Is the Oklahoma City Thunder's Defense Doomed With Enes Kanter?

Can elite rim protector Serge Ibaka save the Thunder's defense with Enes Kanter or is it completely doomed?

Serge Ibaka is probably the rarest type of player the NBA: a dual rim protector on defense and floor spacer on offense. Having that combination allows him to benefit a dying breed of player, a back-to-the-basket post player who isn’t great defensively.

Essentially, Ibaka is just about the only big in the world who can provide that type of one-way player space in the post and also cover up that player's defensive weaknesses.

You probably see where I’m going with this. Isn’t Ibaka the perfect player to pair with newly re-signed Thunder big Enes Kanter?

Well, in theory, yes. Unfortunately, even Ibaka can’t necessarily save the Thunder’s defense when Kanter is on the floor. Admittedly, this surprised me when I looked at the data. We’ve seen plenty of bad defenders play in a good defense because they’re surrounded by elite guys. When I looked at Thunder’s defensive numbers last year with Ibaka and Kanter together, while I wasn’t expecting an elite defense, I did figure it’d be about average.

Opp PPPOpp TS%0-3ft0-3%4-9ft4-9%10-15ft10-15%16+ft16+%
w/ Kanter1.11756.231.366.613.542.611.651.217.735.9
w/ Kanter & Ibaka1.11553.130.862.114.536.49.942.217.027.3

However, that does not look to be the case. Even Ibaka can’t save the Thunder’s defense when Kanter is on the floor, according to the numbers from Of course, this data is without a healthy Kevin Durant, who is a good, lengthy defender on the wing. Perhaps his addition can slightly help the situation, but I’m skeptical that it would change things all that much.

The alarming part is the shot locations and percentages. Opponents shot about the same amount of close shots (0 to 3 feet) with Kanter on the floor than with him off, but they were much more efficient with them, making nearly 67%. Ouch. Ibaka helped a bit here, but he could only drop it down to around 62% -- they’ll win a lot of games because of their offense despite that number, but that will have to dip if they want to truly contend.

The biggest jump is in the in-between range where you typically find power forwards, or guys that Kanter defends. When he’s on the floor, opponents have destroyed the Thunder both between 4 and 9 feet and 10 and15 feet. They’re actually pretty good against the mid-range when he’s off the floor (40.4%), but with him on, opponents are shooting a deadly 51.2%. Mid-rangers are dying out in the NBA, but not if they can be converted at such an efficient rate like against Kanter.

This is still a relatively small sample size, as Kanter was traded for mid-season. There’s a chance that having a healthy roster, more time together for both Kanter to learn the scheme and his teammates to learn him, and new head coach Billy Donovan’s imprint on the defense could lead to Kanter’s defense being less of a problem that it seems today. Having a top defense is essentially a requirement for a title and the Thunder now have a lot of questions about whether that can happen with their young, now highly-paid big man.