When discussing the resumption of the 2019-20 NBA season and more specifically the Portland Trail Blazers’ role in the restart, two names come up more often than not: Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. The two big men will undoubtedly play a big part in helping boost the playoff chances for Portland, and their return has brought a new hope for a deep playoff run.
Lost in the discussion of their return is Hassan Whiteside, the offseason addition who has been one of the most polarizing players in recent history. While his impressive box score numbers (16.3 points, 14.2 rebounds, a league-leading 3.1 blocks) stand out, his lack of awareness, inability to guard outside the paint, and block-chasing have led to some frustrating moments throughout this season. But even then, he has been passable as a starting center for the Blazers in Nurkic’s absence, and has done what he could without Collins by his side this year.
With both Nurkic and Collins set to return, Terry Stotts now has to find a way for all three players to coexist. So what does Whiteside’s role look like with a revamped frontcourt?
This feels like it’s been a topic of discussion ever since Whiteside joined the Blazers. He’s insisted in the past that a frontcourt with both him and Nurkic could work. More likely than not, the Blazers will try it for at least a couple stints. But the reality is that they are an awkward duo at best. They play similar roles defensively as anchors in the paint. Putting either of those guys at the 4 while the other stays inside doesn’t seem to be a viable option. You’re either making the guy coming off a compound fracture guard perimeter players or you’re doing the same to the guy who’s only value defensively is as a rim protector.
Offensively, they don’t make sense together either. As I’ve noted in the past, Nurkic plays with a finesse that Whiteside lacks. When Nurkic is operating in the high post, it’s almost a guarantee that he makes the right play, whether that’s a bounce pass that lands in just the right spot or a smooth mid-range jumper. But even then, Nurkic isn’t exactly a floor-spacing big that can seamlessly shift to the power forward slot. That finesse doesn’t work when paired with another 7-foot behemoth whose main offensive talent is being bigger and stronger than most people. Putting these two together offensively makes for a towering yet flawed combination.
You can throw the idea of Nurkic and Whiteside playing together out the window, but what about Collins and Whiteside? We don’t really know much because they only played three games together before Collins’s injury, but it’s fairly safe to assume that the defensive scheme doesn’t change drastically whether it’s Whiteside or Nurk out there. Stotts has religiously stuck to a drop defense regardless of the center, and the only thing that’ll change is who’s out there employing the strategy. But as Eric Griffith pointed out back in March, Whiteside has not been the stalwart that Nurkic was in that scheme.
Generally speaking, having Collins back on the floor automatically helps the Blazers defensively, and he should be able to provide some relief in the paint to make up for any slip-ups on Whiteside’s end. The problem with a Whiteside-Collins line-up is what you get offensively. Whiteside doesn’t exactly space the floor, and while Collins can launch the occasional three he hasn’t shown to be a volume-shooting spacer. Nurkic’s offensive versatility better complements Collins, so it makes more sense on both ends to maximize their time on the court together. No matter what, Whiteside is an awkward fit with both of them.
When thinking about lineups, there are a few interesting permutations to consider. I suggested in a past article that Nurkic should come off the bench while he works his way back into game shape. There’s no need to force him into a position where he’s playing starters minutes right off the bat, and keeping him on a minutes restriction while coming off the bench seems most responsible. Our own Nate Mann thought differently, writing that Nurkic should start in a limited role with Whiteside coming off the bench. Whiteside should still get 20+ minutes a game regardless, so all it would depend on is whether the starter label really means something to him.
So what do you do with this lineup? That partially depends on who starts at the 4. Collins looks poised to come back as a starter once he gets back into shape, displacing either Trevor Ariza or Carmelo Anthony. As noted earlier, Collins fits more neatly alongside Nurkic then he does next to Whiteside. The question becomes how do you balance who plays with whom while both keeping your big men healthy and utilizing all players’ strengths?
Portland could try a starting lineup that puts Nurkic and Collins together and throws them in the deep end — but only slightly. Keep the minutes restriction on them and see how they acclimate to the game. Whiteside will ultimately be playing more minutes than both of them, but Nurkic and Collins can still get a baseline for where they’re at both skill-wise and conditioning-wise. The goal should be to eventually start both of those guys with Ariza sliding down to the 3, and this would be a way for them to get some early minutes with the starters.
But in the end, I still think the most prudent thing would be to let Whiteside start over Nurkic for the first couple games. Whiteside has been fine, and keeping him in the starting lineup for at least a little bit both keeps him happy and Nurkic safe. While I worry about Collins, Nurkic is the one I’m most worried about, so keeping him safe for the future should be a top priority for Portland. Collins can help make up for some of Whiteside’s deficiencies on defense while still spreading the floor. Eventually Whiteside will need to move to the bench, but it’s safer and smarter to bring Nurkic back slowly but surely.
Whiteside’s minutes are undoubtedly going to take a hit. It probably won’t be a drastic reduction, but it will happen. While he’s been serviceable in Nurkic’s absence, Whiteside doesn’t do anything markedly better than Nurkic other than block shots, something that’s more heavily attributed to his tendency to deem every shot blockable than just pure skill. He’s not as natural a fit alongside Collins as Nurkic and is probably best used as a top of the rotation guy once the returning big men get some games under their belt.
But regardless of how much his role dwindles during the restart, Whiteside will be quite valuable for this team. Whether that entails starting for the foreseeable future or contributing off the bench remains to be seen, but regardless he’s a key factor in how the rest of the year goes for Portland. The health and play of Nurkic and Collins will be the main drivers of success or failure, but Whiteside will continue to play a role.