If the Portland Trail Blazers ever want to compete for an NBA Championship, they need to start Hassan Whiteside.
Obviously they’ll need to re-sign him first, but for the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on his on-court production rather than free agency speculation.
While the Blazers’ high-scoring playing style is extremely fun to watch, led by the amazing duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, it is not conducive to winning at the highest level.
There is no doubt that Rip City’s run in the bubble was mesmerizing, but looking at the situation realistically, they were one shot away from not even making the playoffs. If Caris LeVert’s jumper falls at the end of the Aug. 13 matchup between the Blazers and Nets, Portland would’ve been eliminated right then and there.
The idea that the Blazers were a shot away from missing the postseason might surprise the average NBA fan due to the team’s extremely talented roster, but facts are facts.
Just looking at that game, Portland allowed 133 points. That’s completely unacceptable for a team that would like to compete for a title. In the last four games of the regular season, the Blazers’ opponents scored more than 120 points in each respective contest, and yet, Portland managed to win all of these matchups.
This alone speaks to the talent of this team. It’s hard enough to win in the NBA, but darn near impossible without a good defense.
But the subpar effort didn’t end there.
The problem lingered into the playoffs, where the Blazers allowed 117.2 PPG, which ranked 14th, putting them ahead of only Brooklyn and Dallas.
If you look at the consistent lineup used during the bubble, it featured Lillard, McCollum, Carmelo Anthony, Zach Collins, and Jusuf Nurkic.
There is no kind way to say this, but that’s probably the worst defensive lineup in the league.
While Lillard and McCollum are talented scorers, they are still undersized. Melo is Melo. And Collins and Nurkic cannot be considered adequate rim protectors. Collins’ career average is 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes, while Nurkic’s is 2.0.
If you add those two figures together, they equal 3.4 blocks per 36, which is equivalent to Whiteside’s career average of 3.3.
It’s fair to note that Trevor Ariza opted out of the bubble, and Rodney Hood suffered a gruesome injury earlier this year.
But still, winning at the highest level without commitment on the defensive end of the floor will be unlikely. Portland donned the 26th-worst scoring defense in the NBA this season, allowing 116.3 points per game. This is with Whiteside getting the majority of the starts.
If Nurkic gets the nod over Whiteside, the problem will only amplify. During the 9-game bubble, the Blazers allowed 123.4 points per game, all in Nurkic starts. This would’ve equated to the worst scoring defense in the NBA over the course of the full season, and it was second-worst during the bubble time frame ahead of only the Mavericks (126.8).
While Nurkic is an absolute stud on the offensive side of the court, he doesn’t have the same verticality Whiteside has to deter elite big men from easy baskets. Whiteside led the NBA in blocks at 2.9 per game. And while he sometimes may chase blocks, he is a genuine rim protector.
These are rare commodities in the NBA and essential in a Western Conference loaded with talent. Without him, opponents have no one to fear driving the lane, which could prove a scary sight for Portland, who already struggles on that end of the floor.
Complementing his defensive presence is the fact that he doesn’t need the ball on offense to be effective. He shot 62 percent from the field despite other players dominating the ball the majority of the time. This is the exact piece needed to balance out the high-scoring guard tandem of Lillard and McCollum.
And while he may sometimes lack effort, he is still the best option the Blazers have as a low-post defender. To get through the West, Portland will likely need to beat Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers, or Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets—maybe both.
This makes the athleticism of Whiteside paramount if Rip City would like to compete with either of these foes. Even through his mental lapses, you can’t coach his natural god-given talents.
However, benching Whiteside upon the return of Nurkic is symbolic of a head coach who favors offense over defense.
There is nothing wrong with that, but it may prove hard to convince other players to try on that end of the court if the NBA’s block leader ends up on the pine.
And from a basketball coach perspective, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Portland could space the floor with all four of their starters and let Whiteside get the garbage buckets.
He is an extremely effective rebounder, finishing second in the NBA in double-doubles with 51, only trailing the MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. He also led the NBA in offensive rebounds with 258 total and a blistering 3.9 per game.
We already talked about the Lakers, but comparing the Blazers’ roster with the other NBA Finals competitor, the Miami Heat, Portland could be considered the more talented of the two. The difference is Miami has tilted its lineup toward defense with players like Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Bam Adebayo.
The Blazers have not.
Portland is undeniably one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the NBA. Any viewer who tunes in during Dame Time will likely leave astonished.
However, unless they are willing to tilt their lineup toward a more defense-oriented approach, they may continue to struggle to win when it matters most.
And it starts with Whiteside.