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Blazers Season Review: Whiteside Stands Tall in the Post

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A look at how Trail Blazers center Hassan Whiteside performed inside the void created by Jusuf Nurkic’s absence.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The dust has settled from the Trial Blazers’ exit from postseason competition. Free agency, roster construction and the NBA Draft have crept into everyday conversation in Rip City. Before we turn the page on the longest season in the Blazers’ 50-year history, let’s take another look at the players that populated the roster during that journey.

Our most-recent installment looked at a pair of starters that suffered season-long injuries. Today’s post highlights Hassan Whiteside’s first season with the Blazers.

Hassan Whiteside

Games: 67 (61 starts) | PTS: 15.5 | REB: 13.5 | BLK: 2.9*

*Led the NBA

The addition of Hassan Whiteside was the second significant trade that the Trail Blazers executed in the summer of 2019. In the span of just a few weeks, Portland shipped out three of its high-priced summer-of-2016 moves. Out: Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless and Evan Turner. In: Kent Bazemore and Hassan Whiteside. Of the two incoming faces, Whiteside’s impact on the 2019-20 season carried much more weight.

The Blazers, who managed to make run to the Western Conference Finals with Enes Kanter at the pivot, once again had a massive defensive presence in the paint with the former Heat star in the fold. Operating inside coach Terry Stotts’ drop-heavy scheme, Whiteside’s numbers exploded. His 2.9 blocks per game finished atop the NBA’s leaderboard and his 13.5 rebounds per game landed inside the top five. Outside of his defensive contributions, Whiteside’s 15.5 points per game trailed only his 2016-17 average in regards to career-high numbers.

Looking only at individual counting numbers, Whiteside’s season would appear to be a runaway success. But there is more to the story. Despite his eye-popping statistics, he was the anchor of a defense that finished with the fourth-worst defensive rating in the NBA prior to Nurkic’s return.

Before I continue, I want to be clear: Whiteside is not to blame for the lion’s share of Portland’s issues on defense. That said, I believe it is equally disingenuous to gloss over the fact that his statistical output barely put a dent in the issues that plagued the Blazers’ defense. For every shot rejection and second-chance point prevented there was an undisciplined block attempt and botched rotation on the other side of the ledger. The valley between those two types of results barely created enough space for a Volkswagen to squeeze in. When you consider that, it is easy to understand why passionate supporters and detractors exist on both sides of the Whiteside line.

In the briefest set of examples possible, here is just a tiny look at how Whiteside can turn a favorable look for an opponent into a momentum-shifting block:

Whiteside stuck with the play and ran the entire court in transition, no easy task for a 7-footer, to chase down Zach LaVine. Late in the fourth quarter, the outcome of that play could have shifted the momentum in either direction. In that game, the Blazers hung on to win.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, here is an example of a play that triggers Blazer’s Edge contributors on recap duty to use expletives in their game notes:

Whiteside abandons Richaun Holmes to chase a block in the paint (that happens to be future Blazers forward Trevor Ariza). Just outside of the post, Anthony Tolliver is in position to make a play at the rim—a setup that is clear view for Whiteside once he turns towards the baseline. Ariza, who is already shifting to a pass as he approaches Tolliver, dumps it to a free-cutting Holmes for two points.

The Blazers’ lack of depth at center for the majority of last season opens up Whiteside’s tenure with the team for interpretation. Without firm on/off numbers to break the stalemate, supporters can point to box score numbers while detractors highlight head-scratching plays and team-wide struggles that were only slightly mitigated by Whiteside’s presence.

With a healthier rotation of bigs on the horizon for the Blazers, next season’s on/off numbers could tell a much different story about Whiteside’s impact if he returns to Portland. For a player that appears to be very conscious of his statistical output, it wouldn’t be surprising if that factors into the decision-making process if a potential deal pops up that doesn’t involve a straightforward sign-and-trade.