When the Portland Trail Blazers traded for Hassan Whiteside this summer, he was seen as a ready-made replacement for injured starter Jusuf Nurkic. Hassan Whiteside is not Jusuf Nurkic. The sooner the Blazers recognize that, the sooner Whiteside can escape league-wide criticism and play the brand of basketball he’s capable of playing.
Nurkic spoiled Portland with the development of his passing and finishing around the rim last year. He and Damian Lillard’s pick and rolls melted opposing defenses.
The Blazers went out and traded for Whiteside to fill that role because pick and rolls are Lillard’s bread and butter. But they don’t optimize Whiteside’s game. Whiteside’s limitations as a passer and screener – at least compared to the Bosnian Beast – were well documented during his time in Miami.
Still, the offense has relied on pick and rolls between he and Lillard as much – if not more – than it did with Nurkic last year. More than half of Lillard’s offensive possessions have involved him as the pick-and-roll ball handler, and more than one-fifth of Whiteside’s have been as the roll man.
So far, one half of that duo is dominating. Through 12 games, Lillard is scoring 1.29 points per possession as a pick and roll ball handler. Among players with at least two such possessions per game, he ranks first in the league.
The other half is struggling. Of the 46 players who are roll men for two or more possessions per game, Whiteside ranks 34th in points per possession at 0.86. He’s turning the ball over 8.6% of the time, more than Nurkic did last season despite throwing significantly fewer passes.
The problem? Whiteside doesn’t hustle toward the rim after setting the screen. He ball watches and therefore receives Lillard’s pass on the fringe of the painted area, where he’s mostly ineffective. He can’t dribble or shoot from beyond arm’s reach of the hoop, leading to turnovers or missed shots when found on the roll.
Whiteside’s need for spoon-fed shot opportunities doesn’t mean the Blazers need to trim his playing time or make him a non-factor in the offense. To keep him involved but not ask so much in pick and rolls, Portland should use him like Houston uses Clint Capela: occasionally run pick and rolls but more frequently plant him in the dunker’s spot.
Like James Harden, Lillard can beat just about any defender in the league off the dribble. Lillard doesn’t need the flashiness of Harden’s dribble moves to do so; he is so explosive that defenders can’t move quick enough laterally to stay in front of him.
The Blazers guard ranks first in the league in isolation points per possession (1.21) among players with two or more possessions per game.
Here, he beats a strong defender in Derrick White without any dribble moves.
Lillard driving to the rim with Whiteside in the dunker’s spot gives the defending center two options: help on the drive and abandon Whiteside or stick with Whiteside and sacrifice an open lane to the hoop. Lillard has the floor awareness to recognize the defender’s binary choice and react appropriately, either finishing it himself or dumping it to Whiteside for an easy finish. Whiteside’s verticality – something Nurkic lacks – provides a lob option in the second scenario as well.
Here’s Harden responding to the second outcome.
And if the wing defender tries to step in front of Whiteside, he leaves a capable shooter open in the corner for Lillard to find.
If Lillard still wants a screen beyond the arc to free up three-point attempts – something he can’t do as easily off the dribble – then someone besides Whiteside should set the screen. Whiteside remains in the dunker’s spot, so if Lillard passes up the triple to attack the rim, the defending center finds himself in the same situation as before.
Here’s Houston’s offense planting Capela down low but still screening for Harden.
Whiteside has received plenty of criticism from fans and the Inside the NBA crew. People expect him to play like Nurkic, setting solid screens and being a dynamic roll man. But as the first 12 games illustrated, he doesn’t have the requisite skills.
The Blazers offense can better utilize him by not asking as much of him. Standing in the dunker’s spot and letting Lillard act like Harden allows Whiteside to get easy buckets and capitalize on his verticality.