With the spread of COVID-19 and the suspension of the 2019-20 NBA season, this season has officially entered the pantheon of weirdness. The suspension has even led to the delay of Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic’s highly anticipated return from injury, which was scheduled for March 15 but is now scheduled for a date unknown.
Before all this, Portland had Hassan Whiteside filling in at the center spot. The big man has put up some gaudy stats, averaging 16.3 points on 61.8% shooting along with 14.2 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. But even though the numbers look nice, there’s an argument to be made that he hurts the team at times by constantly chasing blocks that leave the paint vulnerable, failing to box out, and other notable mental lapses that have only hurt an already bad Blazer defense.
It seems irrelevant right now, but eventually Nurkic will return and Portland head coach Terry Stotts will have to answer the pertinent question: can Whiteside and Nurkic coexist with one another? Whiteside said last week that he felt he and Nurkic could do it, but let’s dive into it to see if that’s true.
Let’s start here: Nurkic is better than Whiteside. Whiteside’s box score stats might be higher but most advanced metrics show last year’s version of Nurkic to be more effective. Nurkic’s player impact plus-minus rating of 5.01 is significantly better than Whiteside’s PIPM rating of 3.56. Nurkic’s PIPM ranked eighth among all players last season and was third among all big men behind only Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis.
Their games differ most notably on offense. Specifically, Nurkic stands out way more than Whiteside as a facilitator. Nurkic has excellent vision and touch on passes for a big man, finding open shooters and cutters with an ease that Whiteside does not display.
It’s a touch that Whiteside just doesn’t have. The offense runs more slightly more efficiently with Nurkic on the court. Last year Nurkic had an offensive rating of 117 while Whiteside’s currently stands at 114.5. While offensive rating isn’t a perfect individual indicator of good and bad offense, it still gives a fairly accurate idea of the impact that Nurkic has on that end compared to Whiteside.
But Nurkic’s advantage isn’t just on the offensive end. Despite racking up a lot of blocks, Whiteside is not nearly as disciplined a defender as Nurkic is, and it shows in Whiteside’s tendency to chase every block imaginable. Nurkic’s defensive rating last year was 106.5. Whiteside’s this year — with albeit much less talented wing defenders — is 112.2. As with offensive rating, defensive rating isn’t always the perfect judge of individual defense, but it gives some idea.
As Eric Griffith pointed out earlier this week, the Blazers like to play a drop defense style. It’s something that hasn’t been as good for Whiteside, but works for Nurkic, who ranked in the top 20 among players who defended at least four shots per game from inside five feet. Both players do better in that five spot defending primarily the paint. The only problem is that one of them does it significantly better than the other.
This article isn’t just meant to point out how Nurkic is better than Whiteside. I would argue Whiteside has actually been a plus for the Blazers this year. This team without Whiteside completely falls apart. An already horrendous defense just continues to get worse with no one inside. Without Whiteside, the best case scenario was that we keep a not hurt Skal Labissiere or we transition Zach Collins somehow to the center spot and leave the four spot vulnerable. The Blazers have needed Whiteside this year. This season would’ve been lost long ago without him.
That being said, Nurkic is still the best long term option for Portland. At the very least, the two big men can’t start together. Two seven-footers who don’t really space the floor is suboptimal, and once he’s healthy, Zach Collins should be back in the starting role at the four spot. Collins has shown to be foul-prone but also a more versatile and high-IQ defender than Whiteside. The style of defense Stotts wants to play is at odds with his personell if he tries to start both Whiteside and Nurkic.
Writing that out makes it seem like it doesn’t make much sense to play Nurkic and Whiteside together. But truth be told, we may have no choice but to find a way to make the two players work together. Both Griffith and Dave Deckard have pointed out that Portland’s best option might be to re-sign Whiteside to a more team-friendly deal. There’s no one that the Blazers most likely can sign with any cap space left that either adequately replaces Whiteside or fulfils other needs, so Whiteside is really what we’re left with.
But this isn’t all doom and gloom. There’s a world where Whiteside does well coming off the bench for the Blazers while Nurkic starts as the primary defensive anchor. Whiteside feasts on lesser bench players while Nurkic holds the fort down inside. It’s a combo that could work if Whiteside buys into it. He’s talented enough that at the right price he’s a valuable player.
Overall, Nurkic and Whiteside won’t thrive on the court with each other, but if the Blazers choose to resign Whiteside and he accepts a role coming off the bench, the tandem could be powerful. Whiteside can be frustrating, but he’s been serviceable enough that he could be a great center off the bench. The real question is whether he would accept such a role.