The Warriors beat the Heat on Wednesday, but Hassan Whiteside claimed a small victory. After publicly jabbing with Draymond Green, he did exactly what he said he would and dominated the Warriors front line with 21 points on 11 shots to go with 13 rebounds off the bench.
It wasn't enough to power Miami to a win over Golden State, but Whiteside, wrinkles and all, was the best big man in the game and owned the paint. The Heat were much better with him on the court than off and he made big plays when they needed them. The Warriors nailed jumpers over him to win the game, but they do that to many teams.
Accused by many -- including other NBA players -- of putting up empty numbers, Whiteside has actually made a big positive impact on winning for a while now. If the recent stretch of games is any indication, he's turned a corner in his career.
Whiteside's difference on defense
Whiteside is the best shot-blocker the league has seen in a while. He's averaging 3.9 blocks per game, a mark that hasn't been reached since Alonzo Mourning posted it in the 1998-99 season. He's doing it while playing under 29 minutes per game, too.
Yet despite those gaudy numbers, it was hard to really assert that he was a difference-maker on defense. Earlier in the season, the Heat were actually better defensively with Whiteside on the bench.
Since the New Year, however, Miami has fared markedly better with Whiteside patrolling the paint. In the 17 games he's been available in that stretch, the Heat are allowing 96.9 point per 100 possessions when he's on the court, a number comparable to the historically great Spurs defense. Opponents shoot over two percentage points worse and score over two fewer points in the paint when he plays. Even when he doesn't block shots, he intimidates opponents.
Whiteside doesn't just make teams miss in the paint, he prevents them from even shooting. Over the past two months, opponents launch 28 percent of their total shots within five feet of the basket when he's in the game and 34 percent when he's resting. Whiteside often stays too close to the rim instead of stepping out to contain shooters more, a big reason why he ranks second in the league in contested shots at the rim. That used to (and still is) a cause for criticism, but clearly Whiteside's approach is working.
Obviously, he's not doing it alone. Coach Erik Spoelstra is trotting out smaller, stingier defensive lineups more often recently, particularly in the wake of Chris Bosh's health scare. Yet those lineups with Luol Deng and/or Justise Winslow up front work in part because Whiteside is able to shut down the paint on his own. That is a very valuable skill.
Whiteside is scoring more while maintaining his efficiency
In the aggregate, the Heat's offense has done better with Whiteside on the court all season, but the difference isn't huge. Since the New Year, they have actually scored more points per 100 possessions with him off the floor than on, which didn't bode well for his potential as a two-way star. His defensive improvement still has made his presence a net positive, but the league is full of good defensive centers who can't stay on the court for long stretches because of their offensive limitations.
That said, Whiteside's response since he started coming off the bench suggests the Heat shouldn't be concerned about those numbers. In February, Whiteside's upped his scoring to over 15 points per game in fewer minutes than in past months. The Heat have scored almost five more points per 100 possessions with him on the court during that span, a significant amount.
Having Whiteside around is actually helping Miami's offense. His individual efficiency numbers have actually climbed despite taking more shots.
It's only been a few games, but Whiteside does have the tools to be a good offensive player. He's a devastating pick-and-roll threat who is patient enough to wait for the pass and can throw down lobs thanks to his length. He still takes too many contested shots in post-up situations, but he has some nice moves. He can also hit mid-range jumpers at a decent clip if left alone.
That full arsenal was on display against Golden State.
Whether Whiteside can sustain that efficiency and, more importantly, continue to contribute to winning remains to be seen. Yet he might not need to be a killer offensive player now that his defense is making such a strong impact. If he can do enough to not hurt his team on offense, he will be incredibly valuable.
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Whiteside is far from perfect. He sometimes goes for blocks he cannot get instead of securing rebounding position. He still takes difficult shots in the post instead of passing to teammates for better alternatives. He appears to be controlling his emotions better, but he still has a long way to go before he can be considered dependable. He's also almost 27 years old already, so those flaws might be permanent.
Yet it's clear he's also made significant strides in the last couple months. He no longer seems to be putting up empty numbers or dragging his team down. The flashes of individual defensive dominance are translating to team success on that end, and his offense is coming along nicely.
Even if he continues to build on the momentum he has right now, Whiteside won't enter free agency as a sure thing. There are simply too many red flags in his past. The way he's playing now, though, will make the risk much more worthwhile for a lot of teams.