After thinking about it for a few days, you know what? I’m totally on board with saying ‘so long’ to Enes Kanter. I’m siding with him. Not with his agent, or his people. Not with the idea that he’s worth a ludicrous amount of money next year, or that he’s a once in a generation talent. I’m just siding with Enes Kanter here. He’s our guy, and he was one of the main victims of systematic abuse and disuse. For years. Sure, there are flaws to his game which are primarily something he needs to fix in order to sustain or grow his skill set and have a long NBA career. But that’s not why the Utah Jazz traded him. They traded him because better than anyone else reading this (save for the Jazz execs who do read this blog) they know what the situation boiled down to. The relationship had reached a point of no return, and the Jazz knew they were partly to blame. And that’s why we have Enes Kanter starting for the Oklahoma City Thunder right now averaging 15.0 ppg (57.1 fg%), 12.5 rpg, and 2.5 apg. The Jazz messed it up, and to make amends, the new bosses of the Jazz let him go in a good faith gesture.
But before we get to the present, let’s rewind the time and start at the beginning of this story.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away the Utah Jazz sent some of their scouting department, including some big money guys, to watch Enes Kanter play in Turkey. It wasn’t a game, it was just to see him in a gym. This was after Kanter played high school basketball in California; after his performances in the Jordan Classic International, and the Nike Hoop Summit; after he had sat out a year at the University of Kentucky; and after Kanter had played in so many FIBA Jr. Team events. This was the Jazz flying outside of the USA to see a guy that very few people knew much about. Enes was a mystery the Jazz needed to solve after getting some luck and being awarded the #3 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.
And what they saw made them want more.
The Jazz brass had seen a lot of players leading up to that draft: Alec Burks, Brady Morningstar, Brandon Knight, Chris Singleton, Dallas Lauderdale, Delvon Johnson, Jackson Emery, JaJuan Johnson, Jeremy Tyler, Jimmer Fredette, John Holland, Jordan Hamilton, Josh Harrellson, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson , Malcolm Lee, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Michael Stockton, Mustapha Farrakhan, Norris Cole, Paul Carter (twice!), Senario Hillman, Shelvin Mack, Tobias Harris, Tyler Honeycutt, Willie Reed, and Zach Graham. (N.B. Kawhi Leonard and MarShon Brooks both skipped scheduled workouts with the team.) A lot of these names were picked in the lotto – but even after seeing so many domestic products the Jazz knew that Enes was the best player available by their scouting metrics. And when the time came to draft him they did.
The pick was an "okay, we’ll see" type of pick that almost unanimously made people scratch their heads a bit because the Jazz had previously traded for the #3 pick of the 2010 NBA Draft, the still 19 year old Derrick Favors. (N.B. The NBA Draft is in June, Favors turned 20 in July) It was hard enough to get Favors on the floor behind Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap – adding an even younger, less experienced player to the mix was sure to be more than just a logjam. The people out there who see a relationship between player development and actually getting NBA minutes knew this from the onset. My fear was that Kanter’s minutes would cannibalize Favors’ minutes. This type of player development is akin to Bond-villain logic.
It’s an old, dare I say it out-dated, idea about development I see so many people champion online or on the radio.
" If player X wants it bad enough, works hard enough in practice, and does all the right things distraction free – then they’ll get the minutes. You gotta earn it."
That’s fine. It’s perfectly fine if we’re talking about players on equal footing – like three or four high school kids who all played two years of J.V. ball. Or, say, a group of NBA Rookies who all played three to four years of NCAA ball. Having the guys "earn their minutes" makes no sense when you have 27 year old Al Jefferson going up against 26 year old Paul Millsap going up against 20 year old Derrick Favors going up against 19 year old Enes Kanter.
- Big Al skipped college and went to the NBA, and by this point (the 2011-2012 season) had already played 14,590 regular season minutes over 7 NBA seasons. That’s an average of 2,084.3 minutes per season. The team had previously signed and traded away Carlos Boozer, a multiple time All-Star, away for a trade exception that the team then used to get Big Al and his bloated contract out of Minnesota so Minny could free up more playing / development time for Kevin Love. Love is now one of the best Bigmen in the league and an Olympian. The Jazz hitched their wagon to Big Al, and there was no way a 19 year old rookie and a 20 year old 2nd year player were going to displace his minutes. They could not be earned. No matter what the kids did.
- Paul had played three season of NCAA ball, 3,240 minutes, and was drafted in the second round. He worked hard and earned his minutes in a less crowded front court with more roster movement (at times Jerry Sloan used both Andrei Kirilenko or Mehmet Okur off the bench). By the time Tyrone Corbin was in charge Paul had earned his right to his minutes, and sat upon 11,297 combined regular season and playoff minutes over six NBA seasons with the Jazz. Paul played an average of only 1,882.8 minutes per season. Paul had succeeded all the bigs who were in front of him as a rookie. I do not believe that minutes could have been earned away from Paul either.
- Derrick Favors was the #3 draft pick by the New Jersey Nets, who then traded him. Players who get traded during their rookie seasons do not inherit a lot of stability. Favors played 444 minutes in a Jazz jersey before they drafted another dude who was taller than him, but less experienced, and younger, who played the same positions.
- Enes Kanter was a teenaged foreign kid who needed as many minutes possible to get the experience needed to reach the potential the Jazz brass saw in him when they saw him pre-draft.
Complicating this are two factors: Kanter joined the team during the lockout year. There was no summer league (and one fewer training camp). There was no extended player’s work outs before training camp started. Training camp was abbreviated, and the preseason was only two games long. So a kid who was already behind was going slower (because of the lockout) than other young bigmen before him. The second factor was that his head coach, Corbin, was absolutely infatuated with longevity. When asked what aspect of Jerry Sloan’s Hall of Fame coaching career he most wanted he said longevity. He didn’t say "respect from my players", "support from the ownership", "offensive discipline", "ability to positively affect change on the court by talking to Refs" or anything like that. He wanted a long head coaching career. In order to satiate his "gold sickness" he felt like the only way to do that was the get wins. Even when the Dennis Lindsey, the new GM, never once said he would judge the season on wins (and specifically pointed out development was a key part) Corbin still went for what lineups would best help him get wins.
So Enes was young, and needed as much time possible to catch up for not playing basketball on the junior circuit (no AAU ball), and for not playing basketball in college. He was drafted to a team with three better players than him. His coach didn’t want to develop players at the NBA level, he wanted to win games. So obviously the Utah Jazz felt like in order to catch Enes up they’d play him in the NBA-DL, right?
Nope. The Jazz did not send Kanter down to play once second of NBA-DL ball. We already know they think the NBA-DL is a joke and a scouting tool for other teams, and don’t even bother using it for what other teams use it for. (Y’all know that Toure' Murry was getting minutes at PF there in Idaho, right?) But even as bad as a joke the Jazz think their affiliate team is, they would rather keep Enes in DNP-CD land than actually get him the reps he needs to gain the confidence on the court to actually be one day WORTH the #3 pick the Jazz used to get him.
As an aside the whole saga begins to look like there was a huge problem between what the front office actually saw with Kanter, and what the coaching staff actually wanted to do. And really, the team as a whole seemed for years to want to different, opposite things. They wanted to compete, reload with Big Al, and try to be a contender – but it’s hard to do that when you are forced to trade away Deron Williams for Devin Harris, a rookie, and two future 1st rounders. The emphasis should have been upon "the future" instead of "the now". But again:
So we know how this ended up. Without a unified direction within the front office, or between the front office and the coaching staff the team experienced one of the most divisive periods in its’ history. Al Jefferson gave up in the playoffs and never recovered, Paul Millsap mentally checked out a year before free agency. Derrick Favors lagged behind guys like DeMarcus Cousins. And Enes Kanter eventually lost his starting job to Marvin Williams.
Instead of being developed like most lotto picks, or even being given a chance to play basketball regularly, the super young Kanter only felt disuse. One year the Jazz questioned his conditioning, and he went full beastmode and was in arguably better shape than Karl Malone. He still came off the bench that next season. Another off-season he actually spent it WITH Karl Malone and learned to run the floor hard. Of course, none of the point guards he played with ever gave him the ball when he ran hard on the break. Kanter was a great student of Big Al, and learned many post up moves. He also learned that bigmen get paid if they can score in this league, despite defensive shortcomings.
So we have a high potential player who is great at scoring – and increasing his range – who has historically had bad blood (but kept it inside) for years, even when the mouthpiece of the Jazz would even insult him to his face in interviews. And while you were getting better, putting in the work and trying to earn your minutes, the head coach had his own agenda that made earning minutes nearly impossible as cronyism and favoritism ruled his rotations.
No wonder he wanted out.
I think Kanter wanting out has more to do with finding a home within basketball that respects him than getting as much money as possible, or the fear of coming off the bench to Rudy Gobert. I think it is clear that Enes loves his former Jazz teammates, and had no problems with Rudy. He was in a contract year and wanted to look good, especially because the Jazz effectively told him to work for his contract value. (Like they did to Gordon Hayward the season before.) The Jazz and Kanter were far apart on money, but I really believe that he could have been happy here if things were slightly different. The boiling point was the threat of going from being the second big to being the fourth big behind more defensively versatile Trevor Booker. Being the third would have been fine after his contract was settled. Being fourth during a contract year, even if it was for a situational game against Dallas, was the straw that broke his back. After that game he opened up to Jazz beat writer Aaron Falk about his desire to be traded.
I do not have any evidence that confirms this, and the people I have talked to about this in Chicago have not given me any confirmation or denial.
Max Ergul, Kanter’s agent, is almost 100% correct when he asserts that the Jazz took no interest in developing him. He probably should amend that to "certain wins obsessed Jazz coaches who had a "no fire clause" in their contracts did not have any interest in developing Enes," but hey. We all can’t be that direct. The lack of a unified direction within the Jazz org, and between the new GM and the existing coach ended up creating friction. Gordon Hayward had to be convinced to buy back into the Jazz program, and Quin Snyder spent a lot of time on the phone with him after the Jazz matched his contract. Snyder also worked a lot with Derrick Favors to get him to recognize that this was a new Jazz era and a new direction that focuses on him. Most of us believed that the most alienated player, Alec Burks, was a flight risk – but Snyder worked his NCAA recruiting magic on him for a long time this fall, and Burks signed the extension with the Jazz. A huge portion of Snyder’s summer was getting Trey Burke and Dante Exum to not immediately try to kill one another.
The time just ran out on smoothing things over with Enes. But I think it’s too soon to jump to conclusions about Kanter’s potential in the Snyder offense. After all, most missed it but Kanter was a designated scorer in this offense, and that’s one of the reasons why his assist numbers were low. When the ball worked it’s way to him it would have been silly for him to try to create something other than a shot, trying to Joe Ingles his way into more assists would be breaking plays. No one complains when a designated shooter like Steve Kerr or John Paxson shoots when they are open – but if a big does it people think he’s a black hole. Maybe Kanter was shooting and scoring so much because he’s one of the best scorers on this team, and it was part of the game plan? I think that’s what it was. And I think that it was because it was a token given to Kanter from Snyder, at the behest of DL, in order to try to keep him happy and get him to buy into the new Jazz program.
It was a little too late to matter, as the developmentally behind schedule Kanter wanted to move on. And he is in the process of doing that right now. The fans need to as well at some stage. He’s totally going to be that guy we keep tabs on for his entire career, like that girl you dumped in high school that you still sometimes check up on in Facebook.
"She’s got kids already? I’m definitely better looking than her husband. Huh, I wonder if she still does that funny thing with her lips?"
In the big picture it’s hard to retain all of your draft picks, even if they are solid players. The Oklahoma City Thunder could not keep James Harden, but they did retain Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka together for a few years. And before that they got rid of Jeff Green years ago for Kendrick Perkins, who now got them Enes Kanter. Out of all the teams in the league I don’t think that OKC’s night life is the upgrade Kanter was looking for form SLC; but they are a team with stars (thus making life easier for him to get open) that are on TV a lot and going to the playoffs. It will be easier to be noticed and his talents recognized this way. OKC is one of the best teams for developing players, and let’s not forget that for all the abuse Kanter got early on he is still ONLY 22 YEARS OLD. Karl Malone was 22 years old when he was a rookie, and went on to play for nearly two decades.
The Jazz hold onto Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. They still have super wild-card Alec Burks. Down the line there’s Trey Burke and Dante Exum and Rodney Hood. There’s the possibility of some European players coming over, but the big push factor for making this happen was Rudy Gobert. Bereft of Gobert this is a tragedy. But now it is an opportunity – for both parties. Kanter gets to spread his wings. And so does Rudy. It’s learning from the past and preventing another logjam and minutes/development jam. It needed to happen, especially because Kanter was sure to garner more on the free agent market than the Jazz would want to pay.
I personally would have wanted Kanter to stay with the Jazz. I wanted things to work. But in reality this is better than the alternative outcome where harmony leads to discord. Go with God, Enes Kanter. Make basketball fun again for you, and know that there are plenty of Jazz fans who will support you your entire career.
You have the talent to be an asset to any team that is smart enough to play you the minutes you deserve. And I hope you get paid the money that makes all of this unpleasantness worth it. OKC is really dull. But you have already figured this out already in the few hours you’ve been there. Crush your enemies Enes. You can be the Conan the Barbarian of the new NBA.
Just don’t crush the Jazz when we play you.