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NBA PM: Enes Kanter, Billy Donovan and Questions of Fit

Is there any way Enes Kanter will fit with head coach Billy Donovan and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s squad?

Ben Dowsett

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To many inside and outside the organization, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s acquisition of Enes Kanter from the Utah Jazz at the trade deadline was a peculiar move even as it happened. The particulars of what the Thunder sent in return aside, the team was acquiring an offense-first, defense-never big with a pedigree for starter-level minutes backed up by his own trade request out of Utah based partially on playing time. A guy whose primary offensive skills involve the ball in his hands appeared to be a strange fit from the jump with two of the league’s top offensive creators, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, presumed to be on the floor at many of the same times.

For better or worse, Thunder GM Sam Presti doubled down over the offseason when he matched Portland’s four-year, $70 million offer sheet to keep the former third overall pick in town. Kanter will now be OKC’s third-highest paid player.

Billy Donovan’s hiring as the team’s new head coach came in between these two moves, and viewed as part of the same thought process, it doesn’t do much to simplify the situation. Kanter’s already-strange fit may have only been magnified, in fact, before the decision to retain him for such a huge number was made.

Donovan brings one of college’s more pro-oriented schemes to the table, one that should carry over in many respects and, with an exception or two, should fit the roster splendidly. His Florida teams have emphasized some of the NBA’s more modern principles for years – things like a quick tempo up the floor, a flow emphasis offensively anchored by the league’s preferred pick-and-roll foundation, and a healthy interplay between diagrammed sets and individual creative freedom within the scheme.

Kanter is a good fit for parts of this based on his skill set. He’s versatile as a roll man in two-man action, with enough elements to his game to keep teams from sitting on any preferred outcomes. His timing is good, and he’s talented enough to finish even when teams bring help over at the rim.

He can pick-and-pop effectively, with the midrange game to punish defenses for paying too much attention to OKC’s ball-handlers:

Kanter could stand to improve as a screener, often preferring to simply avoid the contact altogether and slip screens. This is a secondary issue when he shares the floor with Durant and Westbrook, though, who draw so much gravity on their own that it won’t even matter a lot of the time. Kanter runs the floor well enough to be an asset in transition, something Donovan emphasizes (he preached getting the ball across halfcourt in four seconds or less at Florida virtually no matter what).

There are numerous questions elsewhere, though, especially when considering Kanter’s own mental state and his presumed expectations for his role after seeing the Thunder invest so heavily in him. A major one is post play, where the big Turk and his new coach have diverged pretty heavily to this point.

Of 351 college programs tracked by Synergy Sports last season, 340 finished more plays from the post than Donovan’s Gators. Some of this was personnel – Florida has been more post-heavy in other seasons – but will the Thunder’s roster really dictate anything different? Kanter could see more looks during the periods he plays with bench-heavy units, but why would Donovan buck a tried-and-tested wing-oriented scheme featuring two of the world’s best scorers to dump the ball down to the block as anything more than a bailout option? A guy who begged out of Salt Lake City citing playing time and what he perceived as misuse of his talents could find that his new team doesn’t have much use for an area he prides himself in.

Kanter’s presence offensively, especially alongside OKC’s top talent, feels a bit like adding a turbocharger to an already-souped-up Lamborghini that still needs a steering wheel, radio and passenger seats installed – and using most of the owner’s remaining budget to do so. He does some good things and there will be times he adds some real oomph, but he’ll just as often simply be overlap with things the team already does well, or, in the case of his post game, things they really don’t need.

That’s without getting into Kanter’s defense, which is well-documented as among the worst in the league among rotation big men. Donovan’s incoming scheme, again pending big alterations, isn’t likely to help.

Donovan built his Gators defenses around extreme ball pressure. Florida was consistently among the top major Division I programs at forcing turnovers during his tenure, in large part due to the heavy traps and hedges he built into his scheme. Watch as his 2014-15 team faces several pick-and-rolls in succession, rebuffing each one through an aggressive high hedge from the big defender and eventually forcing a turnover:

Look how far Donovan’s big men are trapping opposing ball-handlers, cutting them off before they can round the corner and forcing them to either move the ball or reset:

Screenshot (178)

Screenshot (179)

Kanter cannot do this at the NBA level. Former Jazz coach Ty Corbin tried a version that wasn’t even quite as aggressive as Donovan’s in his last season with the team; the results were predictably bad across the board for a group utterly lacking the personnel, but Kanter’s tape in particular ought to be burned to ash:

There’s no guarantee Donovan remains so attached to the scheme at the NBA level, but he’d be a fool to abandon it entirely for Kanter’s sake. There are few bigs in the game better suited to hedging high effectively than Serge Ibaka, and small lineups featuring him at center with Durant at power forward (units we should see more of under Donovan) should be every bit as aggressive as those Florida teams. Even Steven Adams and (especially) Mitch McGary will have much more success than Kanter, and such a scheme can be a jumping off point for OKC’s lethal transition attack with all the turnovers it forces.

Even if Donovan and his staff have the practice time to devote to drilling Kanter differently than several of his other bigs, the very best he can hope for is simply a moderate liability defensively – and even that might be pushing it. Kanter was dead last among centers last year in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, which accounts for both teammate and opponent quality to paint a more contextualized picture of a player’s impact.

Even Ibaka’s presence alongside him did basically nothing to ease the damage. OKC’s 110.8 per-100-possession defensive figure while Kanter played without Ibaka would have been worst in the league over the full season; their 109.2 mark when Ibaka played next to him would have been mere decimals stingier than Minnesota’s NBA-worst group. When Ibaka played without Kanter, meanwhile, the Thunder were right at their season-long, roughly league-average mark of 103.2.

It’s fair to speculate whether this was an optimal target for the Thunder from the start, especially with guys like Adams and McGary more than capable of quality minutes as the sort of complementary pieces OKC needs around Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. There’s no way of knowing for sure if Presti and his team thought they could retain Kanter on a more team-friendly deal, but they boxed themselves into a place with few positive outcomes by trading for a guy with a demonstrably different view of himself than most impartial observers.

How Donovan handles things if Kanter’s performance is more of the same is just one of several fascinating subplots in Oklahoma City this year. How does he deal with minute distributions if one or both of Adams or McGary is clearly a better option? How will Kanter, clearly unafraid of voicing displeasure with his organization through the press, react if he doesn’t start or is perhaps relegated to third or even fourth big duties as the team soars without him? Will Presti and team brass, surely wary of the egg on their collective faces from the James Harden trade and other missteps these last few years, sit idly by while their $17.5 million man languishes in a limited role?

Maybe things change. Maybe a re-energized Kanter puts his more selfish tendencies aside and dedicates himself to plugging the holes in his game like he never has before. Maybe Donovan is the guy who gets it all to make sense like no other coach in Kanter’s career thus far has been able to.

Either way, Kanter is just another reason this Thunder team will be appointment viewing this year. The big man is locked in as a franchise centerpiece for better or worse, and now begins the process of determining the success of the move.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Five Storylines to Watch Down the Stretch

Shane Rhodes breaks down five storylines to keep an eye on as we approach the postseason.

Shane Rhodes

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The NBA was as active as ever prior to All-Star Break. Multiple trades (some of the blockbuster variety) were made as Anthony Davis rumors swirled, players butted heads with the media, and buyouts were made. There was news abound.

And there should be even more to come with teams prepped for the stretch run.

The last push toward the postseason has always been a tense one, for teams in and teams out alike. But what could be the biggest stories as we head into the last weeks of the regular season?

The Eastern Conference Arms Race

The battle for Eastern Conference supremacy has shown to be a hard fought one.

With LeBron James gone, there has been power-vacuum in the East, with multiple teams vying for the spot of best in the Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks have had the upper hand for much of the season – and should be considered the favorite to end the regular season in the top spot – but just 7.5 games separate them from the fifth-seed Boston Celtics, with the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers sandwiched in between.

While the NBA as a whole may seem cut and dry – the Golden State Warriors and everyone else – the East is not so simple. The Bucks, Celtics, Pacers, Raptors and 76ers all have talented rosters, but there is, effectively a deadlock between them. No one roster in this group is significantly more talented than another and no one team has shown that they can get the better of the other four on a consistent basis; every game between them has been competitive, and that should only reach another level as they square off against for the right to go to the NBA Finals.

Aside from the postseason positioning, the stretch-run for these individual teams could prove crucial to their offseason. Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are all expected to hit the market and, if their respective teams fade, the chances of retaining their services may fade as well.

The Competitive Postseason Bubble

There are a number of teams, both Eastern and Western Conference, that have found themselves on the post-break postseason bubble.

In the East, just five games separate the sixth-seed Brooklyn Nets and the 11-seed Washington Wizards. While it may not be the cream of the crop going at it every night, these last few games will almost certainly be more competitive as players watch the standings and teams look to make up ground and push their seasons onward through April.

Out West, it’s more of the same.

Just four games separate the fifth-seed Houston Rockets and the 10-seed Los Angeles Lakers. Likewise, an uptick in competitive energy should be expected. However, there may be a bit more fireworks out West, as the Sacramento Kings, who have surprised everyone this season, look for their first postseason-berth since 2006. Meanwhile, the Lakers, in their first season with James, may miss the postseason altogether after they were pegged as a near-lock before the season.

The Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers all present their own interesting scenarios as well.

Regardless of the final outcome in either Conference, expect an exciting, if not frantic, end to the regular season.

The Three-Man Race for the MVP

Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George have each put forth superhuman effort this season. In a neck-and-neck race for the Most Valuable Player award, these three have proven to be invaluable to their respective teams and shown on a nightly basis that they belong among the NBA elite.

But, only one of them can win the award. So, who will take home the hardware?

Each player has made a compelling case so far; what Antetokounmpo does for the Bucks — and what he does to the box score (27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, six assists per game) — on a nightly basis is self-explanatory; James Harden has willed the Houston Rockets into the postseason picture with some historic scoring numbers; and Paul George has shown that he is one of the best two-way players in the NBA and shouldered the load in Oklahoma City as Russell Westbrook has struggled.

As teams inch closer to the postseason, most will take the opportunity to rest their stars. If anyone of these players fades down the stretch — whether it be because of rest, fatigue or otherwise — the others could almost certainly use it to their advantage. If none of them slow down, however, the race between Antetokounmpo, Harden and George could prove one of the tightest we’ve ever seen.

The Anthony Davis Situation

The New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Anthony Davis doesn’t want to continue his career in New Orleans, but he does want to continue playing this season. However, the Pelicans have the right to protect themselves from a potential Davis injury, one that could irreparably damage his trade value and New Orleans’ future. Meanwhile, the NBA will almost certainly not want Davis, a premier player, languishing on the bench.

So, where do things go from here? Well, they get pretty awkward.

The Pelicans, Davis and the NBA need to come together in agreement on the best path forward for all parties involved and, with a handful of games remaining, they don’t have long to do so. At the very least, expect Davis to play far fewer minutes than he is accustomed to as the Pelicans look to minimize any and all injury risks.

The Battle for Zion

Not every team has the chance to make the postseason. But, with a generational talent like Zion Williamson on the line, not every team wants to make the postseason this year.

The New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have wallowed near the bottom of the NBA barrel for the entire season, all with their eyes fixed on Tuesday, May 14: the NBA Draft Lottery. While the NBA instituted a new lottery system to discourage tanking — the bottom three teams share the best chance at the top pick — it hasn’t stopped these teams from losing as many games as possible in a bid to make Williamson the first player off the board in the 2019 NBA Draft.

In a weird, backward way, it could be fun to watch these five teams “compete” for the bottom three spots and, eventually, the rights to Williamson.

As we inch closer to the postseason, don’t expect the NBA to wind down. While it may not seem as eventful trade season, these last few weeks of the regular season have a chance to be some of the most eventful of the entire year.

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NBA Daily: Examining the Eastern Conference Contenders

Matt John takes a look at the four titans who will be fighting for the Eastern Conference crown this May.

Matt John

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The day after the trade deadline passed, LeBron James had some interesting things to say about the arms race that was going down between the Eastern Conference titans.

“They know they ain’t gotta go through Cleveland anymore,” James said. “Everybody in the East thinks they can get to the Finals because they ain’t gotta go through me.”

It’s notable that the Lakers are currently toeing the line between making the playoffs and playing the lottery odds. That does, however, beg the question: What if LeBron stayed in Cleveland?

Now if that had happened, then a lot of things would probably be different for the Cavaliers right now. There’s no telling if they would have kept the pick the Nets owed them, or if they would be playing Kyle Korver, George Hill, and J.R. Smith right now.

It would have added another intriguing wrinkle to what has been the tightest formerly-five-currently-four-man race going on at the top of the Eastern Conference in quite some time. Whether you agree that Cleveland would still be the frontrunner in the East with James, there doesn’t really appear to be a clear-cut favorite to represent the East anymore. Plenty of fans and analysts would give their takes on who stands out among the pack, but there’s no consensus pick.

In a sense, LeBron’s kind of right. He was a tyrant – or a “King” if you will – that set the bar year-in and year-out for the past decade. It gave his rivals motivation to play at one hundred percent, though it made the East a little predictable. With LeBron gone, the suspense as to who will take his throne makes it all the more fun.

The season is now coming down the home stretch. With less than 25 games left, Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston will fight tooth and nail to get home court advantage over each other. Who has the edge? Well, let’s take a look.

Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 44-14
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .465 (27th overall)
Record against competitors: 5-2

They finally did it. After years of looking as incredible as they were inconsistent, the Bucks have hit a breakthrough. It turns out all they needed was to put the right personnel around the Greek Freak (i.e. floor spacers and impact defenders). Oh, and a coach who could bring all of the notable talent together. The pieces are now fitting into place for the Bucks. Giannis is now going full-throttle with a supporting cast who only make Milwaukee all the harder to stop. Their league-leading point differential (9.6) tops the league by a fair margin, which indicates that this may not only be a fluke but the first sign of the glorious future we all believed the Bucks had.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo – If it weren’t for James Harden putting up legendary numbers, Giannis would be the frontrunner for MVP. So much has been said about him that there’s not much to be added, so let’s leave it at this. Many have said if he starts hitting threes, he’ll be unstoppable. When you see his dominance in the paint – he’s shooting 77.3 percent in the paint – it makes you wonder if he really has to.
X-Factor: Eric Bledsoe – He’s had a nice bounce-back after a rocky half-season in Milwaukee. The record still stands that he was outplayed by Terry Rozier in his first playoff action as a starter. If the Bucks are to maintain their success in the postseason, Bledsoe must avoid a repeat performance from last postseason.
Unsung Hero: Malcolm Brogdon – People can scoff all they want at Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year Award. The fact is, the Bucks absolutely need him. They are +7.1 with him on the court, good for second behind, well, who do you think?
Pivotal Question: Will the supporting cast (including Coach Bud) keep it up in the playoffs?

Toronto Raptors
Record: 43-16
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .450 (30th overall)
Record against competitors: 6-5

Do you know what’s odd about the Raptors? Going by net rating, they’ve actually taken a step back this season. Last season, the Raptors had the second best offensive rating (113.8) and the fifth best defensive rating (105.9). This season, they have the seventh-best offensive rating (113) and the eighth best defensive rating (107.4). Yet somehow, the genuine belief is that this is the best team they’ve ever assembled. With Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin added to the team, the Raptors have made it clear that they’re not messing around.

MVP: Kawhi Leonard – Remember when Kevin Durant implied that Kawhi was a system player for the Spurs? Maybe that’s why Kawhi wanted out because he’s proven that notion wrong. He hasn’t skipped a beat in Canada and has even averaged career-highs both in scoring and rebounding average. He’d be an MVP candidate if he hadn’t missed 16 games.
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry – If Leonard is going to be the alpha dog of this team, he needs a second-in-command. Lowry’s numbers have dipped, but he’s got the experience. He’s folded in the playoffs before. Perhaps with less pressure, he can step up his game.
Unsung Hero: Serge Ibaka – With everything else that’s gone right for Toronto, Ibaka’s full acclimation to the center position has given him new life offensively. He’s putting up some of the best scoring, rebounding, and assist averages he’s had either ever or in years.
Pivotal Question: Will Nick Nurse get the team finally past its long-lived playoff demons?

Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 38-21
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .486 (21st Overall)
Record against competitors: 1-7

We have seen three iterations of the Sixers this season. One with Dario Saric and Robert Covington, one that added Jimmy Butler, then one that added primarily Tobias Harris among others. That’s a lot of talent to integrate in such a short time. Lucky for them, by adding Butler and Harris, the Sixers have the most talented starting five in the East. The Process is now at 100 percent capacity. They may have holes, but their Warriors-esque talent level may make it so that it won’t be a problem.

MVP: Joel Embiid – At age 24, Embiid has now taken his first steps into superstardom. 27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists along with 1.9 blocks is sure to Joel among the ranks of the league’s top centers. Perhaps what’s most encouraging is that, before this recent knee ailment, Embiid has only missed five games.
X-Factor: The Bench – The Sixers also loaded up the second unit by adding Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis III. By doing so, they really are committing to positionless basketball. It honestly could work if they use it to the best advantage they could.
Unsung Hero: Jimmy Butler – Butler’s fit with the Sixers hasn’t been smooth, but, even with the decreased scoring numbers, Butler is quietly putting up some of the most efficient percentages he’s ever had this season, both from three and the field itself.
Pivotal Question: Will they be able to stop any elite point guards?

Boston Celtics
Record: 37-22
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .516 (10th Overall)
Record against competitors: 6-3

The Celtics are somehow a team that’s played badly enough that they’re a disappointment yet played well enough that people shouldn’t give up on them. After a mediocre start, most of the results that have come from the Celtics have been positive. That’s come with some frustrating losses, but the team has been resilient after every bad stretch they’ve had. A common characteristic of Brad Stevens teams is that they play at their best as the season approaches its end. With their guys finally getting past their injury issues, we may see more of the same in the best way yet.

MVP: Kyrie Irving – Kyrie’s chaotic free agency plans have gotten in the way of what’s been a great season for him. He’s put up his usual scoring numbers, but his passing, rebounding and defense have been the best they’ve ever been. The Celtics have proven their fine without him. They’re still better off having him on the court.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward – It’s been reported to death by now that Hayward’s made some encouraging process in recent weeks. Let’s leave it at this – if he is 100 percent by the playoffs, that makes the Celtics so much scarier. People forget just how good Gordon Hayward was merely two years ago.
Unsung Hero: Al Horford – After the last Celtics-Sixers game, many believe Horford is going to be a matchup problem for Embiid. Correction: Horford’s skillset and IQ make him a matchup problem for everyone.
Pivotal Question: Will they find a consistent rhythm by the season’s end?

Some of you are probably going to be outraged that Indiana is not included on this list, and for good reason. They still are the third-seeded team in the East, they’ve just recently had a six-game winning streak snapped, and they have one of the league’s best defenses.

With all due respect, it’s pretty simple. No Victor Oladipo, no contest. The Pacers are still one of the most well-liked and well-rounded teams in the league. It doesn’t change the fact that in the playoffs, having star power gives a huge advantage. Without Oladipo, Indiana is completely deprived of it.

If it’s any comfort, with a fully healthy Oladipo next season, they are more than worthy of being put with this group.

Here’s to hoping that by next year, this group will stay the same when he does.

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NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?

As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.

Jordan Hicks

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Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.

For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?

The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.

Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.

What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.

Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.

While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.

Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.

One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.

As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.

The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.

Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”

Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.

As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.

Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.

Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.

But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.

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