It might seem a little strange to say. At this time last year, Hassan Whiteside was not on an NBA team. Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have over 20 All-Star games between them, are decorated former Olympians and have won multiple championships together.
Sometimes perception isn't reality, and reputations, for better or worse, leave a scent that doesn't fade away as fast as Gerald Green can hoist jumpers. It sticks like the ball in Wade's hands on too many possessions. (I should probably stop with these horrible similes and just make my point.)
The point is Hassan Whiteside is the Miami Heat's best basketball player, and it's not significantly close.
The offensive numbers are translating nearly perfectly from last season. There he is, with that player efficiency rating of 26 again while averaging exactly 17.8 points per 36 minutes, the same as in 2014-15. The efficiency, rebounding, and shot blocking are similar enough through seven games this season to reasonably expect this to continue.
The sample isn't definitive, but it's convincing because he has staggered it now across multiple seasons. He has maintained his stellar production on a team that is clearly much improved and can begin to remove the stench of potentially having been a looter in a riot for the bad teams last season.
Outlandish production aside, the issue is some still think Whiteside isn't nearly aware or instinctive enough defensively to warrant being considered an anchor yet. To be fair, defense is more than blocking shots, and Whiteside got himself in foul trouble often in his first consistent NBA run. He also seemed to be unaware and out of position at times, which honestly, might be forgivable in hindsight because no single player should have been asked to clean up the mess the team was last season. I have written before that there was always great potential, but we just weren't sure if he was going to emerge as an All-Defense candidate.
It's worth inspecting more closely, and in fairness, the raw metrics prove a mixed picture.
The team has actually been 12.3 points better on defense when he has been off the floor this season, which could have a lot to do with some of the runs the team has went on with smaller groupings. It is also impacted by his poor plus/minus in the Pacers loss last week.
The starting lineup so far has been outscored seven points per 100 possessions in 94 minutes, but in 31 minutes he has played with a group that replaces Bosh with Justise Winslow, the team is plus-36. We're probably going to have to let things be for a few more weeks before drawing any conclusions on the raw data.
A more specific computation, Defensive Box Plus/Minus, likes Whiteside a lot this season vs. last year, and grades him at an elite 6.0 mark. This metric estimates the defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed compared to the average player. It runs a 14-year sample as a regression to specify the average players production and runs an advanced equation to derive value. However, the creator of the statistic, Daniel Myers, even admits "the defensive numbers in particular should not be considered definitive."
We have to step away from the noise of team-based models and on/off data and look more closely at the production.
It suggests Whiteside is doing his part.
When Whiteside is guarding an opponent this season, they are shooting 44.1 percent. Considering that he mostly guards bigs who play close to the rim, that's pretty good. His opponents are being held to a more than 5.4 percent drop on field goal percentage. In addition, when Whiteside is less than six feet away from an opponent, they shoot 7.6 percent below their average.
They key is that although the numbers portray good things about Whiteside, there is much more than that to this. Is he staying on the ground and avoiding fouls? Is he making weakside rotations on time? Is he keeping blocks inbounds? Are teams getting to the rim on pick-and-rolls against him?
For one, Whiteside is doing a fantastic job of avoiding fouls by staying disciplined whenever he is contesting shots at the rim. The 26-year old is averaging just 2.6 fouls per 36 minutes (4.1 last season). He's avoiding contact while jumping straight up when opponents attempt shots at the rim. He was good at this last season, but it seems to have been refined even more.
There seems to be an effort to keep more of his blocks in-bounds, although we can't necessarily confirm that right now. But in the big picture, Hassan is passing the defensive eye test a little better than last season. You see less mood swings, bad fouls, breakdowns, etc. We already know he can be a monster weakside shot blocker and pick-and-roll defender.
The more Heat coach Erik Spoelstra plays with lineups and finds the optimal blend for Whiteside, the more his incredible talent should rise to the surface. The Heat have put together an awkward roster of good but past-their-prime veterans that have been supplemented by fortunate surprises that are performing beyond expectations, and Whiteside is the crown jewel of that.
And at this point, Hassan Whiteside, as absurd as it sounds, is the Miami Heat's best player, and although his offensive game seems like its stabilizing, it's his growth in the defensive nuances of the game that are becoming noticeable this season.