Despite Impressive Stats, Questions Remain for Whiteside
The ascension of Hassan Whiteside is no longer a new story. He was drafted 33rd overall in the 2010 draft by the Sacramento Kings, but was waived just two years later in 2012. After being released, Whiteside played in the NBA D-League, as well as in China and Lebanon. After bouncing around for a few years, Whiteside signed a two-year deal with the Miami HEAT last season and has been putting up monster numbers ever since.
Whiteside has come a long way since being drafted and falling out of the league. His journey is atypical for a physically gifted seven-footer who can now dominate the game in ways few others can. However, that journey has helped Whiteside grow in several ways as a person and as a player.
“I really know what it took to get here,” Whiteside told Basketball Insiders when asked about the biggest difference between who he was when he was drafted and who he is now. “I said it’s like losing a girlfriend. … I lost the NBA and then I came back and I was like, ‘Man I miss her,’ and you have a better appreciation. Not that you didn’t appreciate her in the first place, but you’ve got a different appreciation for her.”
Whiteside put a lot of work into his game over the last few years and it’s paying off for him these last two seasons. Last night against the Denver Nuggets, Whiteside posted a triple-double – contributing 19 points, 17 rebounds and 11 blocked shots in Miami’s comeback victory. It was Whiteside’s third point-rebound-block triple-double since the start of last season, which is three more than the rest of the NBA combined over the last three seasons.
Whiteside individually has more total blocks (151) this season than the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards have as a team. He also has 14 games with five or more blocks this season, which outpaces all other centers by far, as shown in the chart below (courtesy of StatMuse).
There’s no question that Whiteside is an elite shot-blocker. But when asked what sets him apart from other centers who share a similar skill-set, Whiteside insisted he is a multifaceted player unlike any other center in the league today.
“I feel like I fit the game offensively and defensively,” Whiteside said. “Even just outside of the blocks, me leading the league in blocks, that’s what a lot of people pay attention to because it’s a number. But I don’t really think any big man does all three. We got really good scoring big men, really good defensive big men and really good rebounding big men. But I feel like I can do all three.”
It’s generally a good thing when a player shows unwavering confidence in his game. However, Whiteside’s insistence that he has a well-rounded game that sets him apart from other notable centers can be called into question (especially when you consider that he has only 12 assists total in 1,105 minutes played this season). A look at some footage of Whiteside’s recent play shows that his offensive game, while effective in certain respects, isn’t exactly dynamic.
In this clip, Whiteside runs the court and gets good position in the post against Denver’s Kenneth Faried. Faried is a strong, physical player, but he’s giving up four inches or more in height to Whiteside. Whiteside gets the ball at point-blank range and with a few power dribbles, should be able to turn and get an easy layup over Faried. Instead, Whiteside rushes, takes a small bump from Faried and ends up missing a hook-shot that should have been an easy layup.
While Whiteside doesn’t exactly remind anyone of Hakeem Olajuwon in the post, his footwork and touch around the rim isn’t terrible. In fact, every so often Whiteside shows us a glimpse of an improving post-game. We see that in this play, where Whiteside receives the ball just below the elbow and uses a nice spin move to shed Faried and get an easy floater right at the rim.
The problem for Whiteside here is that, as previously stated, Faried is giving up a ton of size and isn’t exactly a top-notch defensive player. With more polish and patience, Whiteside would have been able to dominate Faried repeatedly in the post.
Whiteside’s overall ineffectiveness in the post is captured by Synergy data, which has Whiteside scoring 0.63 points per possession in post-up plays. That places him in the 15.6 percentile among all players and behind other big men who are considered to lack post-skills like Nerlens Noel, Marreese Speights, Clint Capela and John Henson.
However, like many mobile centers in the NBA today, Whiteside does most of his damage on offense in the pick-and-roll. As the roll-man, Whiteside is scoring a very efficient 1.24 points per possession, which places him in the 90.3 percentile and ahead of notable big men like Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, teammate Chris Bosh, Serge Ibaka and Blake Griffin.
Whiteside’s level of effectiveness in the pick-and-roll is both obvious and still somehow surprising. It’s obvious in that his size and athleticism makes it relatively easy for him to rise above defenders for easy alley-oops. However, Whiteside often fails to make solid contact while screening the defender and too often slips the screen altogether. This is frustrating because when Whiteside lays down even a decent screen, he is basically ensured to get open for an alley-oop.
In this play, Whiteside doesn’t put a great screen on Lance Stephenson, but it is good enough to put him a step behind Dwyane Wade. This forces Cole Aldrich to close in on Wade harder than he would have had to if Stephenson didn’t get caught on the screen, which gives Whiteside a free lane to the basket for the slam.
However, in this play, Whiteside fails to set a screen at all for his point guard. Without the screen, Pablo Prigioni is able to somewhat stick with Tyler Johnson. Had Whiteside held up Prigioni even a little bit, Johnson would have had a clear path to the rim, which would have forced Aldrich to slide over completely. This would have left Whiteside completely open for an alley-oop, but instead Aldrich is able to protect the rim and stay close enough to Whiteside to prevent an easy lob.
Fortunately for Whiteside and the HEAT, Wade still manages to score on the play. However, the point remains that when Whiteside puts even a decent screen on opponents in the pick-and-roll, he is almost guaranteed a dunk at the rim, but too often Whiteside fails to do so.
Focusing in on these issues comes off as nitpicking considering the numbers Whiteside is putting up. However, it is worth mentioning because as effective as Whiteside can be, his inattentiveness to small details as well as his inability to maintain focus and effort can torpedo his ability to help Miami win games. It also suggests that Whiteside could be even more consistently dominant if he hones in on these things, which is a scary thought for the rest of the league.
When asked what head coach Erik Spoelstra wants him to focus on more than anything else each night, Whiteside doesn’t mention one particular aspect of the game.
“Just [go] out there and dominate,” Whiteside said. “Don’t take a play off and just be the Hassan he knows I can be. He tells me I can do things that no other big man can do and he feels like he wants me to do it more.”
That is the frustrating part about Whiteside’s game. Coach Spoelstra knows, like many others, that Whiteside could probably be the most dominant big man in the game, especially defensively, with more focus and consistency. We drool over Whiteside’s blocks, but those blocks haven’t helped the HEAT significantly on defense, according to a range of defensive measures.
For example, the HEAT are surrendering 96.9 points per 100 possessions when Whiteside is on the bench, and 101.6 points per 100 when he is on the floor. However, it should be noted that when looking at on/off statistics like these, it is important to keep things in context. Sometimes players’ on/off numbers are inflated or negatively affected based on which teammates they play with most often, who their opponents are and whether they play against starters or backups, among other things.
ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus stat tries to account for these variables and, as of this writing, Whiteside ranks ninth in Defensive Real Plus-Minus among all centers (3.54). This is a decent rating, but it places Whiteside behind several of the elite defensive big men such as Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut and Andre Drummond. Additionally, Whiteside ranks well in Nylon Calculus’ rim protection statistics. Whiteside is sixth in points saved per 36 minutes at the rim (2.4 points per game) and is among the league leaders in opponent field goal percentage at the rim.
Put all together, these statistics are solid. But with Whiteside blocking shots at a historic rate and with the size and mobility to cover a ton of ground, you would expect his presence on the court to be even more of a game-changer for the HEAT. But that simply isn’t the case and a lot of it has to do with, again, Whitside’s lack of focus on small details and inconsistent effort.
We see an example of Whiteside’s lack of focus on this next play. The HEAT are retreating on defense and Whiteside zones in on Emmanuel Mudiay, who is already being guarded by two players. Whiteside fails to survey the court to look for someone to put a body on and once he sees Faried barreling down the lane, he doesn’t even attempt to meet Faried at the rim.
Whether you want to characterize this particular play as lazy or inattentive, the point is that it’s the sort of play that Whiteside gives up too often each game. These plays happen enough each night that when they’re all added together, they somewhat undo the positive effects of Whiteside’s blocks and overall solid paint and rim protection.
However, for all of the criticism of Whiteside, the fact is that he is a tremendous talent who still has a lot of room to grow and improve. He’s still just 26 years old and he has only started 69 NBA games in his career (since he never started a game in Sacramento and, in fact, barely played). With more experience and development, he could correct these mistakes and even further maximize his potential.
Even though he remains relatively raw, he has shown massive growth since the beginning of last season. The impressive statistics and glimpses of brilliance we’ve seen will be enough to make him one of the most sought after free agents this upcoming offseason. And make no mistake about it, with the rising cap and the financial flexibility many teams will suddenly have, Whiteside will receive a max offer from someone. As previously mentioned, because Whiteside will have only spent two seasons with Miami, they won’t have his Bird Rights. This means they’ll have to use cap space to sign him (rather than being able to go over the cap to retain him) and they won’t be able to prevent him from signing with any other team. The only real advantages the HEAT have are the fact that they can offer him slightly higher annual raises, a strong team culture that he is already familiar with and a track record of success.
These things aren’t lost on Whiteside, who only had positive things to say about playing in Miami.
“It’s a lot of good things,” Whiteside said when asked to list some positives and negatives to playing for the HEAT. “You get to play alongside NBA champions. … It’s a great city, the fans really embrace me. I won’t really say anything too bad.”
Those positive aspects could help the HEAT keep Whiteside in July. When asked what he is looking for most from a team in free agency, Whiteside made it clear he wants to contend and will go to the squad that gives him the best chance to do so.
“I want to go to a team that’s about winning,” Whiteside said. “[A team] that has a good understanding of what it takes to win and a good city with a good fan base.”
While Miami checks off the major items Whiteside listed, it is notable that during our interview he never said anything to the effect that re-signing with Miami specifically was his main priority or that he wasn’t focusing on free agency during the season, which are some of the cliche responses players typically give in these sort of situations. Whether that was intentional or not, it seems pretty clear that Whiteside will listen to other teams who will pitch him on why he should sign with them. And, as we saw last season with the DeAndre Jordan saga, anything can happen in free agency.
There will be a number of teams that have an obvious need for a player like Whiteside and each will have the spending power to pursue him this upcoming offseason. The Atlanta Hawks, who may lose Al Horford in unrestricted free agency, come to mind. The Boston Celtics, who have long-term question marks at center, are another option. The Charlotte Hornets, who may lose Al Jefferson to unrestricted free agency, could be in the mix. The Chicago Bulls, who may let Joakim Noah walk in free agency, may need a new center. The Los Angeles Lakers, who are unlikely to bring back Roy Hibbert and want to make a splashy move, make a lot of sense as a potential suitor. And, of course, the HEAT will try to retain his services.
Whichever team Whiteside ends up with will be taking a chance on his potential and the idea that he can continue to fine-tune the smaller nuances of the game that consistently allude him. To be clear, he is already one of the most gifted big men in the league. But with some more polish and focus, he could be the absolute best. Considering how much he has improved over the last two seasons, that seems like a gamble worth taking for any team that’s looking for a franchise center this upcoming offseason.
NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers
The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.
With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.
Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.
However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.
“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”
Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.
In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.
“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”
Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.
The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17
Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.
It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.
As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.
The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.
There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.
Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.
Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.
How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.
Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.
Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.
Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.
Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.
Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.
Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.
Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets
The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.
It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.
Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.
Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”
After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.
The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.
“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.
“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”
Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.
Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.
“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.
“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”
It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.
When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.
In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.
As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.
Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.
Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.
“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.
“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”
Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.
“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.
But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.
“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.
With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.
Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.
But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.
That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.