Hassan Whiteside Will Be Test Case in NBA's New Age of Rotations

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 1, 2015

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Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside is a monster, but he's not the kind that scares everyone equally.

So if you thought the Heat were going to reward him for his breakout season with more minutes and a bigger role, think again.

Heat assistant Dan Craig said Whiteside—last year's out-of-nowhere shot-gobbling, paint-stalking Reboundasaurus Rex—will be more of a situational player in the upcoming season, according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald: "You might see his minutes jump up when we're playing Andre Drummond or DeAndre Jordan. But if we're playing a team that likes to play small ball, you'll probably see his minutes around 20 or 25."

The Heat aren't taking the training wheels off of a guy who blocked a dozen shots (in a triple-double performance) Jan. 25, grabbed 25 rebounds March 4 and shot 62.8 percent from the field in 23.8 minutes per game last year.

Just look at this guy:

And you know what? Despite all of that length, all of those numbers and how flat-out crazy it sounds, we shouldn't be surprised by how the Heat are playing this.

All-around studs like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant don't come off the floor because of matchup preferences. They're the exceptions, though, because they're the ones who create matchup worries for every kind of opponent. Whiteside creates problems in his own right, but a very specific kind.

A quintessential throwback big man, Whiteside is a good post player, finishes over the top of the defense, defends the rim and owns the glass. There's a ton of real value there, but it's mitigated by his poor (almost nonexistent) passing and limited ability to cover more mobile frontcourt players.

The NBA is trending toward more spacing, more three-point shots and, necessarily, smaller lineups. Defenses have learned to exploit the illegal-defense rule changes implemented over the past 15 years, decreasing the effectiveness of post-up bigs.

And then those larger frontcourt players have to chase three-point shooters out in space on the other end.

The reigning champion Golden State Warriors are just the latest prominent examples. They went small against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, trusting Draymond Green (generously listed at 6'7") to guard 7'1" Timofey Mozgov. The fact that the Larry O'Brien trophy resides in Oakland suggests the strategy worked.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16: Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors boxes out against Timofey Mozgov #20 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Six of the 2015 NBA Finals on June 16, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expr
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

The Warriors also quietly downsized against the Memphis Grizzlies earlier in the 2015 postseason. They trusted Green and Harrison Barnes to handle Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph for significant stretches of that quarterfinal series.

Those undersized forwards held their own against the Grizzlies on the defensive interior while stretching the floor to an absurd degree on offense. And while Green is an exceptional example of just how small teams are willing to go, his newly appreciated value is exactly what's cutting into Whiteside's.

Green is the big man of the future, because he's a versatile defender who can handle the ball and shoot the three. Yet there are almost no matchups that force Green off the floor, because he defends the post well and gets help from smart schemes.

Whiteside is something different. Something from a bygone, post-up era.

Grantland's Zach Lowe, with the help of Sacramento Kings head coach George Karl, explained why:

Post-ups take time to set up, and they lead to tough 2-point shots in traffic. Referees let point guards flit around unfettered, but the paint remains a war zone where brutality can trump skill. Legalized zone frees help defenders to sandwich dangerous post-up threats. "The reason the post-up doesn’t work anymore is that teams just front now," Karl says. Help defenders can drift from their assignments to prevent a lob pass over that front, forcing the (offense) to whip the ball elsewhere.

Whiteside's been bristling a bit at the shrinking value of size, even getting into a Twitter battle with Green on the topic.

The irony is that Green, the poster boy for small-ball effectiveness, still enjoys being the big man when the opportunity presents itself, as noted by Lowe: "Draymond Green remembers Indiana trying to defend him with Victor Oladipo, a guard, during one college game. 'I mean, come on,' Green says with a laugh. 'You’re not gonna guard me with Victor Oladipo. I took him right to the block and scored like eight straight.'"

Everybody likes to bully the little guy.

The Heat need to be sure about their decision not to expand Whiteside's role. The 26-year-old center will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and the Heat will only have his Early Bird rights. According to Daniel Leroux of Sporting News, that means they can only pay him 104.5 percent of the average NBA player salary (about $6 million) per year on a new deal if they're over the salary cap.

It's safe to assume another decent season will net Whiteside far more than $6 million per year on the open market.

Given the lack of control Miami has over Whiteside's future, there's a real risk to upsetting him this season. 

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 10: Boris Diaw #33 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots against Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat during Game Three of the 2014 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs at the American Airlines Arena on June 10, 2014 in Miami, Flo
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Even if it makes sense to use Chris Bosh—who was an integral figure in the Heat's downsizing during their championship runs—at center against mobile opponents, Whiteside could wind up feeling marginalized. And it would be hard to fault him, especially after he posted some dominant numbers last season.

Maybe Whiteside will play well enough to make it impossible to marginalize him.

But maybe he won't.

Whiteside makes sense against conventional lineups. He's huge, great on the boards and a logical option against players with similar size.

You've got Drummond and Jordan, as Craig mentioned. And you've got DeMarcus Cousins. Not everybody has a player with the size required to compete with them.

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

On many nights, Whiteside will be necessary. On some, his size will represent a huge advantage—maybe for large portions of the game.

But there will also be times when he's a hindrance. Pulled away from the basket, he won't be defensively useful. If fronted and double-teamed, he'll either never get the ball or be forced to pass. This seems like a good time to mention that Whiteside had six assists against 58 turnovers in 48 games last year.

Six. Against 58.

Where's the value in that?

Writ large, the Heat's plan to limit Whiteside's usage is just a symptom of a changing league—and that doesn't even necessarily have anything to do with small ball or floor-stretchers or any of the other buzzy, next-wave terms we're hearing so often lately.

It is a sign of an increasingly analytical NBA looking to exploit matchup and personnel advantages whenever possible. There's a prideful satisfaction and an intellectual simplicity that comes with tossing out your best five players and forcing the opposition to adjust. Make them figure us out, the thinking goes. But as teams embrace the numbers game, they're appreciating their best five isn't always their best five.

Situations matter. Matchups matter. Tiny advantages matter.

Whiteside is situationally awesome but also situationally vulnerable—just like almost every non-superstar player in the league.

The spotlight is on old-school post-up bigs right now, but let's not forget what's happened to guys at other positions lately. Tony Allen can defend, but he can't shoot. Rajon Rondo can handle the ball and pass, but he can't score. Andrew Bogut defends and passes, but he often won't look at the hoop on offense.

All of them have seen their roles marginalized in the past year. Some have been taken off the floor entirely in critical games.

Whiteside's situation may seem strange, but it's going to become the norm as teams search for competitive edges wherever they can find them.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

Follow Grant Hughes on Twitter @gt_hughes.


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