Whiteside's Quest For Defensive Player of the Year

Hassan Whiteside
Bill Baptist
by Couper Moorhead

Almost everything about Hassan Whiteside is unprecedented.

Never mind that he’s an incredibly strong and athletic 7-foot tall human being. That already grants him access to one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. Fewer people, still, are drafted into the NBA only to find themselves out of the league for three years before resurfacing as a starting-caliber player on a professional roster. But Whiteside didn’t just prove himself to be a league-worthy talent in 48 games last season, he put together a stat-line – using per-minutes lines, advanced statistics or any other measure – that had rarely been seen in the modern era.

When something that crazy happens with seemingly no advance warning, it’s natural for people to have questions. So question they do. There’s no way he could do it again, could he?

Offense is the flashier, but less interesting side of the ball when considering Whiteside’s upcoming year. Much of his success – shooting over 60 percent from the floor – stems from his size, strength and soft hands when finishing at and around the rim. Health provided, those generally aren’t things players lose. His shooting on short-to-mid range hook shots could regress some, but considering how well an offseason with an NBA training staff seems to be treating him and his Herculean shoulders, it’s reasonable to expect most of his percentages to remain around where they were last season.

It’s the defense that takes some deeper analysis.

While Whiteside had one of the highest block rates of all time – as one of just 10 players to post a block-percentage over 9.0 since 1973 – the HEAT also defended at a clip (105.6 Defensive Rating) that would have ranked among the bottom third of the league. And his Defensive Real Plus-Minus, according to ESPN, was just 26th among all centers. Joining a team mid-season and being asked to anchor a playoff-level defense for a team in a state of flux is a tall task for anyone, much less for someone who had played just 111 NBA minutes prior to joining Miami. Like almost every other player on a team that finished 19th defensively last year, there’s room for improvement.

Enter Alonzo Mourning and Chris Bosh.

“I sat down with Zo and he said I should focus on being the Defensive Player of the Year,” Whiteside said. “That’s one of my big focuses right now, on being the best defender in the NBA.”

Easy enough to write that off as media-day bluster if you choose, but part of being the best is wanting to be the best. And Whiteside has plenty going in his favor.

It helps that he plays the right position. In the 33-year history of the award, only seven winners have been perimeter players (including Kawhi Leonard last year). On a possession-to-possession basis, nobody impacts the game on defense more than he who exists to make up for the mistakes of all others: the anchor big. With Erik Spoelstra having a healthy roster and full training camp to design a scheme around Whiteside’s strengths as a rim protector, there should be every opportunity not only for Whiteside to make a great impact on defense, but to earn plenty of the credit that results.

It just takes sticking to the road less traveled to get there.

“We all have goals,” Bosh said. “We all say we want to do things. We always have to back it up when it’s time. I’ll remind [Hassan] of that. ‘Hey, Defensive Player of the Year, come on man. You have to do it, this is what you wanted.’

“That’s when it’s tough.”

As far as contrasting defensive styles go, Whiteside might have the perfect frontcourt compliment to his own rim protection. When healthy, Bosh is capable of being one of the best pick-and-roll coverage players in the league. It’s not difficult to envision an effective system where teams have to choose between contending with Bosh’s length chasing ballhandlers on the perimeter or Whiteside’s length engulfing shots in the paint.

“I think this is a unique opportunity for both of us to push each other to greatness,” Bosh said. “I told him I’m going to be on him every day. I see his ability and what he can do. We want him to increase his upside and continue to get better. If you want to win, that is one of the main things you have to do.”

This is, however, the post-modern NBA, so to speak, and traditional lineups are anything but in a time when the Golden State Warriors just won a title running 6-foot-7 Draymond Green out at center. Just as the HEAT used to do with Roy Hibbert, teams are going to try to pull Whiteside as far from the rim as possible, while being as physical as possible.

“Pick-and-roll is going to be the biggest part,” Bosh said. “It’s something that [Hassan’s] going to see quite a bit, and guys are going to attack him – put him in the pick-and-roll to bring him away from the basket.

“And let’s be frank, I think there’s a lot of guys out there that feel they are overlooked at the center position, and they feel like, ‘This guy comes along and he’s getting all the attention’. He’s going to have to deal with that, too.”

How successful teams are going to be at dealing with Whiteside might be the biggest and most important question for Miami headed into the season. If you want to win a title, you have to be great in multiple parts of the game. And Whiteside in the middle of the floor is one of the clearest paths to greatness the team has at its disposal.

It might seem far fetched right now, but who are we to say he won’t or can’t do it after what happened last season?

“I wonder what y’all are going to be saying a year from now,” Whiteside says, with a smile on his face.


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