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.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.