After Spending The Season As Portland's Only Center, Whiteside Is Now Happy For the Help

by Casey Holdahl
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The 2019-20 season has been a lonely one for Trail Blazers’ big men. Between Jusuf Nurkić sitting out the entirety of the season thus far and both Zach Collins and Skal Labissiere (since traded) suffering significant injuries, Portland regularly entered games this season with only one player on the active roster, center Hassan Whiteside, listed at a height taller than 6-9. That assured Whiteside would get all the minutes he could handle, though if he found himself in foul trouble or out of position, the results were less than ideal.

But much has changed for the corp of Trail Blazers bigs in the four months since the NBA put the regular season on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Namely, both Nurkić and Collins are completely healthy and ready to return to action when Portland’s eight-game restart schedule starts July 31 in Orlando versus the Grizzlies, which greatly reduced the burden Whiteside has had to carry, in large part, on his own.

“It’s a relief,” said Whiteside on the return of both Nurkić and Collins. “It’s good though, it’s good to have those guys back there. To have that backup, that help, I always got that help out there, so it breeds confidence.”

With Whiteside likely to play center alongside both Nurkić and Collins and power forward, and with Carmelo Anthony being the odds-on favorite to start at small forward in place of Trevor Ariza, Portland goes from a team that played one of the smallest lineups in the league before the shutdown to boasting one of the tallest at the restart. Given that influx of size, Whiteside no longer has free reign in the paint during practices, not that he’s complaining.

“Pushing Nurk around is not an easy feat,” said Whiteside. “He got 30, 40 pounds on everybody. I gotta push him around and Zach, just pushing, wrestling with them guys. Those are very smart guys, it’s really good... I’ve got to actually pumpfake in practice.”

These days in the NBA, teams have trended more toward utilizing smaller lineups, as floor spacing on offense and the ability to guard the perimeter on defense have become increasingly important, especially late in games. So with three seven-footers in the rotation, the Trail Blazers enter the restart as somewhat of a throwback to the days when you couldn’t really compete unless you had a dominant center. And if that approach works in 2020, the Trail Blazers chances of righting their defense, which ranks 27th in terms of efficiency this season, and their prospect of qualifying for the postseason for the seventh-consecutive season improves considerably.

“I think (chemistry) is coming along,” said Whiteside. “Me and Nurk been playing a lot on the court... I’m just excited that them guys back. We got a lot more size down there, we switched up the defense a lot and I told them it’s a lot different down there.”

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