Grade the deal: Circumstances drive Thunder to re-sign Enes Kanter
The stars have to align perfectly for a one-way backup player to earn max money. And so they did.
Oklahoma City announced Sunday that it has matched a four-year, $70 million max offer sheet made by Portland to Enes Kanter, thereby retaining the restricted free agent center. The contract, which kicks in next season, includes a player option for 2018-19. The Thunder acquired Kanter from the Jazz in a midseason trade package that included a first-round pick.
"We traded for Enes last season with the intention of keeping him as a member of the Thunder for several years to come, and we are excited that he will continue with us," Thunder GM Sam Presti said in a statement. "He adds valuable depth to our roster, diversity to our frontcourt and the dimension that he brings offensively will positively impact our team."
Kanter, 23, averaged a career-high 15.5 points and 8.9 rebounds last season, raising those numbers to 18.7 points and 11 rebounds following the trade.
The Turkish center, who was the No. 3 pick in the 2011 draft, is one of this summer's most polarizing free agents: his supporters point to his low-post scoring ability and productive rebounding numbers, while his detractors harp on his atrocious defense. "Atrocious" isn't an exaggeration: Kanter ranked dead last among centers in Defensive Real Plus-Minus and he blocked just 29 shots in more than 2,100 minutes. Utah's defensive rating dropped from 103.9 when Kanter was off the court to 108 when Kanter was on the court, and Oklahoma City's similarly fell from 104.1 to 110.4. Calling Kanter a sieve would be too generous.
On the basis of his defensive limitations alone, Kanter belongs in the discussion for the worst contract of the summer. His $17.5 million average annual value is greater than fellow restricted free agents Draymond Green ($16.4 million), Tobias Harris ($16 million), Reggie Jackson ($16 million), Brandon Knight ($14 million) and Khris Middleton ($14 million), and it's nearly as high as Kawhi Leonard ($18 million) and Jimmy Butler ($18 million). Other positional comps from this summer include Brook Lopez ($20 million) and Greg Monroe ($16.7 million). Unless he shows immediate and major improvement defensively, Kanter projects as the least valuable player from those peer groups. Although he's a dependable source of offense, Kanter isn't the type of nuclear scoring weapon who can get away with such major concessions on the other end.
So how did he land such a monster contract? Well, his timing and circumstances were ideal. Here's a quick list of factors that played in his favor...
• Presti traded away Jackson and a first-round pick in the three-team deal to land Kanter, and he needed something to show for that.
• Both of the Thunder's franchise players have upcoming free agency decisions: Kevin Durant in 2016 and Russell Westbrook in 2017. Oklahoma City's ownership has drawn questions over its willingness to spend in the past, and letting Kanter walk would easily have been painted with the "cheap" brush.
• Oklahoma City missed the playoffs this season and did not add an impact player during the off-season. Losing Kanter would have been viewed as another step back for a core that faces pressure to win big before Durant's decision.
• Portland lost four starters in free agency and was unable to land comparable replacements. Blazers president Neil Olshey had cap space to spare.
• The Blazers and Thunder are division rivals. From Portland's perspective, the next best thing after a good signing would be forcing the Thunder into a questionable one.
• Kanter performed well down the stretch with Oklahoma City, finding a nice two-man connection with Westbrook, playing with high energy and establishing himself as the best interior scorer in a frontcourt that also includes Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and Mitch McGary. The presence of Ibaka, an elite defender, can theoretically help cover up Kanter's shortcomings on that end.
• A number of other title contenders—San Antonio, Cleveland, Golden State and the L.A. Clippers—either took steps forward or at least avoided major slippage. Oklahoma City expects to get back into that group, and its summer would look like a net-negative if the centerpiece of its midseason deal left for nothing.
Without a doubt, the biggest factor in all of this is Durant's future. Presti first shifted into short-term mode with his trade for Dion Waiters, and matching here continues that approach. If Kanter hadn't acclimated well, perhaps Oklahoma City could have entertained a longer discussion about cutting bait. Instead, the capped-out Thunder found themselves boxed in: they just aren't in position to watch a contributor walk over money at this point in Durant's career cycle. That's true even though Kanter pencils in as a third big man behind Adams and Ibaka.
The costs involved in retaining Kanter are quite painful this season but less so next year, when the salary cap will rise to roughly $90 million. For 2015-16, Oklahoma City is now more than $13 million over the $84.7 million luxury tax line. Pending other cost-cutting moves, Oklahoma City is looking at roughly a $24 million tax bill. That would be unprecedented territory: Oklahoma City was a taxpayer last season for the first time since the franchise's move from Seattle, but the bill was nominal. In 2016-17, the Thunder project to have enough room to sign Durant to a max extension, which would start at roughly $27 million, without necessarily being a taxpaying team again. That's incredibly important, because it would help ownership avoid even more punitive repeater tax penalties. The simple takeaway: if ownership is willing to bite the bullet this season, the financial pain from this specific contract won't necessarily be long-lasting.
There's a disorienting feel to this agreement, in part because Presti has cultivated a reputation as a prudent, proactive and methodical executive. This deal goes against that reputation: it's humongous and it was negotiated with the Thunder's back against the wall.
The good old days of Presti maximizing his leverage and the Thunder's success to get someone like Ibaka to agree to a bargain early extension are in the past. The Durant clock is ticking ominously, a division rival smelled blood and made a well-timed poker play, and an agent wisely waited out the first week of free agency to maximize his client's new deal. The result? An unsightly contract that Presti had to grin and bear.