The Portland Trail Blazers are coming off of a surprise Western Conference Finals run. Damian Lillard is at the height of his powers, confidently operating in the superstar plane.
CJ McCollum just proved his brand of three-level scoring has immense value in the postseason. There’s a spread-the-wealth system in place that the stars are comfortable executing. Add in the Western Conference being wide open with the expected fall of the Golden State Warriors, you’d think the Blazers would be willing to run things back (again).
Instead, they have virtually turned their depth on its head. Out of the ten Blazers that averaged at least 14 minutes per game during the Western Conference Finals, six of them are on new teams. There’s generally nothing wrong with making changes if you haven’t gotten to the big dance yet, it’s just that Portland is making quite the bet against its usual reliance on continuity.
The biggest change comes in the middle. Gone is the floor-spacing—and apparent playoff cheat code—Meyers Leonard. Enter Hassan Whiteside, a talented two-way big with some serious fit questions on the surface.
He enters the season as the current placeholder for Jusuf Nurkic, who’s out with a major leg injury. Not only is Whiteside joining a team with serious title aspirations (how realistic those aspirations are is a different story), he’s doing so in a contract year. He has plenty to prove following a season where he was demoted to a Miami Heat sixth-man role, but “prove” and “fit” don’t always mesh on an NBA roster, and Whiteside has struggled with that dynamic before.
Hassan Whiteside is a very large human being. At 7’0 with a 7’7 wingspan, it’s hard to miss him on the court. Pairing that kind of size with two dynamic ball-handlers is already enough to make defenses sweat.
What makes Whiteside so dangerous is his ability to score off of rim-rolls. He combines his physical tools with incredibly soft hands. He also has a keen understanding of angles, which helps put him in positions to score.
Here, the Miami Heat are in transition as Dion Waiters pushes the ball up court. Whiteside cuts hard to the right to set the screen for Waiters, then slips it once he realizes Boston Celtics swingman Gordon Hayward is already behind the play.
Once center Daniel Theis steps up to cut off Waiters’ penetration, Whiteside has an open lane to the basket. The pass is off, but Whiteside corrals it and scores in one fluid motion.
Whiteside doesn’t explode off the floor like he did during his get-my-2K-rating-up days, but he compensates by using his length to control lobs from virtually every area. Just look at how he high-points this pass:
Via Synergy, Whiteside ranked in the 85th percentile as the roll-man in pick-and-roll. He’s ranked in the 80th percentile or better during five of his six seasons as a member of the Heat. It’s safe to say he should fare just fine with Lillard and McCollum, two of the NBA’s best pick-and-roll guards.
The Blazers were already, at least statistically, the NBA’s best rebounding team last season. They ranked first in overall rebounding percentage (52.6), barely edging out the Denver Nuggets (52.4). The Blazers were actually tied for the lead in offensive rebounding percentage with the Nuggets (30.8) but ranked 8th on the defensive end.
Enter Whiteside, one of the NBA’s best glass cleaners of all time.
He didn’t just finish with the league’s highest defensive rebound rate in the last season (35.6), it was the eighth highest mark in NBA history (minimum 1,000 minutes played). He was just as dominant on the offensive glass, ranking third in the league in offensive rebound rate (16.3) behind Andre Drummond (16.8) and Enes Kanter (16.4).
Much like his role as a rim-runner, Whiteside utilizes his size and soft hands to save possessions. He’s a load underneath. Even when properly boxed out, he’s still able to win inside:
Whiteside’s arrival ensures the new-look Blazers not only won’t miss a beat on the boards, they might actually be better there.
The Blazers are a pretty conservative defensive group under head coach Terry Stotts. They primarily run “Drop” coverage against pick-and-rolls, tasking their guards to fight over screens while their bigs drop into the paint to protect the rim.
Their personnel dictates this strategy: Small guards and immobile bigs make a switch-heavy scheme a non-starter.
Within that context, Whiteside fits right in. He’s at his best when he’s able to camp around the rim and embarrass fools who dare attack him. Here’s a quick example:
The Heat are in “Drop” coverage there. Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson ducks under the screen instead of going over the top, basically daring Charlotte Hornets wing Nicolas Batum to beat him with a pull-up jumper. To his credit, Batum is still able to gain leverage on the drive, but Whiteside is there to clean up the mess.
Whiteside’s 2.4 block-per-game average during his Heat tenure (2015-19) tied for the NBA lead over that time frame. Even in a “down” season last year where he saw his playing time cut, he still posted one of the league’s best block rates (7.3) and ranked in the 88th percentile at shots defended at the rim, per Synergy.
With Lillard and McCollum inconsistently closing the point of attack defensively, and with a lot of new wings to vie for the primary defender job, rim protection will be important. Whiteside will provide gobs of that, though opponents are going to put him into pick-and-roll and switching situations a ton.
Then again, that’s what they’ll do to Nurkic once he’s healthy too, so the Portland is clearly doubling down on that challenge in lieu of trying to plug that gap while potentially opening up another.
Losing Leonard as a stretchy-ish changeup to Nurkic could be an issue in certain matchups—especially if youngster Zach Collins doesn’t increase his range this offseason—but Leonard’s time had clearly run its course in Portland due to a too-long learning curve on defensive rotations and offensive consistency. Then again, Whiteside can struggle with those at times, too.
The Big Question: Decision making
On the court, the concern is a simple one: Whiteside isn’t just a bad passer, he’s an unwilling one.
Via Second Spectrum tracking data, Whiteside averaged just 18.6 passes per game last season. He registered 1.6 potential assists per game. Both marks are laughably low among rotation players.
The Blazers are a team predicated on screens on and off the ball, and quick decisions in space. Eventually, teams will trap Lillard and McCollum and force Whiteside to make plays in short-roll situations. He hasn’t proven that he can consistently make teams pay in that regard.
The aforementioned issues with spacing on offense and switching on defense will remain as well, but Whiteside is what he is in those areas, and he still provides some elite-level skills on both ends to counteract his weaknesses. But the passing thing is mental and still a variable he can and must change unless he wants to lose his minutes as soon as Nurkic returns.
Off the court, Whiteside will have to be a smart decision-maker as well.
Nurkic will likely return at some point during the second half of the season. He clearly has seniority on the roster over Whiteside, and in some aspects (like passing), he’s outright better. Whiteside was mostly a good soldier in Miami once Bam Adebayo took over the starting job, but asking him to swallow his pride and lose minutes during a contract year will be a different test.
How he handles that will go a long way in determining his next contract.