Hassan Whiteside has provided the ultimate Rorschach Test for Portland Trail Blazers fans this season. He’s started 61 games, averaging 16.3 points, 14.2 rebounds, and a league-leading 3.1 blocks. He’s also been castigated for slow footwork, limited range, and a muted effect on Portland’s defense overall. Hanging over the discussion like a cloud is the impending summer free agency period, where the Blazers will need to make a decision not only about Whiteside, but their immediate future...both of which may be intertwined. That serves as the subject for today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Do you really think [the Blazers] will want Whiteside back? I don’t understand all of the love for him. Even you say we should keep him and all I see is an over rated defender who chases too many blocked shots and rebounds that lots of people can get. The defense is terrible with him at center! Why sign up for more of this?
Whatever your opinion of Whiteside, you cannot look at this in isolation. Franchise moves happen in context. Let’s recap some of it. Please feel free to spread the following far and wide, because I see plenty of people out there who still don’t take this kind of thing into account.
1. The Blazers do not have enough cap space this summer to sign a significant (read: more than mid-level) player if they keep Trevor Ariza. This is true whether or not they retain Whiteside. If they want to play the free agency market, they’ll need to release Whiteside AND Ariza. That means the incoming free agent would need to not only balance, but exceed, the loss of both players. That’s not likely to happen.
Again: dumping Whiteside and keeping Ariza means losing Whiteside for nothing. Dumping them both for a free agent and actually getting better by doing so is not impossible, but it’s a stretch. Thus the most likely outcome is the Blazers keeping both Whiteside and Ariza. This is especially true if you believe President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey’s claim that the Blazers didn’t even consider potential Whiteside trades at the 2020 NBA Trade Deadline last month.
2. Look at the really big picture. For most of the last decade, the Blazers have had one job, building a contender around their successful draft picks in 2012 and 2013: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. They had major cap space in 2016 to do so, plus the potential of moderate space in 2020 to augment or correct course. If they emerge from that 2016-2020 span with nothing but a single free agent and no extra picks (in fact they had to spend picks to make the maneuvers they’ve made) then that free agent better be GREAT. If all they come out with is a mediocre addition or the 35-year-old version of Ariza, that’s got to be viewed as a failure. Keeping Whiteside at least mitigates that outcome.
3. Mitigation now could become tangible hope for renewal in the future market. Keeping Whiteside gives the Blazers more trade opportunities, either by moving him directly or by substituting him for Jusuf Nurkic in the starting lineup and trading Nurk.
I’ll repeat something I said last week. The Blazers will get better through what will presumably be a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Other than that, their avenues for real, radical improvement are limited. They’re not young anymore. They’re not gaining ground on their Western Conference competitors; they’re getting passed up instead. Free agency isn’t likely to resolve that. Under these circumstances, the Blazers may be forced to look at trading away part of their core to advance the rest.
Not coincidentally, Portland now has at least a modest pretense at redundancy at two key positions: shooting guard and center. If you believe in Gary Trent Jr. and/or Anfernee Simons, if you also believe in both Nurkic and Whiteside as starters, the Blazers can offer a McCollum-plus-center package in trade. This would have left the cupboard empty in years past; not it will leave them with options at the positions vacated plus a new player incoming.
They can’t, and I’m sure wouldn’t, consider this kind of talent exchange for anything but the best kind of return. That said, several Eastern Conference teams are carrying pairs of stars and/or superstars. All of them are hoping to make the NBA Finals with their duos. Most of them won’t, and one or two of them might fall flat on their faces in this year’s playoffs. If an Eastern Conference team dead-ends with talent in tow, a McCollum-Nurkic swap this summer (or McCollum-Whiteside mid-season next year) might make sense to them.
Obviously that’s not possible if the Blazers don’t keep Whiteside. That’s the hidden benefit of keeping him.
For all these reasons, re-signing Whiteside is a sensible move. The only things that would change the assessment are an incredible free agent signing with the cap space he and Ariza would vacate, outrageous contract demands on his part (which would render him “untradeable” later), or if he left the Blazers in the lurch no matter what they offered.
If anything, the Blazers should fear the latter two scenarios at this point. They have potential cap space, but they don’t have a ton of control over how it’s ultimately used. They’re in a position of needing Whiteside to stay, else they’ll probably have to release Ariza too. But Whiteside owes them nothing; he’s essentially a rental player. If he wants $25 million per year to stay, what do they do? If he decides to take someone else’s offer but doesn’t hurry up about it, leaving the market picked over before he commits, what do they do? If Whiteside leaves of his own accord, the Blazers could easily be left in a situation where they’d need to make a home run swing in free agency, but wouldn’t have the resources or the available talent pool to manage it.
Unless the context changes, they have to hope that Whiteside is enamored enough of the franchise, or at least its money, that he wants to re-up. That’s true even if they, or we, aren’t sold on his utility in the long run.
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