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Trade analysis: Will Whiteside buy in to the Blazers system?

The fate of the Trail Blazers’ 2019-20 season may hinge on the attitude of the notoriously mercurial center.

NBA: Miami Heat at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

First impression of the Hassan Whiteside trade: Holy shirt Neil Olshey and the Blazers made a big trade! We’re looking at a major roster overhaul for the first time since 2016.

An illustration of how different the Blazers will be next season: Players departing Portland played more minutes in the playoffs last season (1989) than those still on the team (1976). Of the new Blazers, Whiteside is the one getting the most buzz so let’s dig in:

On-Court Impact of Hassan Whiteside

Despite his gaudy stats — peaking at 17.0 points, 14.1 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game two years ago — Whiteside’s on-court impact has been questioned. At his worst, Whiteside has been critiqued as an unmotivated stat-chaser who gambles on defense and lacks the fundamentals to play proper pick and roll coverage without tripping over his own feet (examples vs. Blazers). Heat coach Erik Spoelstra played Bam Adebayo more often in the fourth quarter (7.4 minutes per game) than Whiteside (6.7 minutes) last season.

Offensively, Whiteside’s game is effective but very limited. He can score around the basket and has the length to catch some lob passes. But he is also one of the worst free throw shooters in the league and a bigger blackhole than Enes Kanter:

So what’s the upside to Whiteside? I’d guess Olshey is banking on head coach Terry Stotts to work his usual magic with a disgruntled cast-off. From a motivational perspective, Whiteside is in a contract year and will get big minutes for the Blazers. If he plays well there could be a big payday next July. There’s an obvious win-win here that both sides should be on the same page about.

On the court, Stotts may be able to mitigate Whiteside’s defensive weaknesses on the perimeter by leaning on the team’s conservative defensive strategy. Stotts will rely on Hassan to lay back and swallow up opposing guards herded into the lane.

If Whiteside can be dissuaded from gambling for stat-padding blocks, Stotts’ standard gameplan could work very well. Heck, the system turned Jusuf Nurkic into a low-key all-defense candidate and helped Enes “can’t play” Kanter outplay Steven Adams. Whiteside’s effectiveness will largely depend on his level of buy-in.

Offensively, the Blazers have enough firepower Whiteside won’t need to do much beyond convert the occasional around-the-hoop bucket. He also gives Damian Lillard an alley-oop partner for the first time since Mason freakin’ Plumlee. Most of the league has probably forgotten that Dame is an excellent passer in traffic. Lillard doesn’t throw lobs when driving to the rim only because he’s been surrounded by ground-bound post players — it’ll be part of the scouting report by Nov. 1.

Again, the outcome will depend on Whiteside’s willingness to play more like Clint Capela with an occasional post-up than Shaquille O’Neal. If he buys in, this should be fine.

All told, Blazers fans will cross their fingers that Whiteside becomes the second coming of Kanter, and not another stat-padding but ineffective J.J. Hickson. Both outcomes are possible and an extreme outcome in either direction could have season-defining effects. We’ve been waiting for a dramatic go big or go home move since LaMarcus Aldridge joined the Spurs and this qualifies.

Whiteside’s Salary impact

Whiteside opted into a $27.1 million one-year salary for the 2019-2020 season. Maurice Harkless, headed to the Clippers, and Miami-bound Meyers Leonard will be paid a combined $22.8 million salary next season.

Since $27.1 million is less than 125 percent of $22.8 million, the Blazers can receive Whiteside without including any other players in the deal.

The net effect is a $4.3 million increase in salary and an $8.5 million increase in luxury tax payments if Whiteside finishes the season in Portland.

In sum, the Blazers could pay $40 million for a back-up center. That’s a staggering financial commitment and shows that team ownership is all in on winning this season.

Whiteside’s Future in Portland

It’s possible the Blazers plan to trade Whiteside in February to fortify the bench at other positions once Nurkic has returned. By essentially combining the expiring contracts of Harkless and Leonard into a single player, Olshey made it slightly more difficult to execute such a trade. But Whiteside’s potential upside impact relative to Harkless and Leonard makes that a palatable sacrifice.

The Blazers also hold Whiteside’s Bird rights so they can exceed the cap to retain him next offseason. Assuming Nurkic regains his form, however, it seems unlikely Whiteside will want to return. As mentioned above, the Whiteside/Blazers arrangement is a mutually beneficial pairing for a single season at most.

As such, Whiteside will not affect the Blazers potential salary cap space next summer. They currently have $91 million committed to eight players against a salary cap of approximately $118 million.

Whiteside and Aminu?

A lingering question is whether or not the Whiteside trade affected the Blazers apparent decision to not make a counter-offer for Al-Farouq Aminu. The Blazers could have intended to let Aminu leave, regardless, or Whiteside’s increased tax bill may have made retaining Aminu unpalatable. Olshey signed Anthony Tolliver to bolster the power forward position in Aminu’s absence.

Bottom Line: Is Hassan Whiteside a myth?

Hassan Whiteside reminds me of the movie (500) Days of Summer.

(I’m required to use a weird analogy at some point, right? This is an NBA blog circa 2019, after all.)

The protagonist, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, falls hopelessly in love with Zooey Deschanel’s inscrutable character. The thing is, Deschanel’s character is only inscrutable from Gordon-Levitt’s perspective — he’s fallen for an idealized form of the person rather than the actual person. His own expectations have totally overshadowed reality and, consequently, he fails to connect with her. You can guess how that relationship ends.

My fear is that Whiteside may be Portland’s own incarnation of the manic pixie dream girl. The Blazers took on a major financial sacrifice to help bridge the gap created by Nurkic’s broken leg. They also sacrificed at least two, possibly three, serviceable role players and there’s a major risk that this won’t work out.

Consequently, we are all seeing what we want in Whiteside. We see the potentially amazing impact he’ll have on the team. He could literally satisfy our wildest dreams as fans, much like a perfect girlfriend could theoretically satisfy the wildest desires of a forlorn rom-com protagonist. The alternative that nobody wants to confront is that Whiteside may be an idealized myth. He could easily fall into old habits and become the next J.J. Hickson or worse. His attitude could torpedo the season.

There’s no real way to know how the Blazers/Whiteside relationship will end — the team will rely on Stotts, Lillard, and Whiteside find common ground. Blazers fans will spend the next few months hoping that Portland just traded for a motivated, defensive menace and not a disgruntled stat-padder. If the trade works out, it could be one of the biggest coups in franchise history. If not, the Blazers will struggle to win games until Nurkic returns in 2020.