We've seen this before.
The Miami Heat take a chance on a raw, long, athletic big man who was not a first round pick in an attempt to fill the organization's biggest fetish: Finding the next Alonzo Mourning.
This isn't about necessarily finding a Hall of Fame-caliber player, but more about finding a solution at the position that most Pat Riley teams, at least in his coaching career, exhibited as an identity.
Miami wants to defend at the highest level at its core and nothing makes Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra giggle amongst each other like setting their sights on a fundamentally raw, athletic, big player who they imagine defending pick-and-rolls in their system.
Miami's mental masturbation for this prototype brought us Joel Anthony, Jarvis Varnado and Khem Birch. Anthony actually rode Miami's fetish to a long term contract in 2010, and to be fair, he was a very capable defensive player against pick-and-rolls and a fearless shot blocker. The problem was, he couldn't catch a basketball and was a bit too small to truly take over games on the other side of the floor.
Varnado came and went. Another 6-foot-9 guy with good length and some highlight blocks who simply doesn't have enough game to stick on an NBA team.
This past summer, Heat fans strangely fixated on Birch, who was barely 220 pounds and could not score on a fish, as a possible solution.
And now we have Hassan Whiteside. The savior. The messiah. The solution. Or not.
But finding out is the only reason to watch Heat games right now besides the individual brilliance of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
WHITESIDE BY THE NUMBERS
Whiteside has a total rebound percentage of 23.2 in his 139 minutes. If he qualified, that mark would be second in the NBA. Second. Only that freak by the name of DeAndre Jordan would rank higher. And though it may not be a telling stat, Whiteside is averaging 13.2 rebounds per 36 minutes as well. In other words, dude is eating glass.
And holy mother of Naismith, if he qualified, Whiteside would lead the league in blocks by a gigantic margin.
Whiteside has a 10.9 Block percentage, an estimate of field goals blocked while he's on the floor, good enough for over four blocks per 36. Anthony Davis leads the league at 2.8.
Clearly Whiteside's presence is showing up in the superficial numbers. But what's his real impact?
WHITESIDE BY THE FILM
Hassan has simply played too few minutes to attempt to delve too deep into the numbers. Several advanced measures have emerged recently that attempt to determine a players value in terms of defending at the rim. With some more games under his belt, we will aim to confirm what we are already seeing, which is that Whiteside is flashing fairly good potential as a rim protector.
Firstly, against the pick-and-roll, Spoelstra is finally showing some flexibility and playing a more traditional style of defense. With Whiteside, he is allowing his newest big to sink on pick-and-rolls, where his length allows him to maintain shot altering distance between a driving guard, while keeping an eye on a rolling big.
Exhibit A: Pick-And-Roll Defense
In the shot below, we can see Whiteside, almost by himself, blow up a pick-and-roll and absorb Jarrett Jack. Notice the subtle Heat adjustment on this screen. As opposed to rushing, or 'hedging' on the ball handler and scrambling back into position, Spoelstra allows Whiteside to sit back, which is fairly common for some of the premier defensive big men in the game. Heat fans saw Roy Hibbert wreaking havoc like this on the Heat in several playoff series'
In this next shot, Whiteside capably kills any shot Jack has at hitting the roller, however, Jack has Mario Chalmers on the back of his hip, essentially sealing him, which leaves Chalmers out of position to contest Jack.
Whiteside isn't too far away though. And because of this, Miami isn't at risk of giving up one of those corner 3-pointers they were so fond of allowing earlier in the season and in this particular system. The Heat's perimeter defenders keep relatively close to the shooters, trusting the new freedom Whiteside has given them, a residual plus of his presence on the court.
As Jack continues his pursuit of the rim, he stops a little soon. You know why? Because big, bad Hassan Whiteside is there. All 7-foot-6 of that wingspan. All of it. Although Whiteside turned his back to his primary responsibility, his presence alone deters a pass, and Jack decides to try his luck.
Boo-Yah. Point of verticality. No chill. At All.
Whiteside's length, and just as importantly, his solid instincts at guarding the play, have given the Heat's defense, one of the worst in the league, a real lift on the interior. Whiteside has had several moments like these in his short stints on the floor, where he has been an effective detonator for the NBA's trademark play, the pick-and-roll.
Exhibit B: Weakside Help Defense
There are more aspects to defending in the NBA than the screen-and-roll and Whiteside is flashing the ability to be a terrorizing weakside shot blocker. As long as the Heat rotations can fill in behind him, opponents will start hesitating to do what Joey Dorsey tried here.
It starts with a side pick-and-roll and a bounce pass to the elbow. Dorsey catches and decides to be brave.
As you can see, Whiteside leaves his man in the corner, and that's Norris Cole's rotation to handle. Whiteside makes the right choice and makes protecting the hole his priority.
Then we have this. Dorsey's shot is erased.
As a rim protector, Whiteside is displaying pretty good intuition in terms of understanding timing of rotations and having the discipline to not go for every single block. It's these subtle instincts that might make him a plus defender in this league and makes one wonder why he maybe wasn't given a longer leash when the Sacramento Kings drafted him four years ago but cut ties with him two years later.
The big difference to me between Whiteside and Anthony, Varnado and Birch is size. At 7-foot-1 and 265 pounds, Whiteside maintains solid agility, and he is far more projectable than they ever were.
And even though Whiteside is showing some soft hands and even a few moves on offense, the reason I'm not even going to analyze that part of his game is because if he is the plus rim protector he is flashing to be right now, the Heat already got tremendous value for their investment and filled a key need. Any extra scoring he provides is gravy, so long as he isn't a liability on that end, which he apparently isn't.
Now, there is more to defending than weakside help and pick-and-roll's, but you have to figure that given his size, his man-to-man post defense shouldn't cause too many issues. It's having the mobility, at his size and length, to cover and help the way he has in his early Heat minutes that offer the most promise.
So, is Hassan Whiteside for real? I've been on the record saying no before he played his first game in red. This could very well be the latest in the Heat's failed attempts for size in recent years.
One thing's for sure. He is off to a better start than any of the others were. I'm staying tuned.