Analytics, Overanalysis, And The Hassan Whiteside Conundrum
Hassan Whiteside is putting up jaw-dropping numbers as he prepares to head into free agency, but his reputation and analytical trends make things complicated.
Photo by Robert Duyos-USA TODAY Sports
There is a beast on the shores of Biscayne Bay, and it is putting up numbers never before seen in the history of the league and helping keep the Miami Heat in the playoff mix despite the absence of its best player since the All-Star break. But because this monster's production this season falls directly at the intersection of a couple of odd statistical trends—and perhaps because he has a reputation as bit of a malcontent—Hassan Whiteside is not thought of nearly as highly as his numbers suggest he should be.
About those numbers, though: they are crazy numbers. As of this writing, Whiteside is on track to become the first NBA player ever to average at least 10 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks in less than 30 minutes per game. Not first since [insert future Hall of Famer at the beginning of his career]. The first player ever.
The list of 10-10-3 players regardless of minutes played is littered with Hall of Famers—Olajuwon, Mutombo, Robinson, Abdul-Jabbar, Mourning, Ewing, Lanier, McAdoo, Walton—and soon-to-be Hall of Famers like Shaquille O'Neal. So yes, Whiteside is in some pretty impressive company even before we get to the fact that he's working in shorter stints than his predecessors. Given that he's only 26 years old and has barely a season and a half of heavy playing time under his belt, Whiteside seems like an easy player to get excited about. And yet this is one monster that the NBA can't quite bring itself to believe in.
Not all of this is Whiteside's fault. Analytics trends are down on shot-blocking as a measure of defensive value, and shot-blocking is something Whiteside does very well. Take it one contrarian step further, and it's easy to declare that a big-time shot-blocker is in fact a bad defender despite those swat totals. The fact that the Heat have a better defensive rating (by 1.7 points per 100 possessions as of Tuesday afternoon) with Whiteside off the floor than when he's on it can, if you want it to, serve as definitive proof of his overrated-ness.
It seems both rash and downright weird to toss aside the value 3.9 blocks in 28.8 minutes per game, but that's the NBA discourse right now, and that is, to an extent, what's happening with Whiteside. Does he go block-hunting sometimes? Yeah, probably. But how many guys could have four blocks in a quarter like this?
That's, in order: (a) out-of-nowhere baseline help as a last resort; (b) baseline help after corralling a pick and roll ball-handler in the dead zone near the elbow; (c) a straight-up block of a ball-handler trying to get off a floater while Whiteside backs off to his man rolling down the lane; and (d) a recovery block on his own man after not getting back to the boards in time because he was handling another pick and roll near the elbow. All of it is some extremely uncommon shit.
Does it not matter that, by at least one metric, there's only been one player in the history of basketball (Manute Bol) to block shots at a higher rate than Whiteside has this season? That seems like the kind of thing that people should rave about, not deem irrelevant.
And where does the fact that the on-off numbers have done a 180 and then some since the start of 2016 come in? (The Heat have a 99.0 D-Rtg with Whiteside on the floor and 102.7 with him off since January 1.) Or how about the fact that Miami's opponents have taken and made a far greater percentage of their shots near the basket when Whiteside hasn't been on the floor this year?
There's a reason Whiteside checks in as the second-best rim protector in the NBA by Nylon Calculus' Points Saved Per 36 Minutes, and it's not just because he blocks a bunch of shots. He also alters a ton and prevents many others from ever being taken at all. Whiteside contests a greater percentage of shots at the basket than anyone in the league, and that alone is valuable. So while Whiteside might not be a DPOY-caliber guy or even All-Defense, people should probably chill with any "he's not even a good defender" chatter.
That the monster shot-blocker also happens to be, by percentage of available rebounds grabbed, the 10th-best offensive rebounder, third-best defensive rebounder, and second-best overall rebounder in the NBA this season seems like it should matter a bit, too. He's also one of the best pick and roll finishers in the league—among players that have finished as least 75 possessions as the roll man, Whiteside is second in the league in points per play, per Synergy Sports. He's got nice partners to work with in Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade, sure, but not just anyone can shoot 79 of 109 as the roller. Only DeAndre Jordan, who pretty much just catches lobs from Chris Paul, has scored on a greater percentage of his possessions as the screener than Whiteside. At the risk of belaboring the point: Hassan Whiteside can do a bunch of things, and he does several of them very well.
He's also not a good passer—people randomly celebrate on NBA Twitter when he gets an assist, which he's done just 21 times this year—and didn't have much range to speak of before the last few weeks. Those attributes both work to the detriment of an offense, although Whiteside mitigates some of it simply by drawing so much defensive attention when he knifes through the lane or hits the offensive glass.
But he's also shown the ability to turn weaknesses into strengths during his short time in Miami. After knocking down only 156 of the first 306 free-throw attempts of his career, which was "good" for a 50.9 percent mark, Whiteside debuted what is essentially a catch-and-shoot foul shot for a mid-January game against the Nuggets. He's made 58 of his 78 free-throws since (74.4 percent), and over the last two weeks he's connected on 34 of 40 (85.0 percent). Even if he sticks somewhere near 70 percent, that's a massive improvement, and one that's hugely important for a player that is not much of a threat outside the immediate area of the basket. If teams can't just foul Whiteside when he goes up for lobs, it makes him that much more dangerous.
It also helps that Whiteside has flashed a somewhat improved stroke on his jumper this year, at least when given space. He's knocked down 33 of 54 shots hoisted at least 10 feet away from the basket that are described by the NBA's SportVU tracking database as "open," meaning the closest defender was at least four feet away from him. A monster finisher that can hit his free-throws and, at the very least, not be completely ignored away from the rim is an incredibly dangerous offensive player. If he can learn to be even a mildly competent passer—and considering that he's shown the will and ability to improve where he was previously dreadful, it's not 100 percent out of the question—well, what's the limit on how much a guy like that can help a team?
That kind of player—versatile, improving, and dominant in his specialty—is the player that Whiteside is right now. He's also a guy that also has the good fortune of hitting free agency right as he's entering his physical prime. And yet, there are a ton of smart people who are absolutely terrified about what will happen if their favorite team gives him a big contract this summer, and a number of smart teams who won't even make him an offer.
The concerns about Whiteside's purported laziness or entitlement, or his propensity for technical fouls—his history of poor "character," basically—outweighs his production for a great many people. There is another column to be written about those presumptions, but this one is about Hassan Whiteside the basketball player, and in that context those concerns look both overstated and a bit misguided. It's not every day that a 26-year old two-way monster hits the free market, after all. Someone is going to pay him, analytic carping and character-related grumbling aside. If he keeps playing the way he has this year, that team will be very happy. It doesn't have to be any more complicated than that.