Robb: Why Enes Kanter is (probably) opting into his player option with Celtics

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The contractual status of Gordon Hayward heading into next season has garnered plenty of attention so far this offseason but there’s another decision that will loom large for Celtics’ offseason planning: The $5 million player option for Enes Kanter.

The Celtics signed the 28-year-old center last summer to a two-year deal with a modest raise in year two of the deal with their room-level exception. The pact was essentially the same deal that Aron Baynes got from the team in the summer of 2017 to help fill the team’s void in the middle.

When healthy, Kanter had a successful year in Boston, at least during the regular season. He nearly shot a career high 57 percent from the field and posted some of his best rebound rates ever despite a sharp decline in playing time from past seasons. From a production standpoint, Kanter may feel like he did enough to earn a raise on the open market as he enters another year of his prime. Testing that market instead of falling deeper into the Celtics depth chart at the center position behind Daniel Theis and Rob Williams next season may hold some appeal and has led to rumors circulating that Kanter is leaning towards opting out next season.

However, if money is a priority for Kanter, it’s hard to see him turning down his $5 million option for the 2020-21 season. Let’s take a closer look at the center free agent market to see why.

Supply and demand

The value of true centers across the NBA has been reduced in recent years especially as supporting pieces on a roster. While true center superstars have their day in the sun (Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Bam Adebayo) the league has been moving away from a true rebounding big like Kanter who lacks both 3-point range and defensive versatility. A strong big is still a useful weapon to have on the bench for specific matchup (vs. Joel Embiid) but it’s a spot where the supply outweighs the demand, especially as we head into this offseason.

The problem for Kanter as he explores potential opportunities beyond Boston this offseason while weighing his options is that there are limited openings on NBA rosters for meaningful center roles around the league. There’s certainly a place for Kanter in this league but probably not one for above the veteran’s minimum, especially with such limited cap space available this offseason.

To better illustrate this, I examined the center depth charts across the league. Among all 30 NBA teams, there were less than 10 that are going to be in the market for backup or starting center this fall. Only a handful of teams among those actually have meaningful cap room to spend. So let’s explore a few of Kanter’s potential options.

Teams in the market for a center this offseason

Charlotte: Cody Zeller (starter) is under contract, Bismack Biyombo and Willy Hernangomez are becoming free agents. There’s a major void here for a big man but the Hornets and their $22 million in cap room will likely aim higher with their options than Kanter with this rebuilding squad.

Detroit: Christian Wood and Blake Griffin make up the frontcourt and there’s nothing much behind them. They have $28 million to spend in free agency but have a host of holes across their roster to fill. It’s highly unlikely they spend money on a 28-year-old defensively challenged big man to fill those holes when alternatives are available.

Denver: Nikola Jokic is the All-Star and his backup Mason Plumlee is set to be an unrestricted free agent. The Nuggets have Bird Rights on him so if they agreed to a deal, there will be no room for Kanter. Even if they don’t, the Nuggets will probably spend their disposal salary on retaining Jerami Grant or Paul Millsap over Kanter.

Golden State: There’s a huge hole here in the middle with Kevon Looney being the only true big signed to the roster. If Kanter is strictly looking for opportunity, this could be a home but the Warriors only have the taxpayer mid-level to spend and lots of more holes to fill. They also may want a more defensive-minded big in the middle than a liability like Kanter. Best case here is a veteran’s minimum offer and a chance to compete for minutes.

OKC/Phoenix: Both have good backup centers that are free agents (Nerlens Noel/Aron Baynes) with strong starting centers already in place (Steven Adams/Deandre Ayton) neither will be paying a premium for bigs if they let their own backups walk.

Portland: Kanter’s former home may have an opening at center behind Jusuf Nurkic if Hassan Whiteside walks. However, Zach Collins is already under contract there and it’s hard to see them bringing back Kanter when they already had one of the worst defenses in the NBA last season.

Sacramento: Richaun Holmes earned the starting job last year and there are plenty of bigs (Marvin Bagley, Nemanja Bjelica) already signed behind him. The Kings will be spending most of their money on other priorities beyond center (Bogdan Bogdanovic) and already have a free agent big in Alex Len they could try to retain.

San Antonio: Jakob Poeltl is a restricted free agent and LaMarcus Aldridge is already locked up for one more year. If Poeltl walks, the backup center position could be available but the Spurs don’t have cap room.

Teams with cap room that don’t need a center

Atlanta: Traded for Capela and Dedmon at the trade deadline
New York: Have a younger version of Kanter's rebounding skillset already locked up in Mitchell Robinson with a lot more upside defensively.  
Miami: Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk already under contract.

With very limited opportunities available for regular roles next season at center, let’s also take a look at the list of free agent