Ask Miami Heat fans about Hassan Whiteside and the collective response should include two key components.
Promise and disappointment.
Sprinkle in a healthy dose of frustration on both sides, and after five years in South Beach, the honeymoon period had long passed for the Heat and their center. Whiteside opting into the final year of his deal this July was hardly in question, but his overall status and good standing with the team was a different story.
Suddenly with the Portland Trail Blazers, Whiteside has a new home and a new opportunity to make a name for himself entering his 30s. Maybe more vital than re-writing his reputation is the would-be end result: securing the biggest bag possible in July 2020 free agency.
With plenty of money on the line for Whiteside in the final year of his massive expiring contract ($27.1 million), the Blazers could have either a reclamation project or, at the very least, a February trade chip on their hands.
Both the Blazers and their new center have critics to prove wrong this season, but it’ll be more about Whiteside buying into the program and less about how Terry Stotts deploys his new weapon. Although both will come into play.
With so much money committed to one player, the temptation to keep on keepin’ on was too much when it came to Whiteside’s starting spot in Miami. Until it wasn’t.
Despite the money owed to Whiteside, the Heat made the decision to demote him and promote Adebayo. Health was a factor, but it was also a move that probably needed to happen a long time prior.
Whiteside’s numbers last season were still impressive. A double-double is a double-double all day long, but it seems more double-double-y when it takes place in only 23.3 minutes per game.
Whiteside was the NBA’s No. 1 player in Total Rebound Percentage, per Basketball Reference, compared to sixth and 11th in total offensive and defensive rebounding, respectively. He also topped the Defensive Rating category ahead of league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he was No. 2 in Block Percentage behind only Myles Turner.
But Whiteside’s time to thrive in Miami had passed. The spotlight had shifted to Bam, and there just wasn’t any reason to believe Whiteside’s production—or his attitude—would improve considering his diminishing role.
What He Brings to the Table
For starters, just look at the guy. Seriously.
At 7’0”, 265 pounds with a 7’6”, maybe 7’7” wingspan, Whiteside gives Portland a big, long, strong body it doesn’t have anywhere else on the roster. Meyers Leonard, sent away in the Miami trade, would’ve been the closest thing to a body double, but his inside game couldn’t compare, his defense never developed and his three-point shot wasn’t consistent enough to make up the difference.
Whiteside is at his most dangerous, offensively, off the roll. He has the kind of soft hands Greg Oden dreamed of and he can catch passes at incredibly high, awkward angles.
Whiteside may not be the ideal, quintessential roll man since he lacks the shot to threaten the pop and the playmaking to combat low-post help defenses, but according to super-stat site Synergy (paywall), he was in the 85th percentile of pick-and-roll finishers last season.
The former Heat center is also a constant rebounding threat and should give Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum even more of a green-light to fire away. And as far as reserves are concerned, having someone obsessed with boards can only help when Anfernee Simons is able to test out his own offensive repertoire. The same goes for Kent Bazemore, whose three-point shooting took a serious dip a year ago.
Wait so Blazers are gonna have— Zach Prosperi (@Zach_Prosperi) July 1, 2019
Jusuf Nurkic (when healthy)
Bench: Zach Collins, Mario Hezonja, Nassir Little, Kent Bazemore, pic.twitter.com/hOYvUz5boi
On the other end of the court, the rim should be well-protected courtesy of Whiteside’s size and ball-hawking instincts. The Blazers already run a healthy amount of drop coverage in defensive high pick-and-roll situations, allowing Whiteside to sit back, defend the cup and clean the glass by default.
This is where Stotts’ part of the equation comes in: Can he utilize Whiteside’s strengths within a system seemingly already catered to do so—but can he also, finally, take advantage of a mobile big who, in theory, has the length and skills to disrupt opposing guards?
On the other hand, ending up with Whiteside stuck on Harden Island would be a disaster. Being the only resident of Kawhi Isle is also less than ideal. Even thinking about vacationing at the LeBramas should be a no for me, dog.
For the time being, we’ll let Terry tinker, and we’ll avoid playing coach. But check back in with us six weeks into the season. We may have thoughts if the team is sub-.500. .
Hassan Whiteside will be a huge test for the strong culture that Neil Olshey, Terry Stotts, Damian/CJ have cultivated. High upside player, but couldn't sustain flashes of greatness inside Heat organization. Became Bam Adebayo's backup when Heat needed to win most— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) July 1, 2019
Redemption Project or Repeat Problem?
Where Whiteside begins to own his—and to an extent, Portland’s—own destiny depends on how and how often he buys into Stotts’ system.
Whiteside lost his starting job in Miami largely because his defensive efforts waned as his offensive relevancy shrunk. He’s not the first player whose motivation has been tied directly to his touches, but it’s always a shame when talent and production are misaligned because of a shaky motor.
Remember the disappointment and frustration Heat fans felt? That came from Whiteside’s attitude when he wasn’t more involved in the offense, not to mention his stat-hunting tendencies on defense that were more detrimental than beneficial to the team.
He has a stone-carved physical frame, and despite being a bit primitive in his game for 2020, he also has the skills to succeed at a high level.
And yet, Whiteside may be Lillard The Leader’s biggest test to date if his head and his heart aren’t in it.
What To Expect In 2019-20
Whiteside will be energized. He’s in a contract year. His grass is suddenly greener.
Maybe above all else, he’s sharing a locker room with one of the undisputed top leaders the current game has to offer.
Expect Whiteside to keep his excitement about shooters. And realistically, don’t be surprised if he opens the first few weeks, if not months, of 2019-20 as a candidate to lead the league in both rebounds and blocks.
The question at that point will be whether he’s chasing stats in the interest of $$$ or earning them within the system.
It’s easy to go after low-hanging fruit when there’s a paycheck on the line. (Just think about how many times you killed Mario or Luigi going for extra coinage.) But if Lillard and Co. are doing enough to involve him, both in the offense and the culture, the center will feel plenty inclined to play a cohesive, Rip City-brand of basketball.
The system, by the way, can’t rely on Whiteside to make plays out of the mid-range, but it also needs to challenge and engage a talented hooper. And there may not be a better on-court teacher out there to do that than the newly signed Gasol, who can school both young bucks like Collins and older, stubborn heads like Whiteside on how to rotate and how to manipulate a defender, via finding shooters and slashers, from 15, 18, 20 feet.
If nothing else, Lillard has already conquered a moody, once-lazy big man seeking a new beginning (See: Beast, Bosnian—Rocky Mountain Edition), and while you may want to doubt Whiteside, doubting Lillard has proved foolish literally more years counting than the guard has been in the pros.
OSN’s Jared Wright previews the 2019-20 season for Jusuf Nurkic!
Where all this goes from interesting to fascinating is when you realize Whiteside’s expiring contract could be one of February’s more valuable trade chips—to a very specific type of team, of course: a team looking to ditch long-term money for almost-immediate relief.
If Jusuf Nurkic is ready to come back for a late-season run, rendering Whiteside a reserve, Neil Olshey will have to consider the possibilities.
Maybe the Cleveland Cavaliers are finally ready to blow it up, sending Kevin Love back “home” in exchange for a boatload of money ready to come off the books. The perimeter tandem of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland could benefit from a post-Love offensive green light, and giving them a rebounding machine in the process would only help the two eager shooters.
Perhaps the San Antonio Spurs do the least Spursian thing in history and recognize DeMar DeRozan is gone in a year and that LaMarcus Aldridge alone does not a contender make. The Spurs are another team that could benefit from clearing space if a full rebuild were on the horizon, and they have another group of guards who could use the Carom Crusader if LaMarcus, too, goes “home.”
Maybe…just maybe…a Paul George-type shocker is brewing and will boil over by the trade deadline for a franchise nobody sees coming. Olshey will be ready to strike with over $27 million to send to a team set on putting their core on ice.
There’s also this: Whiteside could be pretty damn good. And Nurkic could certainly be delayed in his return. There are plenty of reasons to believe Portland’s starting center for Game 1 could be its starting 5 well past the trade deadline.
But the Trail Blazers picked up this particular center, with this particular skill set and this particular contract, for a particular reason.
There’s potential here, but there’s also flexibility.
The Blazers will get value out if Whiteside this season—one way or another.
OSN’S Jared Wright and Bryant Knox will be previewing the entire 2019-20 Portland Trail Blazers Roster. Find previous player previews here: