Hassan Whiteside trade rumors are heating up across the NBA as the once-revered Miami Heat center expresses frustration with his playing time and role. If the salary cap stars were to align just right, this could be good news for the Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers are desperately in need of a significant roster boost and just as desperately short of avenues to pursue same. If they could put together an admittedly-unlikely series of deals centering around free-agent center Jusuf Nurkic, they might be able to transform their lineup without breaking apart the duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. It’s a long shot, but one worth thinking about.
Why Whiteside Might Be Moving
Miami’s disgruntled center had a fine regular season, averaging 14.0 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game. Those numbers represented a career high in per-minute points and rebounds, yet Whiteside’s per-game production didn’t get anywhere near the highs of the last two seasons. The reason was simple: he dropped from 32.6 minutes per game last year to just 25.6 this. His playing time desert only got hotter as the year progressed. In five playoff games, Whiteside only registered 77 total minutes, an average of 15.6 per game. (He averaged 29.1 minutes in twice as many games the last time the Heat made the playoffs in 2015-16.)
According to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, Whiteside is being vocal about his de facto demotion, wondering openly about his future with the Heat:
Asked what most frustrated him from a team perspective, Whiteside cited his own issues with playing time.
”Not being out there,” he said. “Not being out there. At least give me a chance to fight. At least give me a chance to fight. I can understand if I was playing 30 minutes and I played bad. At least give me a chance.”
This is not the first time Whiteside has expressed displeasure. Jackson adds that a prominent teammate is giving him little sympathy.
Dwyane Wade said the onus is on Whiteside to improve.
“Don’t give me excuses,” Wade said. “Just go into the summer and work.”
And finally comes the coup de grace...
The Heat is expected to explore a Whiteside trade, with the center due $24.4 million and $27.1 million in the final two years of his contract.
Whiteside vs. Nurkic
The Blazers already have a center in tow, restricted free agent Jusuf Nurkic. As happy as they may (or may not) be with Nurkic’s performance, before acquiring him in a mid-season trade in February of 2017, they reportedly courted Whiteside first. As Erik Gundersen reported for the Herald, Whiteside considered Portland his “second choice” behind re-signing with the Heat.
Nurkic’s per-game and per-minute numbers are not wholly dissimilar from Whiteside’s. The Miami center is clearly a better rebounder and shot-blocker; Nurkic has greater offensive range (though not as much as you’d think). Whiteside is the more efficient scorer, Nurkic the more versatile.
Despite Nurkic’s decent production, three issues plague him in Portland:
- His defense is intermittent and often a liability, leading to him sitting on the bench during critical moments.
- He wants to be a key offensive cog, but he’s not proven he can handle that responsibility (or, for that matter, the ball) and he doesn’t play with the same vigor when he doesn’t get to dribble and shoot.
- Even when he’s on, his offense is slow-developing. He’s a willing passer, but he tends to stall out Portland’s sets, allowing the defense time to key in on him rather than keeping them bewildered as the multi-faceted starting guards do.
Whiteside is not a cure-all for these ills. He also wants to be involved offensively. His scoring game is efficient, but not pretty. His passing game makes Nurkic look like Einstein. Perhaps most condemning of all, his defense is overrated. Whiteside’s stellar blocks and rebounds historically mask a fairly long list of defensive sins.
That said, Whiteside is probably a better fit in Portland than in Miami, and a better fit for Portland’s system than Nurkic is. The Blazers don’t require a straight-up defensive wizard at center as much as they do a goalie. Their system (and relative speed executing it) usually puts their big men in position to make plays near the rim. The key question is, what happens after? With Nurkic they roll the dice. Occasionally he’ll make a big splash, often it’s nothing special, sometimes the play turns into a disaster. Whiteside would be much more effective erasing lane shots allowed by Portland’s somewhat-permissive backcourt. His rebounding ability would allow teammates to leak out on the break, facilitating fast-break points missing from Portland’s offense.
The New Starters
Whiteside alone wouldn’t transform the Blazers into contenders. To maximize his effect, they’d need a couple developments from the 2017-18 season to continue into 2018-19.
- Al-Farouq Aminu would need to remain on the roster and continue shooting three-pointers at a 37% clip.
- Zach Collins would need to step into a significant role while developing his offense, both extended post moves and open three-pointers.
If both of those things happened, the Blazers could then field one of the best defensive frontcourts in the NBA, if not the best. If Aminu could slide to small forward with Collins starting at power forward, their combined defensive prowess would intimidate, finally relieving the pressure on Lillard and McCollum. Failing that, Aminu and Whiteside starting while Collins backed up both positions would still provide non-stop defense. If Collins works on his three-point shot and the Blazers keep either Aminu or another shooter at small forward, everyone on the floor except Whiteside could hit from range. Whiteside could get enough shots to keep him happy, plus he’d be free to crash the offensive glass for put-backs.
Neither of those developments is guaranteed, which is part of the rub. The other part: Portland’s cap situation makes a Whiteside deal problematic.
Whiteside is scheduled to make $25.4 million next season, $27.1 million on a player option in 2019-20. With NBA budgets getting tighter, he’ll likely pick up that option. This is part of the reason Miami will consider moving him. You don’t want to be paying $25 million a year to a player you can’t trust to stay on the floor. When a player reaches the million-dollar-per-minute level, he’d better be LeBron James.
$25 million is an exorbitant amount to add to Portland’s already-strained cap ledger, but if the Blazers can get Nurkic to agree to a sign-and-trade to Miami at a reasonable price—they don’t have to cheap him out, they just can’t go ballistic—they can offer him with other assets to relieve their own cap burden. Sign and trades are rare nowadays because Max Contract rules and Base Year Compensation technicalities make the needle hard to thread. A player compensated at Nurkic’s level should fit through the gap, however, as his salary won’t be maxed and his BYC variance would be around $6 million...well within tolerance levels in a deal with a $25 million player.
Nurkic would have to agree to a salary far short of max and stick with it for three years. If another team offered him more in Restricted Free Agency than the Blazers/Heat were, the deal would be off.
As with all things financially-related for the Blazers nowadays, the deal wouldn’t be easy. They’d not just be in the luxury tax, but bumping up against the “apron”, the maximum theoretical limit beyond which they cannot trade. If Portland had not stretched the contracts of Anderson Varejao, Andrew Nicholson, and Festus Ezeli, a potential trade for Whiteside would be much simpler. The roughly $5 million tied up by those three departed players now mandates a raft of cuts and an extra trade in order for the Blazers to consider bringing Whiteside on board.
If salary-matching restrictions were the only thing at stake, the Blazers might re-sign Nurkic for $12 million-ish, get Shabazz Napier to play for the one-year qualifying offer, and trade Nurkic, Napier, and Moe Harkless to Miami for Whiteside.
BUT...because of the apron limit, the Blazers would need to release Pat Connaughton and Georgios Papagiannis AND move Meyers Leonard or Evan Turner for a player or players making marginally less money (ideally a couple of players who matched their salary, minus a couple million) in order to squeeze that deal through. Again we see how those stretched contracts and/or a couple million to Turner in years past makes an out-sized difference. Frankly, those extra dollars turn a prospective Whiteside deal from “tough, but doable” to “near impossible”.
That’s assuming Miami would take such a deal, of course. If they weren’t in love with Nurkic, all of this is moot. They may not be, but it’s fun to dream, right?
Would Whiteside’s skills entice you into making a move, providing the Blazers and Heat could get a deal done? Would losing Nurkic, Napier, Harkless, Connaughton, and Meyers Leonard be too great of a price? How close would the Blazers be to having a complete and contending roster with Whiteside on board?