season. Cutting him and letting him try to latch on with a contender, even to play a few minutes off the bench here and there, would be doing right by a player who done right by you.

It’s time. I feel badly saying so, but it’s true. Unless you’re captain of team tank5, you should be on board with this move. If the Knicks cut bait now, Kanter’s time here will be remembered fondly, as it should.

No need to sully those memories. Ride off into the sunset on your high horse, big fella. You always gave it everything you had.

At least if there was a stat to be padded, you did.

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