Hassan Whiteside’s impact during the Miami Heat’s 19-4 stretch

Mar 3, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) reacts during the second half against the Orlando Magic at Amway Center. Orlando defeated Miami 110-99. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 3, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) reacts during the second half against the Orlando Magic at Amway Center. Orlando defeated Miami 110-99. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra stated that Hassan Whiteside is playing the best winning basketball of his career. Do the numbers back up the claim?

Since Jan. 15, the Miami Heat have the best win-rate in basketball, at 82.6 percent.

During that span, they have a 19-4 record, with a plus-9.0 point differential, second only to the Golden State Warriors. Miami is also sixth in offensive rating (110.8), third in defensive rating (102.2) and second in overall net rating (plus-8.6) in that time frame.

The Heat’s recent sustained excellence has led them to the brink of the NBA Playoffs. As of Mar. 7, they’re just 1.5 games behind the no. 7 seed Chicago Bulls and no. 8 seed Detroit Pistons. They also have a much easier schedule ahead of them than either of those two teams.

According to Five Thirty Eight’s projections, Miami presently has a 63 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason.

Most would point to Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters as the two main culprits behind this massive turnaround. The starting backcourt has carved up defenses so viciously that Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle called the Heat, “one of the best drive-and-kick teams,” he’s ever seen (via Anthony Chiang of the Palm Beach Post).

And it’s true, Dragic and Waiters have been extremely effective penetrating and finding teammates for open looks from deep. Miami’s floor-spacers deserve credit for converting, as well; over the past seven weeks, Miami leads the NBA in three-point shooting at 40.9 percent.

Head coach Erik Spoelstra, though, believes someone else also deserves praise. A player who’s recently gone under the radar nationally, after a slight decline in production: Hassan Whiteside.

Whiteside during Miami’s dominant stretch

In Spoelstra’s opinion, although Whitside’s numbers have gone down over the past two months, his intangibles have reached new heights. From Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald:

"“What I love about him is he has an approach that he wants to get better. He wants to learn. He wants to really take the responsibility of impacting winning…I think in the last six weeks he’s played the best winning basketball he’s ever played in a Miami Heat uniform. It’s not his best statistical stretch and he loves it. He’s becoming a great teammate, he’s enjoying impacting winning and I don’t want to put a ceiling on that either.”"

It’s impossible to quantify how much Whiteside “enjoys” impacting wins. (I mean, I guess, theoretically we could note how often he smiles after setting a good screen, or something.)

What we can do is take a dive into his numbers, and see how he’s fared since Jan. 15. We’ll start with his raw stats:

  • 55.5 percent shooting, 69.0 percent from the free-throw line, 15.1 points, 13.7 rebounds, 0.6 assists (sigh), 0.8 steals, 1.8 blocks, 2.0 turnovers, 2.5 fouls.

His numbers are down almost across the board, including field goal attempts (13.3 FGA per game for the first 37 games, 11.2 afterwards).

Additionally, Miami’s center boasts a plus/minus of plus-5.1 in that span, a clip that’s just sixth-best on the team. He’s behind Waiters (6.5), James Johnson (6.2), Wayne Ellington (6.1), Josh Richardson (5.7) and Dragic (5.6).

Whiteside’s backup — Willie Reed — is eighth on the team, with a plus-3.9.

If you only looked at that metric, you’d think Whiteside was vastly outperforming the first-year Heat big man. But upon closer examination, you would come to find out the opposite is true.

The Reed/Whiteside conundrum

Over the Heat’s last 23 games, they’ve been more effective with Reed on the floor instead of Whiteside.

By just how much?

NBA.com’s on/off numbers claim Miami is a plus-12.2 (per 100 possessions) with Reed at the 5. With Whiteside, that number dwindles to a plus-6.5. The 5.7-point difference may seem minute, but it isn’t. It’s a stark gulf which tells an intriguing story.

After all, it’s hard to fathom how a player like Reed, with averages of 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds since Jan. 15, could make that much of an overall impact in limited minutes.

Part of it could have to do with his low usage rate. Reed simply doesn’t take away possessions from the Heat’s two best offensive players, Dragic and Waiters. Reed checks in, sets excellent screens and crashes the glass. That’s it.

Meanwhile, Whiteside is a player who demands touches. It’s only logical, Miami made a huge investment on him this offseason; he should (try to) carry a brunt of the offense when he’s in the game.

Thus, Whiteside posts up 28.6 percent of the time he has the ball. Unfortunately, he does so with startling ineffectiveness.

Among players who post up with a 15 percent frequency, and over 100 possessions down low, Whiteside is second-worst in the NBA with 0.74 points per possession (PPP).

Far too often, Whiteside either rushes his opportunities, or has to settle for hook shots from unfavorable distances.

For someone with such an unrefined post game, wouldn’t it make sense to scrap those plays all together? Make no mistake, 0.74 PPP is flat-out awful. Just to compare, Harrison freaking Barnes is scoring 1.01 PPP on similar looks.

Not only that, Whiteside’s backup, Reed, posts up on merely 6.7 percent of his touches. And when he does so, he’s far more effective. Reed’s 1.00 PPP on post-ups is a higher clip than Marc Gasol’s.

What’s more, the one area Whiteside is borderline-elite is as the pick-and-roll big man. He scores 1.20 PPP as the screen and roller, which is 15th-best in the NBA among players who have done it over 40 times. No. 17 on that list, though, is Willie Reed, also at 1.20 PPP.

Essentially, the Heat do not miss Whiteside’s pick-and-roll abilities when he goes to the bench, because they’re perfectly replicated by Reed.

Even more concerning? The Reed/Whiteside quandary extends to the defensive end, as well.

A look at the other side of the ball

During Miami’s 19-4 run, Whiteside has posted a defensive rating of 104.5, compared to Reed’s 98.0. (The lower a defensive rating, the better, by the way.)

Part of that has to do with who each player shares the floor with; Whiteside plays the bulk of his minutes with Dragic, who is arguably the team’s worst perimeter defender, while Reed checks in with Richardson and Tyler Johnson, two of the Heat’s best.

That may explain part of what’s going on, but it’s definitely not everything.

Whiteside’s feel for the game isn’t all that great, and some of his issues stem from struggling to grasp when to go for a block, and when to simply box out and rebound. Sometimes he does understand, but doesn’t get to his spots fast enough.

In all fairness, Whiteside has improved a ton defensively since last year. His decrease in blocked shots may actually be a good thing, since he’s taking far less gambles this season. Not to mention, his 37.7 defensive rebound rate since Jan. 15 is the second-best clip in the NBA (meaning he’s boxing out instead of going for blocks).

Moreover, even though the numbers may contradict Spoelstra’s point about how Whiteside is impacting wins (some could even argue Reed has a bigger impact in his brief stints), at least the Heat center has had the right attitude about it.

Most recently, just before Miami’s win over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Mar. 6, Whiteside told local media, simply, he was “excited” about how much better the team was compared to early in the season.

Excited despite getting less shots up, and seeing his overall numbers decline.

Perhaps Whiteside is starting to value team accomplishments over individual glory. Or, maybe, if the losses start to pile up again, he’ll do an about-face and start demanding more touches down low.

Hopefully the Heat don’t lose their current form anytime soon, or we may have to find out the hard way.