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Enes Kanter’s “Improved Defense” Is A Facade

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When teammates jokingly called Enes Kanter “stop sign” after a 6 block performance against Charlotte on New Years Eve, it was funny and almost seemed like they were aware of his reputation on that end of the floor. However, that performance seems to have fueled a narrative that Kanter has not only improved on the defensive end this season, but actually been impressive. I’m here to explain why that narrative is a facade rooted largely in metrics that fail miserably at capturing Kanter’s actual, individual performance as a defender. 

First, let me quickly add a disclaimer that this article is not meant to hate on Kanter. He’s already gotten a lot of that from sections of the fanbase this season, and much of it was undeserved. On top of that, Kanter wasn’t brought to Boston for his defense, and he’s succeeded at doing the things we did expect him to do well — namely post-scoring and rebounding. By all means, he’s fulfilled his role sufficiently and lived up to the expectations of a player making just $5 million. What we don’t have to do, however, is try to pretend that he’s not still a defensive liability and absolute turnstile. 

All season long I’ve been seeing Kanter’s individual defensive rating used as the primary supporting evidence that he’s been good on that end of the floor. Just the other day, NBC Sports Boston writer A. Sherrod Blakely published a piece raving about Kanter’s defense “shining through” for the Celtics this season, and his defensive rating was cited multiple times as the justification for that claim. On Twitter, I’ve seen the same, incredibly flawed metrics thrown around in defense of Kanter on numerous occasions. It’s important to understand that individual defensive rating, whether it’s NBA.com’s version, or the version used on Basketball Reference, can be heavily influenced by the team’s overall defensive success. 

The way that NBA.com calculates defensive rating is, quite simply, the number of points per 100 possessions that the opposing team scores when that individual player is on the court. The formula that Basketball Reference uses is more complex, but still has it’s flaws and shortcomings because of the assumptions that go into the formula’s calculations. Andy Larsen from “SLC Dunk” broke down these problems in far more detail back in 2013 if you’re interested in looking more into it — and his notes on how big of a factor defensive rebounding is in this formula are especially relevant in this case — but Basketball Reference summarizes these flaws on their own site as well: 

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With all of that being said, it should be noted that the Celtics have pretty much always been a good defensive team under Brad Stevens. In his 6 full seasons as head coach, the Celtics have finished in the top half of the league in team defensive rating in all but one season — his first. They have also finished in the top 5 twice, and in the last two years have finished 2nd and 6th respectively. Currently, they sit at 4th on the season. 

While Stevens’ defensive schemes are a huge factor in all of this, so are the teammates that Kanter plays alongside. Take a look at who he has shared the court with most in his 508 total minutes this season: 

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Save for Kemba Walker, pretty much everyone that Kanter has spent a significant amount of time on the court with is an above-average defender, and several are game-changers on that end of the floor. Not only are his teammates making him look better, but Brad has done an excellent job of pairing Kanter with lineups that minimize his negative impact. If you don’t believe that the “negative impact” that I’m referring to exists, lets take a look at some metrics from The Basketball Index that highlight just how negative it is.

​This first image shows the defensive rating of each player on the team when Kanter is on the court versus when he is off the court: 

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For perspective, here’s what the chart looks like for a guy like Daniel Theis, who is actually a good defender:

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Save for an outlier here and there, numbers like these prove just how much Kanter’s teammates have been hiding his deficiencies rather than Kanter having actually improved himself. Basketball Index’s talent grades for Kanter this season compared to his talent grades from last year also support the idea that Kanter’s defensive “improvement” is a facade. 

This year, The Basketball Index has Kanter graded as a 54th percentile perimeter defender and a 33rd percentile interior defender among all players at all positions. For comparison’s sake, the same grading system had Kanter graded as a 57th percentile perimeter defender last season and a 78th percentile interior defender — both higher marks than he is posting this season. Among “Bigs” this season, those grades drop to the 52nd percentile for perimeter defense and the 10th (TENTH!!!!!) percentile for interior defense. That porous interior defense is highlighted by NBA.com’s defensive statistics. According to their stats, players are shooting 61.2% within 6 feet against Kanter — a mark that is the 11th worst among any Center who has defended at least 100 such shots this season. By these numbers, any “improvement” in Kanter’s defense this season is nowhere to be found. 

Again, all of this sounds harsh, but I don’t mean for it to come off as Kanter slander. The defense that we’ve seen from him this season is nothing different than what we expected, and he’s largely made up for it on the offensive end and on the glass. He’s also maybe the 10th best player on the team, only making $5 million and likely nowhere in Boston’s long term plans moving forward, so his lack of improvement on defense is no big deal; especially with how well his teammates and Brad Stevens have masked his deficiencies and actually managed to make his numbers look good. HOWEVER, I couldn’t keep reading tweets and articles about how is defense is “actually not that bad” or “has improved” when we all watch him get torched night in and night out. He doesn’t deserve any hate, but when people start talking about his defense like it isn’t as big of a liability as always, you’re pretty much asking for it. 

Photo: Nick Wass/AP Photo

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