MIAMI — As reporters circled around Hassan Whiteside, waiting to ask about yet another career-best scoring performance, the 7-footer started the conversation with defense.
After summoning every camera operator in the vicinity and getting the proper lighting, Whiteside proudly displayed his latest gift—custom-made slides that read "Agent Block," the big man's chosen nickname.
"Y'all think D. Wade just gives lobs. He gives gifts," Whiteside said. "Long live D. Wade."
And long live Whiteside's growing legend. Last season, he made a remarkable journey from forgotten hopper to household name, pouring in 13.7 points a night on 61.7 percent shooting after the All-Star break. The league's intermission has once again proved to be a valuable turning point, only this season's transformation is rooted at the opposite end of the floor.
Eyeballs and Box Scores
As the media scrum moved from Whiteside's locker over to Dwyane Wade's, the future Hall of Famer kept the focus on Miami's monster in the middle. But he wasn't talking up Whiteside's footwear.
Rather, Wade spotlighted what he sees as the award-worthy defense Whiteside has been playing.
"He is going to different levels that a lot of people haven't seen," Wade said. "That Defensive Player of the Year conversation needs to be had. His impact on the game is that big and that good.
"I am happy for the way he is getting better and better with his maturity, and obviously his basketball game and his talents are really going to another level. His maturity has really taken him to another level. In my eyes and looking around the league, he is Defensive Player of the Year."
Whiteside's defensive stats are almost a throwback to the days when giants ruled the NBA. His 3.8 blocks-per-game average—which dwarfs that of the next-closest player (DeAndre Jordan, 2.3)—is the highest seen at this level in nearly two decades. Whiteside has posted double-digit rejections three different times this season.
No one else has done it once.
"The biggest thing I feel that I bring is intimidation," he said. "Even if I'm not there to block the shot, I'm in the back of their mind. They don't even want to attack me."
Whiteside has emerged as the key for Miami's seventh-ranked defense to close out a possession. As both a rim protector and a glass-eater, his work may be unprecedented.
He currently owns a 9.9 block percentage and a 32.1 defensive rebound percentage. Why is that significant? Because Basketball-Reference.com's database doesn't include anyone else who cleared both marks.
In fact, those percentages must be dropped to eight and 25, respectively, just to get the big guy some statistical company. Even then, only two players sit alongside him: four-time Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo (1995-96) and two-time winner Mark Eaton (1984-85).
Whiteside stands as this season's leader in defensive rating on Basketball-Reference.com (94.3) and checks in at No. 5 with 4.7 defensive win shares. Anyone supporting Whiteside's DPOY candidacy has a surplus of ammunition behind their argument.
"He's so smart, and he's so long and athletic," Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson said of Whiteside. "He loves his role. When you find a guy that loves his role on the defensive end, that's a dangerous guy."
Perception and Impact
Whether Whiteside deserves the ultimate defensive hardware may hinge on voter presence.
He has dominated the traditional stat categories. But some of the advanced data doesn't paint him in that same elite light.
ESPN.com's defensive real plus-minus puts Whiteside just 26th overall and 19th among centers (2.81). That leaves him looking up—and probably craning his neck to do it—at his primary award competition: Draymond Green (third), Jordan (fourth) and Kawhi Leonard (fifth).
(Not to slight Tim Duncan or Andrew Bogut, but both are logging fewer minutes than any past winner ever did).
NBA.com's defensive rating holds a similar view. Whiteside is a good-not-great 31st with a 101.3 (minimum 25 games, 25 minutes per contest). That also puts him last in this four-player race: Leonard is first (93.6), Green is fifth (97.0) and Jordan is 30th (101.1).
Among that quartet, Whiteside has also had the least amount of impact on his matchup's field-goal percentage:
|DPOY Candidate's Opponent's Field-Goal Differentials|
|Player||Defensive FG%||Normal FG%||Difference|
And for all his shot-blocking prowess, Whiteside still struggles with certain assignments.
Opponents have averaged 0.99 points per possession on post-up plays, putting him in the bottom 25th percentile in defending those plays. He's also outside the top 50 percent against pick-and-roll screeners (0.93 points per possession).
Though the narrative has changed over the course of this campaign, Whiteside's season-long impact on the Miami defense has been negligible. The Heat have allowed 101.3 points per 100 possessions when he plays and 101.1 when he doesn't.
Before the All-Star break, Miami actually gave up nearly two fewer points per 100 possessions when Whiteside wasn't in the game.
"There's real progress he needs to make in sound defense vs. chasing highlights," CBS Sports' Matt Moore wrote in November. "... Whiteside has a long way to go to providing meaningful impact beyond big blocks."
Whiteside's progress since then has been a lot like last season's leap—astronomical.
He's not just a shot-blocker anymore; he's a true defensive anchor. He's more conscious about when to chase swats and when to stay home on his matchup. And when he does get blocks, he'd rather control them than volleyball-spike them into the stands.
His transformation aces the eye test, and he's started to show just as well on the stat sheet. Since the All-Star break, Miami has surrendered 4.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's manning the middle.
"I got a better understanding of the concept of our team, our team defense," Whiteside said. "Instead of just being a really good individual defender, I became a better team defender and trust guys more."
That improved understanding and rising confidence have bolstered Miami's presence and Whiteside's future. But the fact these radical in-season changes were needed leave him chasing perception, behind stoppers who played elite defense from opening night on.
So, Whiteside deserves a spot in this conversation, but he's not the first name worth mentioning. Leonard, who took home the hardware last season, has been even more effective this time around. Ditto for Green, who garnered more first-place votes than Leonard last year.
Those are the award favorites. Whiteside and Jordan are sitting on the next tier below, a half-step or more above the rest of the field. There isn't enough time left for Whiteside to close that gap, though if the 2016-17 campaign becomes a repeat of his recent performances, he could contend for the defensive crown then.
But even if Whiteside's trophy case doesn't grow this season, it's still an awfully good time to be Agent Block.
He's a pivotal piece of a dangerous, playoff-bound team. He's on a short list of the league's top defenders. And, with free agency awaiting him, his bank account is preparing to burst.
"He's been playing great," Brooklyn Nets interim coach Tony Brown said of Whiteside. "I'd like to be his agent right now."