No revelation has been more dramatic during the Portland Trail Blazers 2020 scrimmage schedule than the resurgence of center Jusuf Nurkic. After a year and a half layoff due to injury, Nurkic has stormed the court with agile defense, compact offense, and plenty of energy.
The happy return casts a long shadow on the tenure of replacement center Hassan Whiteside. Though he averaged an impressive 16.3 points, 14.2 rebounds, and 3.1 blocked shots on 62% shooting, Whiteside did not improve Portland’s overall defense and the Blazers struggled to an anemic 29-32 record with him in the starting lineup. His contract expires at the end of the season, leaving an obvious question: given Nurkic’s return, should the Blazers ask Whiteside to return?
For Basketball Reasons...No
Portland will run a two-headed, twin-towers setup for the remainder of the 2019-20 season and into the playoffs. No matter who starts, they’re going to need to find a way to play Nurkic and Whiteside at the same time, mixing in young defender Zach Collins as well. For a limited span, it should work. Nurkic will play out on the floor, Whiteside low. The team should rebound well and defend fine inside the arc.
This isn’t a permanent solution. Neither Whiteside nor Nurkic will close to the three-point arc consistently. Bigger, slower defenders aren’t as critical against modern offenses as they were back in the day. If anything, teams favor 6’8, athletic defenders who can cover ground. Fielding two centers will throw a wrinkle into the system, but it’s not likely to disrupt it.
Nurkic does need to develop his mid- and long-range offensive game, but he’s no power forward. The Blazers will be better off with the more-mobile Collins or a 3-and-D forward next to Nurkic than they’ll be with Nurkic playing the four. Ideally, Nurk would become a mobile hub between 5 and 15 feet, centering the ball then scoring or passing. He doesn’t belong out on the wings full time.
Whiteside is far more limited by comparison. His passing game has come to the fore this year but he’s still not a ball mover. His scoring range is limited. He’s a premier shot-blocker but not a stopper or a space eater. He’s fabulous at the things he does well, but they occur in defined locations, outside of which he doesn’t matter. The Blazers have to compensate for fielding Whiteside as much as opponents do when facing him.
As long as Whiteside is on the roster, he’s going to be the immovable object in the three-man rotation around which the other bigs will have to work. No amount of high-low chemistry between him and Nurkic will overcome the reality that Hassan is eating into Nurk’s role and court space. The Blazers need Whiteside to move for Nurkic more than the inverse. That’s not going to happen. Portland just doesn’t have solid reason to retain him once the season is done.
For Financial Reasons...Maybe?
Basketball isn’t everything, though. Financial fit matters too. In Portland’s position, the opportunity cost of not keeping Whiteside may outweigh the actual cost of retaining him.
In round numbers, Portland’s minimum guaranteed salary floor next season is $93 million (barring trades). Practically speaking, Rodney Hood and Mario Hezonja will keep their player options and suit up for the team, putting the Blazers around $101 million. A first-round pick, a Wenyen Gabriel or two, and minimum roster holds will bump that by another $5 million, give or take, leaving the Blazers somewhere in the vicinity of $106 million in total obligation.
The salary cap is projected to be $115 million, but those numbers were established pre-COVID. Even going with $115 million, Portland only has $9 million or so to play with. That’s more than the mid-level exception they’d get by exceeding the cap, but not much more.
In order to generate that space, they’d need to release Whiteside, Carmelo Anthony, and Trevor Ariza. Whiteside and Anthony are unrestricted free agents, but Ariza has a $12.3 million team option. If the Blazers pick up Ariza—their only proven option at small forward—they’d be over the cap. At that point, they’d be limited to the mid-level exception as their “big” signing whether or not they kept Whiteside or ‘Melo.
Under those conditions, keeping Whiteside might make sense. Any player, let alone a player of his talent and production level, is arguably better than nothing. If they go over the cap keeping one veteran, they might as well consider keeping more than one.
The big hitch will be where the final cap number ends up and how the league imposes the corresponding luxury tax threshold.
A lower cap would argue even more strongly for retaining veterans, as the team would generate less cap room by releasing them. A lower tax line may argue against that approach. If keeping Ariza, Whiteside, or Anthony would push the Blazers not just over the cap, but into the tax penalty, the cost may be prohibitive. In that case, they might end up dumping all three even if nothing comes in return.
For Flexibility, Yes
One more consideration comes into play when the Blazers think of retaining veterans: you can’t trade what you don’t have.
Portland can be pretty comfortable with their starting lineup, give or take a small forward if they release Ariza. After that, the roster gets dicey, not only in terms of on-court performance, but off-court value. If the Blazers don’t think they’re set up for a championship run, they’ll need to consider further trades. Whiteside, Ariza, and Anthony are far more attractive trade bait than the cap savings the Blazers would generate by releasing them.
Obviously Portland would need to keep any new contracts reasonable. Nobody will trade for a five-year, $24 million per season version of Whiteside. But if the Blazers get him on a workable deal, a mid-year or Summer 2021 move would be a strong possibility. The potential of such a deal may be enough for them to retain him.
It probably doesn’t make sense to keep Whiteside after this season unless his contract comes cheap and he’d be happy coming off the bench. He’s not likely to be satisfied with those conditions. My guess is that combination of factors, plus cap/tax uncertainty, will keep the Blazers from retaining Whiteside even if they do pick up Ariza’s option year and/or dally with ‘Melo. On paper, they might be better with him. Tax realities and player demands may preclude it anyway.