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Has the Hassan Whiteside trade been a success for the Trail Blazers?

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It looks like the Blazers will keep their current starting center for the rest of the season.

Portland Trailblazers vs. Miami Heat Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The NBA trade deadline is only two days away but all signs point to a quiet 48 hours for the Trail Blazers and general manager Neil Olshey. Most notably, ESPN’s Zach Lowe has joined a chorus of voices suggesting that Olshey is unlikely to trade Hassan Whiteside(‘s $27 million expiring contract).

With that in mind, it’s time to ask whether or not acquiring Whiteside this summer was a mistake for the Blazers.

Did Whiteside buy into the Blazers system?

Blazer’s Edge’s analysis of the Whiteside acquisition emphasized that the team’s new center would need to buy into the Blazers system and become a more team-oriented player than he was in Miami.

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.

Suffice to say, Whiteside never really bought in or stopped gambling for blocks. His effectiveness has been a bit of a Rorschach Test and comes down to how impactful you believe the gaudy stats to be. But, regardless of the numbers, it’s hard to argue he’s proven to be anything more than a short-term fill-in for Jusuf Nurkic and almost certainly not a player you want on the court for major minutes for a playoff run:

(That video is very much worth nine minutes if you still have questions about Whiteside’s defensive impact.)

Henry Abbott also raises concerns about how Whiteside will fit with the team after the all-star break:

In short, Whiteside has been a good to great player at times but also pretty bad at other times. His talent has been helpful, but it’s not hard to imagine a combination of Harkless, Leonard, and a better-than-Pau-Gasol-or-Mario-Hezonja free agent acquisition capably filling his shoes as the Blazers tread water.

Salary implications

At the time, trading for Whiteside seemed worth the gamble because, theoretically, his $27 million expiring contract could be swapped for an impact player on a longer deal (e.g. Blake Griffin or Kevin Love).

We’ve already discussed why the Whiteside trade is crucial to the Blazers long term plans so I won’t waste space on the excruciating details; the gist of it is that if Olshey does not trade Whiteside the Blazers are effectively saying “we think we can sign a better player with the mid-level exception than we could get back in a trade for a $27 million contract.” Note that the free agent class is weak this summer and multiple teams have cap space. It’s a tough sell to say that the MLE is more useful than a huge contract.

The problem here is that Whiteside is arguably less tradeable than Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard.

What do I mean by less tradeable?

  • Range of salaries that “fit” into Harkless/Leonard contracts: $6.0M-$28.1M (small gap from 14.2M-17.7M excluded)
  • Range for Whiteside:$21.6M-$34M
  • Wider raw range for Moe/Meyers and it’s more in line with most NBA contracts (ie few guys make $34M)

Note that the Blazers also took on an additional $5 million, in a luxury tax year, to acquire Whiteside.

It’s not unreasonable to wonder if the narrative is being redirected toward “OF COURSE we intended to keep him and make a playoff run” as a way of distracting from that the $27M expiring contract that only exists because two more easily tradeable $11M contracts were dumped.

In fairness, there’s still hope that Whiteside’s contract is converted to future assets. A sign and trade is possible this summer and the Blazers do have Hassan’s Bird Rights so he could stick around as a back-up center (although not a great sign that Whiteside is already talking about starting in tandem with Nurkic. )

But the bottom line is that, as of Feb. 4, 2020, it looks like Whiteside’s contract will be used to help a sub-.500 team squeak into a low playoff seed but have no impact on the team’s long-term roster construction. That’s a tough pill to swallow in the middle of Lillard’s prime while the team is in “win-now” mode.