PORTLAND, Ore. — The Trail Blazers have been busy this offseason, reshaping their roster while retooling for another run at the Western Conference finals and beyond.
Portland has signed three players in free agency and made two trades, but no move was bigger than the trade that brought Hassan Whiteside, the Miami Heat's talented but controversial center, to Portland.
On this week's episode of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast, we discuss Whiteside's fit in Portland and whether his reputation — a lot of people in Miami and across the NBA consider him a malcontent who cares more about his own stats than anything else — should concern the Blazers and their fans.
We also assign a grade to the Blazers' offseason moves, and debate whether this roster right now is better than Portland's roster at the end of last season.
Listen to the most recent episode of KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers podcast!
1. What are your thoughts on Whiteside’s fit in Portland? Are you concerned about his reputation and any potential impact he could have on the Blazers’ culture?
Nate: For this season, I think it’s a great move for the Blazers. Portland couldn’t rely on a combination of Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins to fill the center minutes while waiting for Jusuf Nurkic to return from injury. Whiteside provides inside scoring, rebounding and is a rim protector. Even at 30 years old, I’m not sure he’s reached his true potential. For Portland, having Whiteside on a contract season before what could be his last big pay day is a benefit. But I do think concerns about how he’ll mesh in Portland’s business-like, unselfish culture are justified. I don’t see him derailing everything Lillard, Stotts and the organization has built but I could certainly see him challenging the culture and perhaps the Blazers decide to move him at the trade deadline. With that said, the upside and stability Whiteside provides at the center position is worth the risk. Especially considering the Western Conference appears to be open for the taking for the first time in half a decade.
Orlando: It’s a legitimate concern in the short term, but I don’t think it should all be directed at Whiteside. Six players from last year’s roster are gone. With a bunch of new players in the mix, there’s a chance change could impact chemistry to start the season. Long term, I’m not worried about it with Damian Lillard in that locker room. The current culture built over the past few years has been a major key to the development of players and ultimately the team’s success. They can afford to take a chance on a player who has a bad reputation or is considered selfish. With Jusuf Nurkic out for a while, Whiteside fills an immediate need for a starting center when the season begins. He averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds per game last year, that will be huge. He’s a rebounding machine and a legitimate shot blocker. He’ll be motivated in a contract year and in a new environment with a couple of guys he’s friends with. It will be up to Lillard, CJ McCollum and company to keep him engaged and maximize his skills in Rip City.
Jared: There's a lot to unpack here, so I'm going to break up this question and write more than normal. Fair warning.
When you look at the numbers for Hassan Whiteside, they’re mind-boggling. First of all, he’s HUGE. He has a 7-foot-7 wingspan and a 9-5 standing reach. He’s led the league in rebounds and blocks in the past four seasons. He averaged about 28 minutes per game the past four seasons in Miami, but until Jusuf Nurkic returns, it seems logical he’ll top that number in Portland, which makes his per-36 stats the past four seasons — 18.7 points, 15.9 rebounds, 3.1 blocks — all the more intriguing. He’s a great match for Terry Stotts’ conservative defense that drops the center in order to meet opposing players at the rim. There are few centers better in the NBA at serving as that final line of defense at the rim than Whiteside. His block rate of 61% last season was on par with players like Rudy Gobert (60.1%) and Anthony Davis (59.0%). Players shot 51% in the restricted and paint area against Whiteside last season, on par again with Gobert (51.3%) and significantly better than Davis (56.5%). For comparison, players shot 52.5% in that area against Nurkic last season. On offense, Whiteside was excellent last season as the roll man in the pick-and-roll (85th percentile), which fits nicely with Damian Lillard and the Blazers’ offense.
The questions about Whiteside’s reputation are valid. Looking at some advanced analytics from past seasons, there's evidence that he’s hunted stats (like blocks) instead of focusing on team defense fundamentals. And he's been quick to complain when things aren't going his way. Two seasons ago, when he first started to see a dip in playing time, he didn’t handle it well, complaining about it on social channels and to the media, including a profanity-laced tirade that drew a fine from the team. But this past season, despite losing his starting position and seeing his playing time drop to 23.3 minutes per game, the fewest minutes he averaged in his five seasons with the Heat, he didn’t complain publicly all season about his reduced minutes. In addition, reporters, coaches and teammates praised Whiteside’s increased maturity last season, as well as his work in addressing areas of weakness such as screen-setting and team defense.
I’m not worried about Whiteside’s reputation. He showed increased maturity this past season and a willingness to work on the parts of his game that in the past had led many to label him an overrated stat chaser. He’s joining a Blazers team with championship aspirations, an established culture of hard work and accountability, and strong leadership from Lillard, CJ McCollum and Terry Stotts. He’s in a contract year, so he'll be motivated to play his best, and it looks like he’ll get all the minutes he wants, at least until Nurkic returns. I believe Whiteside will have a monster season for the Blazers, and that will allow Nurkic the time to rehab his injury without any pressure to return before he’s 100% healthy, which is important. The fit once Nurkic returns is a topic for future podcasts, but for now, Whiteside and the Blazers seems like an ideal fit.
2. Looking at the Blazers’ offseason so far as a whole — they added Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, Mario Hezogna and Nassir Little, and lost Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Enes Kanter, Evan Turner, and Seth Curry — what grade would you give Neil Olshey and the Blazers’ front office for the moves they’ve made?
Orlando: The Blazers front office did a good job so far this offseason. They addressed needs and brought in players they believe can contribute this season. We’ve seen more action this summer than we have any offseason of the past under Olshey. There is urgency to win right now and that’s something Rip City has been waiting for. Olshey said there wouldn’t be fireworks on July 1 and maybe it wasn’t nationally, but it felt like it in Portland compared to summers of the past. If we’re grading on a scale in comparison to the rest of the league, it’s a solid B or even B+. Let’s see what the new guys can do.
Jared: I think Olshey deserves an A for his work this offseason. He turned the Blazers’ large three expiring contracts into two players who are more talented and address serious needs for Portland. And he did that without losing other assets and without bringing on expensive contracts that extend past this season. The expiring contracts of Whiteside and Bazemore are probably more attractive than those of Turner, Harkless and Leonard because of the difference in skill and talent, which gives the Blazers more flexibility if they want to make a move at the trade deadline. Portland still has all of its other assets in place, with all of their first-round draft picks going forward and a collection of intriguing young talent in Anfernee Simons, Zach Collins, Nassir Little and Gary Trent Jr. In addition to that, Olshey did a good job of addressing the team's needs. He added outside shooting, perimeter and interior defense, and veteran leadership. This has been the most exciting offseason in Portland in years.
Nate: I’d give Olshey an A-. He’s taken care of a lot of the concerns Blazers fans had going into the offseason, while also filling team needs. He’s addressed outside shooting with the signings of Rodney Hood and Anthony Tolliver, and the trade for Kent Bazemore. He’s addressed how the team is going to fill Nurkic’s role before he returns from injury with the trade for Whiteside. He’s maintained financial flexibility for next offseason. The only hope Olshey didn’t fulfill for Blazers fans is trading for a bonafide star player who can play the 3 or 4. But he’s essentially done everything else. He’s re-tooled a roster that appears poised to maintain, and potentially build off last season’s playoff run.
3. The Blazers’ top 10 rotation at the end of last season was Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Kanter, Hood, Curry, Zach Collins, Leonard and Turner. The projected Top 10 for the upcoming season is Lillard, McCollum, Bazemore, Collins, Whiteside, Hood, Anfernee Simons, Tolliver, Jake Layman and Skal Labissiere or Mario Hezonja. Are the Blazers a better team today than they were at the end of the season?
Nate: This is close. And despite the excitement around all the moves the Blazers have made this offseason, which I think have been positive, I’m going to say the team at the end of the season was better. Say what you want about the limitations of Kanter and Aminu, you knew what to expect from them every night. I don’t feel the same way about Whiteside and Collins. And the Blazers roster as currently constructed is not as deep as the team that played in the postseason. With that said, I think the ceiling for this group of players is higher than last year’s team. That’s because while I have concerns about Whiteside and Collins, they undoubtedly could end up being an upgrade to Kanter and Aminu. I just need to see it before I’m fully invested in that frontcourt duo. So, for that reason, I’m going to go with last year’s playoff team being slightly better than the current roster.
Jared: The team that advanced to the Western Conference finals last season was immensely talented, but they also had weaknesses that the team couldn’t overcome to reach their ultimate goal. The Blazers have addressed many of those weaknesses. There are a lot of questions with this roster as it stands right now. Will Collins emerge? Will Whiteside behave? Will Simons prove that he’s ready for a larger role? Will Bazemore bounce back from a subpar season? Will Hezonja finally live up to his potential? Will Tolliver prove he has another good season left at age 34? It’s a lot of questions, but I feel good about the answer I foresee for most of those questions, and if everything falls the right way, this team has immense potential. If everything goes right, this team has as good a chance as any team in the Western Conference to reach the NBA Finals. As great as the team was at the end of last season, I never considered that a real possibility. So I have to side with the roster as it is right now. It’s better.
Orlando: Move versus move, the Blazers improved. They filled in positional needs, got better shooting and should be fine defensively. Will all the pieces fit? That’s what’s holding me up from being all-in on this answer. The chemistry on this team last year mattered. Also, don’t forget they lost an assistant coach in David Vanterpool who played a significant role in developing players. As it stands right now, this lineup should be better, but ultimately they’ll be judged on wins. Getting to the conference finals will be a tough act to follow, but the Blazers should be in the mix with this talented roster.
MEET THE 3-ON-3 BLAZERS TEAM
Jared Cowley is a digital media producer who writes about the Blazers and other topics for KGW.com. Jared has written about the Jazz and Warriors as a sports editor at two daily newspapers.
Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com’s coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.
Orlando Sanchez is the sports anchor and reporter for KGW News, Sports Sunday and Friday Night Flights. Orlando has covered multiple NBA Finals, NCAA Basketball Tournaments and World Series.
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