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Damian Lillard Will Need to Adjust Pick Plays for Hassan Whiteside

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Whiteside and Jusuf Nurkic are different players. Here’s how Portland’s point guards will change screen plays to accommodate Whiteside’s game.

NBA: Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

With Jusuf Nurkic recovering from a serious leg injury, the Portland Trail Blazers traded for Hassan Whiteside to fill their temporary void at center. Nurkic will likely remain sidelined until February, and even when he returns, his minutes will be restricted for the next few weeks, guaranteeing Whiteside the starting job for a majority of the 2019-20 season. This evokes a major question: How will the Blazers adjust?

Pick and rolls dominate Portland’s offense. Damian Lillard and Nurkic formed a lethal combination that could score anywhere on the floor as well as find the open teammate when defenses collapsed. Thanks to the acquisition of Whiteside and his overall proficiency in the pick and roll, the Blazers don’t have to dramatically change its offense in the absence of Nurkic.

These two graphs illustrate basic pick and roll stats for the two Blazers centers. The left shows their respective points per possession and the right shows their total points and possessions in the pick and roll.

In last year’s playoffs, Lillard was willing to alter his tendencies in pick-and-roll sets to accommodate Enes Kanter and eventually Meyers Leonard. He’ll need to do so again for Whiteside. Whiteside and Nurkic are both seven feet tall, but the former uses his height to gain an advantage while the latter uses his frame.

Lillard generally finds a rolling Nurkic shortly after the screen is set, providing the big man with room to exploit a mismatch in the post, kick out to a teammate, or take one dribble and score. Nurkic’s court vision and offensive IQ improved significantly last season and earned the coaching staff’s trust to make appropriate decisions in traffic.

A freshly-added Whiteside doesn’t have the same trust, nor should he. He doesn’t execute as well as Nurkic does when posting up a smaller defender, finding teammates on the perimeter, or briefly putting the ball on the floor before scoring.

In the post, Whiteside scored 0.73 points per possession (PPP), which ranks in the 18th percentile league-wide. He shot 41.7% from the field in those possessions, more than 15% lower than his season average. (Nurkic recorded 0.86 PPP in the post and shot 45.2% from the field.)

Over his 343-game career, Whiteside has accumulated 203 total assists. His highest per-36 average for assists per game is 1.4. (Nurkic averaged 3.2 assists in 27.4 minutes per game last season.) Whiteside can’t blame the Miami Heat’s shooters for his low assist numbers: He only created 1.6 potential assists per game in 2018-19. (Nurkic created 5.0 potential assists.)

Finally, Whiteside struggles to score without a force-fed opportunity. His shooting percentage after taking zero dribbles was 62.2% but dropped to 44.7% after one dribble. (Nurkic’s actually rose from 49.2% to 60.4%.)

Lillard will need to change his usual pick-and-roll tendencies to utilize Whiteside’s primary strength: his above-the-rim presence.

Last season, Whiteside threw down 151 dunks compared to Nurkic’s 68. More specifically to pick and rolls, Whiteside caught 62 alley-oops, 49 of which were dunks. Nurkic caught just one alley-oop and it was an alley-layup.

The Blazers want Whiteside’s scoring opportunities to be easy. Outside of the restricted area, he’s an inefficient shooter and shouldn’t be relied on to score.

Hassan Whiteside’s shot chart from the 2018-19 season.

Lillard has to exercise patience after using the screen to avoid putting the pressure of posting up, dribbling or passing on Whiteside. By waiting until the defense fully commits to him, Lillard can throw a lob or underneath pass – both Whiteside can immediately transfer into a dunk.

The acquisition of reliable outside shooters also creates a wider lane for Lillard and Whiteside to operate in. The Houston Rockets intentionally surrounds James Harden and Clint Capela with shooters to clear space for them to run downhill on the pick and roll.

Even if Whiteside’s skillset as a roll man is limited in comparison to Nurkic’s, a manageable change to how Lillard runs off screens should maintain the efficiency of Portland’s most frequent play type.