LOS ANGELES — It was just two days before Christmas when Enes Kanter dragged a sack of gifts around the Knicks' training facility, handing out gifts to his teammates and insisting that his only goal was keeping the team upbeat through the hard times.
“The only thing I learned from my career, you have to stay together,” Kanter said that day, still wearing an elf costume. “You cannot fall apart. You need that one, two, three guys to bring the positive energy in the locker room. If you’re losing, everybody is shaking their head, everybody is depressed. You need that guy to bring that positive energy, keep that energy up, make people laugh.”
That was Kanter that day as it has been through much of his career, happy in New York, happy to be in the NBA and happy to speak his mind on the bigger troubles in the world. So how did he turn into a disgruntled player who was sitting down for a one-on-one talk with Knicks general manager Scott Perry by New Year's Day?
You can point to the game in Milwaukee on Dec. 27 when Kanter was pulled from the starting lineup in favor of Luke Kornet, who had only recently been promoted from the G League. But really you can pick out any spot along the team’s current slide toward the bottom of the NBA standings with eight straight losses and 13 in their last 14 games.
Kanter was willing to play along with the team’s plan to develop its younger players when he was a key piece and there were at least a pretense of winning. But as the losses have piled on and the team tumbled to its current 9-29 record, sitting and watching isn’t nearly as alluring. That has led to the normally ebullient Kanter sitting in front of his locker despondently after games, carefully choosing his words as he teeters close to asking for a way out. He has not made that demand yet, not even in the sit-down with Perry.
“I did not ask for a trade, no,” Kanter said after scoring 17 points and getting 12 rebounds in the Knicks’ 115-108 loss to the Nuggets. “I did not say, ‘Scott, try and trade me.’ No I did not say that. Because I like it here a lot. And I probably won’t say to Scott’s face, ‘Scott I want to get traded.’ Because I like it here a lot.
“But again, in the end, we all are competitors, basketball players, in the end I like it here so much, but again I want to win. I want this team to get the playoffs one day. This is my blood, man, I’m sorry. If anyone asks anything else, I’m not going to do it. I’m going out there to get a win every time.”
What “anything else” refers to seems to be tanking for the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery. Kanter certainly has his shortcomings, an old-school center with defensive deficiencies. But no one, including coach David Fizdale or Perry would contend that he doesn’t play the game hard.
“We understand what we’ve got to do,” Fizdale said. “I understand his frustrations. I’m not blowing that off at all. But you know, I’m looking at the big picture of this thing. That’s how I have to coach it. I value Enes. I don’t want him ever to feel he’s not valued. I really value him. So hopefully we can get it far behind us and move forward.”
“It’s just, all this anger and frustration is coming from losing,” Kanter said. “It’s not fun to lose 12, 13, whatever in a row. It’s not fun. It’s just tough, man. But obviously I had a meeting with Scott [Monday]. He just said, ‘You know, this is the growth. This is one of your biggest tests in your career, so just try to be a good teammate.' That’s what I’ve been trying to do. Just help the young guys and try to be the best teammate you can be. So that’s what I'm trying to do. Again, this organization is paying me. I don’t want no free money. So every time I’m out there I’m going to try to get a win.”
For the Knicks, the hope is that the wins will come next year when Kristaps Porzingis is back from his rehabilitation of his torn ACL. That timeline doesn’t match up with Kanter, who is a free agent this summer. Even if the Knicks want to trade him, he is tough to move with an expiring $18.6 million contract. Perry and team president Steve Mills have repeatedly expressed a refusal to attach any draft picks or young players in a deal and are equally adamant that they do not want to take back any contracts that extend beyond this season.
“I know what I’m capable of,” Kanter said. “I know this is the situation so I’m just sucking it up and trying to be a good teammate. Even [Perry] said that, just keep your head up. Be good. The whole league knows you. That’s what I’m trying to do. This is a hard situation right now. We are developing the young guys, so I’m just trying to help the young guys and trying to be the best teammate I can be.”