Big Strides: Whiteside’s New Role Has Brought New Life to the Heat

When the news broke about Chris Bosh’s reoccurring blood clot, it looked like Miami was headed to the back of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. While this Heat team had already overcame numerous odds throughout the 2015-2016 campaign, it seemed like the loss of their star player would be too much to bounce back from. Fortunately, the increased roles of Goran Dragic and Luol Deng have not only kept the Heat afloat but have also actually allowed them to thrive over the past few weeks. The real player who has changed both the emotion in the locker room and the play on the court has been Hassan Whiteside, who has blossomed into a potential superstar.

Size Matters

Standing at an enormous 7’0” and weighing 265 pounds will always give you a physical advantage when playing in such a height-oriented league like the NBA. Combine that with a 7’7” wingspan and a 31.5-inch vertical and you have yourself a complete freak of nature.

Hassan Whiteside’s physical stature is undeniably incredible. Since he joined the Heat during the middle of last season, there was never a doubt that he would be able to survive in the NBA. The question was always whether or not he could turn his God-given abilities into a legitimate NBA talent.

That question is all but answered only a short 17 months after first landing in Miami.

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(Mike Ehrmann/Getty Sports)

Bold Strategy Pays Off

When Coach Erik Spoelstra benched Hassan Whiteside in favor of 15-year veteran Amar’e Stoudemire, the entire city wondered what in the world was going on. Whiteside is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the season, and being on bad terms with a maximum salary talent is not the best way to approach this situation, considering the fact that the salary cap is expected to rise approximately $20 million. The NBA has never seen the salary cap rise this much between seasons, so it’s fair to assume that Whiteside is going to be a premiere target and make much more money than the current $981,348 he’s making this season.

Anyway, this benching has proved to be the best-case scenario for both Miami and Whiteside. Miami’s injuries this season have continued to pile up, and they clearly lack the depth they boasted at the beginning of the year. They still have a plethora of talent in their starting lineup, so bringing Whiteside off the bench provides a much-needed boost to the second unit.

The Chat:

During the All-Star break, Whiteside and Spoelstra sat down for a one-on-one meeting. Spoelstra elaborated on his plan, and explained that Whiteside needed to bring up his energy level in order for his presence to be known.

“He talks about being a better defender, being a better offensive player, being a better teammate, being a better person. We have an understanding of each other. We talked for so long. Me and coach Spo, we worked our way up to get here. Spo is my guy.”

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(Fox Sports)

It’s evident that this chat really had an impact on Whiteside. Even his teammates are noticing the difference. He’s communicating much more than he did, his energy levels are way up, and he’s actually taking advice from his teammates, which he never used to do.

According to Goran Dragic, “He’s listening to the players and coaches and he’s doing his thing. It’s the most relaxed I’ve seen him. He’s just happy. He’s found that last step he needs in his game.”

Deeper Look into His Improvements

Since this chat with Coach Spoelstra, there have been considerable improvements on both sides of the ball. His defense has always been exceptional, but his offense has recently become incredibly dynamic. The combination of his offensive and defensive abilities has turned him into one of the most feared big men in the NBA.

Offensive Turnaround:

Whiteside has become a very effective pick-and-roll player this season. His large frame gives him the ability to set wide screens, and he can do anything after the initial pick. Whiteside can roll off the screen and receive an alley-oop or bounce pass for the easy bucket. If the ball-handler (typically Dragic or Wade) decides to keep the ball for themselves, they have an easy one-on-one opportunity against the opposing big man.

Watch here as Whiteside goes up to set a screen for Dragic. Both defenders know the screen is coming, so Dragic starts to make his move before Whiteside is there to set the screen. Both defenders follow Dragic, and Whiteside rolls to the hoop. Even though Chicago’s Nikola Mirotić is there to help out on Hassan Whiteside for a moment, he ultimately backs off and leaves Whiteside open for the easy alley-oop.

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Whiteside also has a strong mid-range jumper, so he has the ability to pop out of the screen and sink an easy 10-15 foot jump shot. When Whiteside pops out of the lane, a defender is forced to follow him. This gives the ball-handler the opportunity to create for themselves because the big man is drawn out of the lane, ultimately making it easier for the guard to drive and score.

Notice here how Whiteside sets the screen before the play is even set up. Both Phoenix defenders stick to Dragic as he drives through the middle of the lane. He then finds Whiteside for the wing jumper, which he sinks with ease.

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Hassan has also become a more than reliable foul shooter. His growth at the free-throw line has come unexpectedly to say the least. He is a career 56.5% free-throw shooter. That number is pretty atrocious, even for a center. Over the past 11 games, Whiteside has made 46 out of 55 total foul shots, which comes out to 83.6%. The league average this year is only 75.7%.

Even though the sample I provided is only from 11 games, there is a lot to take away from this unexpected growth. Many big men have a difficult time making foul shots because their hands are too big and the motion is too unfamiliar for them. Since Whiteside has always been a solid mid-range shooter, he has changed his technique to make it more like a jump shot. He essentially takes the foul shot right as he receives the ball, instead of taking a few dribbles and preparing to shoot.

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While this way of taking a foul shot may be frowned upon, you have to do whatever works for you. I mean, for Pete’s sake, look at how Rick Barry shot his foul shots. Just so you know, Barry is a career 89.3% free-throw shooter, which is 7th in NBA history. 

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Defensive Phenomenon:

Whiteside has always been considered one of the best interior defenders in the league. His height and wingspan allow him to block almost any shot within a five foot radius, while his quickness provides him with the ability to switch onto guards during pick-and-rolls. There isn’t a player in the game who wants to see Hassan Whiteside up in their face, except for maybe Stephen Curry.

Whiteside’s defense has always been the best aspect of his game. He’s averaging 3.89 blocks per game, which is 1.55 more than any other player in the league. Whiteside also alters numerous shots and prevents a lot of other shots from being taken. Many players don’t even want to attempt to shoot over him because they don’t want to get blocked.

The way Miami defends really plays to Whiteside’s strengths. They like to force their opponents off the three-point line and make them drive into the lane. This forces the other team to either take a contested three-pointer, take a pull-up mid-range jump shot, or drive directly into their Goliath (Whiteside). Each of these three outcomes are low-percentage shots, which is exactly what the Heat want.

I would show you a clip of Whiteside blocking a shot, but we’ve all seen that enough, so I’m going to show you exactly how Whiteside anchors this defense. Notice how Doug McDermott of the Chicago Bulls has an open three-pointer. Justise Winslow knows that he has to force the deadly three-point shooter off the line, so he closes out very quickly. McDermott falls into their trap, and decides to drive right into Whiteside. McDermott is forced to throw up a little floater and hope it goes in, but proceeds to fail miserably. 

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This defensive game plan has really benefited Whiteside, who has the best defensive rating in the league (93.2). Kawhi Leonard, who is the former Defensive Player of the Year, has a defensive rating of 94.9. He also has the 5th most defensive win shares in the league at 4.3, and saves 2.99 points per 36 minutes, which ranks 2nd in the league.

The Skinny:

There’s no denying that Whiteside is playing at an All-Star level. I think it’s fair to say that he is a top-20 player in the Association, considering he has the 9th highest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) in the league at 25.08. Here are the players ahead of him on this list in order by last name: Curry, Westbrook, Durant, James, Paul, Leonard, Harden, and Davis.

There shouldn’t be this much buzz in Miami during a year with numerous season-ending injuries to key players. Many players have accepted larger roles including Dragic, Deng, Winslow, Stoudemire, and Richardson, but no one’s role has grown more than Whiteside’s, who has found a way to thrive in an unfamiliar situation (coming off the bench).

There also shouldn’t be any more debate as to whether or not he deserves a maximum contract this summer because let me tell you something: Whiteside is on his way to becoming a superstar in the NBA. 

 

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