The Fundamentals: The polarizing talents of Hassan Whiteside
Hassan Whiteside is a terrifying basketball player—both to opponents who dare venture into the lane he patrols and to NBA executives who must consider the contract he’ll soon command. The Miami Heat have the luxury of fielding Whiteside’s production (12.8 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 3.9 blocks per game) without having made any significant financial stake. His next team won’t be so lucky; Whiteside has played so well as to realistically garner maximum contract offers in free agency this summer, potentially putting some team on the hook for more than $20 million a season.
That kind of investment requires near certainty. Whiteside, who complicates his case with a somewhat notorious history in terms of his work habits and attitude, offers little. It speaks volumes that a league eager to pounce on basketball talent in all its forms retains a certain skepticism of Whiteside’s prospects. His cynics aren’t necessarily right, but that there is legitimate division at all regarding the play of a bouncy, coordinated, bulk-rebounding, power-finishing, rim-protecting seven-footer is a testament to both his persistent reputation and the strategic trajectory of the league as a whole.
Within the immediate vicinity of the basket, Whiteside’s credentials as a defender are impeccable. His total number of blocked shots through 48 games (185) stands just 15 short of last year’s leader (Anthony Davis; 200) after 82. By Nylon Calculus’s evaluative metrics, Whiteside saves his team more points at the rim than just about any defender in the league. Only Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan have grabbed a greater percentage of possible defensive rebounds, cementing Whiteside’s value as a possession ender. Whether by swatting shots or cleaning up misses, Whiteside’s defensive game boasts an impressive finality.
It’s when moved into open space that Whiteside’s defense is at issue. Consider that Golden State, the most dominant team in the league, pushed by Miami on Wednesday by deliberately involving Whiteside in screening action as much as possible. There’s a certain safety in the way Whiteside drops back to wall off the basket in the pick-and-roll; doing so ensures that the NBA’s top shot-blocker is able to leverage those skills as often as possible. That Whiteside hasn’t appeared comfortable executing any other kind of strategy, however, locks the Heat into a particular form of coverage and surrenders shots like this one to a little-known guard named Stephen Curry:
After the game, Warriors forward Draymond Green noted that Whiteside was also a target in Golden State’s pin-downs for the hot-handed Klay Thompson down the stretch. Whiteside navigates those possessions in largely the same way—by dropping back below the screen and maintaining position between the offensive players and the rim. This makes sense for a player best utilized as a shot-blocker. It also hangs other Heat players out to dry as they’re forced to navigate through a physical screen or two without Whiteside offering any impediment whatsoever. Even a smart, fully committed defender is bound to get hung up on a pick from Green or Andrew Bogut, yet the way Whiteside plays those sequences (whether by instinct or instruction) does nothing to bridge the gap in the coverage:
How valuable can a defensive player be if he all but locks his team into one style of pick-and-roll coverage? Or, alternatively: How valuable can a defensive player be if the smartest offenses in the league actively look to exploit him? This is what makes Whiteside such a confounding talent. No one can dispute the way in which he denies opponents access to the lane. Whiteside’s presence alone deters drives, changes shots, and warps an opponent’s offensive game plan. That kind of influence can be quite powerful. It also manifests in a way that would be far too relaxed for the liking of most NBA coaches, with Whiteside taking his drop pick-and-roll coverage as an opportunity to just chill around the free-throw line.
You live with that kind of momentary disengagement when you’re getting unprecedented production from a minimum-salary player. It’s more concerning when a team has shelled out more than $20 million annually for the privilege. Whiteside suitors will have to come to terms with those blips and others for the sake of all else the 26-year-old big man offers. Some teams would have no problem taking the 21 points (on 8-of-11 shooting), 13 rebounds, and two blocks Whiteside registered against the Warriors, even at the expense of his limitations. Others might balk at the oversights, the attitude, and the strategic simplicity that Whiteside’s style demands. To each their own.
The bold among them might find comfort in the fact that Whiteside managed to scare the Warriors, the most committed small-ball team in the league, out of playing Green at center in this particular game. Whether for fear of his rebounding, rolls to the rim, or shot-swatting proficiency, opposing coaches tend to keep Whiteside in mind. He cuts a towering figure; few are those players who are so big and so skilled that they can make a championship team think twice about their preferred style of play. Their dearth makes Whiteside all the more distinct and, potentially, all the more transformative.
The oft-cited trend that Miami’s defense fares better with Whiteside off the court than on, while true earlier this season, has come out a wash over time. At greater issue is assessing Whiteside’s contribution is a matter of scale. Whiteside can change enough possessions to anchor a good defense—perhaps even a great one. Under playoff scrutiny, however, does his inflexible and sometimes idling brand of coverage really leave room for greatness? Will his approach and habits even allow for it consistently? Teams around the league have only a few months left to decide.
While You Weren’t Watching
A spotlight on the little moments in the frenzied NBA slate that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle.
In an homage of sorts to teammate LeBron James, Kyrie Irving threw this cross-body fastball from the right side of the floor to new teammate Channing Frye all the way in the left corner. It ended up a little off-target, sure, but this pass was a genuine thing of beauty:
• Jason Quick shines a light on the internal processes of the Blazers’ locker room, which play no small part in the playoff-caliber team Portland has become.
• A thoughtful, thorough analysis of the dynamics at play in lineup construction.
• This can be an odd time of year for lottery teams, in which their focus moves overtly from competing for every possession to team-subsidized development. Joshua Riddell parses the developmental priorities of three such prospects in particular as they look to propel their careers forward.
• Sam Hinkie may no longer have complete decision-making power in Philadelphia, but his commitment to the Sixers’ long term is unwavering. Derek Bodner takes us inside what that means for the franchise.
• A compound answer to a simple question: What do NBA executives do after the trade deadline passes?
• I’m not sure there’s any player in the league more fun than First Quarter J.J. Redick. The Clippers make it a point to run Redick’s defender ragged early and few can keep up. Staggered screens and a hard sprint get Redick all the daylight he needs to set his body mid-catch, rise up quickly, and punish opposing defenses that aren’t wholly locked in.
• It turns out that rookie Devin Booker, moonlighting some at point guard as a result the Suns’ backcourt injuries, has better pick-and-roll chemistry with Tyson Chandler than either of Phoenix’s regular starters. Basketball is strange that way.
• Putting aside the macro issues with Jahlil Okafor’s game for a moment, I’m consistently struck by the kinds of power moves Okafor will make through legitimate, big-bodied centers. Physically speaking, he’s already capable of monster play. Give him a minute (and a functional roster) to see if he might figure out the rest.
• The ease with which opponents generate open threes against the Kings is legitimately laughable at this point. How is this still happening 56 games into the season?
• I like to think of players like Toronto’s Cory Joseph as a sort of ‘instant chemistry’—those who work hard in practice, dig in on defense, willingly move the ball, and hold down their role can’t help but endear themselves to their teammates.
• Given that Paul George has reached the level of stardom that invites a certain degree of nit-picking, I think it’s worth pointing out that the way he holds the ball can sometimes derail Indiana’s offense. Measure those glitches within the context of all that George does well and he still rates out as an awesome player. Those little ball-stopping habits, though, tend to distinguish players from one another within the league elite.
• Where would the Thunder be without Steven Adams? Lost in the retrospective dissections of the James Harden trade is the fact that Thunder general manager Sam Presti made a crucial save by adding Adams with the No. 12 pick in 2013. He’s no Harden, clearly, but Adams gives the Thunder exactly the kind of mobility, touch, rebounding, and effort they need at center on most nights.
• Wolves big man Gorgui Dieng has never seemed especially well coordinated, yet he has the feel and timing to throw some legitimately shocking passes when otherwise trapped by poor positioning or a killed dribble. A weird, hidden treasure in Minnesota.