It's been a strange few months for Hassan Whiteside. Now in his second season in Miami, Whiteside is proving last year's breakthrough performance was no fluke. He's leading the league in blocks with four a game, pulling down nearly 11 rebounds a night and also scoring close to 13 points. Not bad for a 26-year-old who was worrying about car bombs in Lebanon two years ago.
That said, the advanced stats paint a different picture. Whiteside may swat more shots that anyone else in the league, but all those blocks and rebounds have done done little to help the Heat actually get stops. He has become a symbol for the stereotypical "eye test vs. numbers" conflict.
The statistical difference in Miami's defensive performance when Whiteside plays vs. when he sits is startling. With him on the court, the Heat are surrendering 102.5 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. When he sits, that number rises to 92.3, which would be the second-best mark in the league. That seems to suggest the Heat have built their ferocious defense in spite of the league's best shot-blocker, not because of him.
Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra usually agrees with the numbers. The Heat have mostly used Chris Bosh as the lone big man during crunch time, relegating Whiteside to the bench. Whiteside has sat out of six entire fourth quarters this season, and the 4.8 fourth-quarter minutes he receives per game is the fourth-lowest mark on the team.
To no one's surprise, Whiteside has been unhappy with Spoelstra's preference for keeping him glued to the bench during those all-important minutes. But Spoelstra is just following the numbers, which paint a clear picture.
The Heat's best lineup this season has been the five-man grouping of Bosh, rookie Justise Winslow, Gerald Green, Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic, per NBA.com. That mix provides spacing on offense, as well as quick feet and even faster thinking on defense. On the other hand, Miami's plodding starting lineup of Whiteside, Bosh, Luol Deng, Dragic and Wade is being outscored by one point per 100 possessions in a significantly larger sample of minutes.
As intimidating as Whiteside can be, he's struggled to pick up the nuances of NBA coverages. His impressive rebounding and block numbers are mostly a result of his physical gifts. He's a seven-footer with a 7'7 wingspan, so of course he's a towering figure around the basket.
But when it comes to using intelligence and instincts to deter opponents, Whiteside has struggled. Sometimes, he's glued to no-man's land and out of position.
Other times, he's just slow to react.
Opponents are shooting just 45 percent on shots he defends at the rim, per NBA.com. That's a great number. The problem is that Whiteside, whether due to inexperience, concentration or disinclination, often fails to get to the spots where he can actually challenge shooters.
That's why Miami's 116-109 home win over the Blazers Sunday could be a significant turning point. According to ESPN's Michael Wallace, the Heat spent the days leading up to the game showing Whiteside how to help on the perimeter and still retreat back into the paint.
"It's a difference of five feet," Bosh said Sunday night. "For him, that makes the biggest difference in the world. For us defensively, it allows us to be able to cover so much more ground and have each other's back."
Whiteside listened, and because of that, Spoelstra finally felt comfortable leaving him on the floor for nearly the entire fourth quarter. Half those minutes even came alongside Bosh, a pairing that's struggled all season. Portland still managed to shoot 47 percent over the game's final 12 minutes, but the Heat were able to get enough stops to erase a deficit, outscore the Blazers by 11 points in the quarter and pick up a much-needed win.
At times, Whiteside looked like a child crossing the street for the first time. He didn't always appear eager to slide out to the perimeter and sort of admitted that after the game.
"It's just something I'm going to have to deal with," he said, via the Miami Herald. "It's not like the old days where bigs can just stay in the paint and just block a ton of shots. [Portland] can get hot real early. So I just had to step up on the screens.
"I felt like last game I didn't step out enough," he continued. "This time I told them I could do it. I told them just let me know if I need to step out on the pick and roll. I can do that."
He proved it Sunday night.
Whiteside had no problem jumping out on pick-and-rolls and then quickly sprinting back to the basket so that he could clear the glass.
By the end the quarter, he and the Heat looked as if they had been playing this style all year.
"That's why I played him the entire second half," Spoelstra said following Sunday night's win, via ESPN. "He was making so many plays, a lot of them you saw -- the blocks, rebounds. But [it's also] a lot you wouldn't see -- pick-and-roll coverages against dynamic 3-point shooters. He was covering a lot of ground, arguably as much as he's [ever] covered defensively."
If that all-out effort becomes an aberration, Whiteside will spend many more crunch-time minutes watching as opposed to playing. If, however, Whiteside continues to build off the small steps he took, then he'll make Spoelsta's fourth-quarter lineup decisions extremely difficult.
That, no doubt, is a problem Spoelstra and the Heat would welcome.