Last NBA season, Hassan Whiteside placed third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. Many pointed to Whiteside’s penchant for blocking shots when speaking of his defensive prowess.
In today’s NBA, blocked shots are sexy. They’re editable clips that can be tossed on Twitter for fans to gasp at. And that’s how many people consumed Whiteside last year, through exciting snippets online. If those clips were all fans had seen of Whiteside in 2015-16 (3.7 blocks per game), they’d be right in thinking he deserved to be considered for Defensive Player of the Year. (Though, it’d be like judging someone by looking only at their Instagram account—a glamorized image. I would support the option for filters on NBA League Pass, though. I can already choose my announcer, so why not the option for players to have flower headbands?)
Another popular name being tossed around the NBA-verse for last year’s DPOY was Rudy Gobert, the ever-improving center of the Utah Jazz. Though the Stifle Tower’s play—and his missing nearly 20 games—didn’t allow him to ascend up the DPOY leaderboards, many thought he should’ve, especially since Whiteside was in the mix. They do play the same position and are known for similar things: being lengthy, shot-swatting defensive anchors.
Many tout Gobert as one of the NBA’s eminent centers—and for this reason, we’ll be using him as the gold standard for centers. He’s the most thorough rim security the NBA has to offer. Around the rim in 2015-16, Gobert allowed a close-fisted 41-percent of field goals entrance, per Nylon Calculus. In the same year, Whiteside’s defense only allowed for 46.9-percent of field goals around the rim. Though Gobert blocked fewer shots last year than Whiteside (2.2 per game), he deterred much more. From fans to NBA personalities to his own coach, the criticism on Whiteside is that he needs to show more. This season, Whiteside is putting up a remarkable 17 points and 14 rebounds per game. Still, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra isn’t satisfied yet, even pulling Whiteside from a game at one point, substituting him for Willie Reed:
“I just wanted some more energy, some more life on the glass, defending pick and rolls. So that was a coaching decision,” Spoelstra said.
Weak side spikes are not the only metric we can use to measure a big man’s performance. Perhaps the most important are how that big man defends his own position in common situations—like in a pick-and-roll.
In 2016-17, Whiteside is allowing 1.039 points per possession versus opposing roll men in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports. As for Gobert, he’s allowing a stingy .549 points per possession. That’s a huge gap in defensive proficiency for players that are often mentioned in the same breath. The numbers seem to back up coach Spo’s comments on Whiteside’s lackluster pick-and-roll defense.
Whiteside definitely has the greater offensive responsibility between him and Gobert. Still, the eye test and advanced metrics will tell you that Gobert supersedes Whiteside in nearly every other category.
Of centers who have played at least 700 minutes, in 2016-17, Whiteside is in the top 10 in usage rate, per basketball-reference.com. A few of the names below Whiteside’s usage rate: Gobert, Al Horford, DeAndre Jordan and Tristan Thompson; and above his usage rate: DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol and Karl-Anthony Towns, to name a few.
The guys below Whiteside you might denote as major building blocks; while you would call the guys above Whiteside’s usage rate franchise players. So, the question is, where does the Miami big fit—above or below? Perhaps below, as some of the numbers may indicate.
(“Box Plus/Minus,” from basketball-reference.com, is an aggregate statistic that takes into account a player’s offensive and defensive contribution and determines how many points better they are than a league-average player, per 100 possession.)
Using BPM to sort, of centers who have played at least 700 minutes in the 2016-17 season, Whiteside ranks third-worst among the 24 qualifying players, according to basketball-reference.com. Directly above him are Bismack Biyombo, Tyson Chandler, and Alex Len, to name a few. The two below him—Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov. Hardly eminent NBA talents.
ESPN has a similar measure of relative standing to basketball-reference’s Box Plus/Minus. It’s called Real Plus-Minus, and of the 69 centers listed, the metric has Whiteside listed No. 44, just above Roy Hibbert.
Gobert is near or at the top of the leaderboards in both basketball-reference’s and ESPN’s metrics, though Whiteside often outscores/rebounds Gobert, night to night. Still, Whiteside is not at efficient as Gobert. Below, look at the free-throw numbers. Gobert gets to line more often than Whiteside does, even though he takes up 7.6-percent less of his team’s offensive possessions. (Both players have totaled around 1200 minutes on the season.)
From the 3-point Era to now (1979-80 to 2016-17), there have been 125 centers that have averaged at least 33 minutes per game and accrued a usage rate of 23-percent or higher (which is what Whiteside is averaging this season). Sorting for Box Plus/Minus, Whiteside’s 2016-17 season ranks third-to-last, No. 123 of 125, right above Eddy Curry’s 2006-07 season and Chris Kaman’s 2009-10 season; during their respective seasons, Curry averaged 19.5 and 7, while Kaman put 18.5 and 9.3. Like Whiteside, they both put up respectable stat lines, per basketball-reference.com
The groups that Whiteside is often placed in by the numbers—with the likes of 2006-07 Eddy Curry and contemporary Roy Hibbert—are ones that don’t seem indicative of his highlights. Something more is missing and is it seems Whiteside’s head coach thinks so, too. Perhaps the numbers are more indicative of Whiteside’s game than they might seem.