When I talked with Sam Vecenie about the Lakers’ offseason, he asked me to make one bold prediction for this summer. I asked Sam if it was bold to say the Lakers would sign Hassan Whiteside in free agency. After all, there have been murmurs of the Lakers’ interest in the Heat big man and he fills an obvious need.
Fast forward a few weeks and Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne are reporting the Lakers interest is quite real and they plan to target Whiteside when free agency opens on July 1st:
The Los Angeles Lakers plan to aggressively pursue Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside when NBA free agency starts, according to league sources.
With rim protection and perimeter shooting ranking as the Lakers’ foremost areas of concern heading into the open market, sources told ESPN that Whiteside has emerged as a priority target.
The report further notes that Whiteside is expected to command a maximum salary and, while not spelled out directly, the expectation is the Lakers would be willing to offer that amount. With a projected $94 million dollar cap, the starting salary for Whiteside earning the max would be $22.2 million in year one and would total nearly $95 million over a 4 year deal.
That, my friends, is a lot of coin.
Determining whether Whiteside is worth that money is, in some (but not all) ways, irrelevant to this discussion. Someone will pay him that money. It should be noted the Heat can pay him more than that (they can offer 7.5% raises since they hold his early Bird rights, teams like the Lakers can only offer 4.5% annual raises), but it’s yet to be seen if they will or not. There have already been rumors they won’t and there are questions whether their pursuit of Kevin Durant (or other FA’s) will impact how aggressively they move in re-inking Whiteside.
For the Lakers, though, there should be few questions — though few does not mean “none”. Even if Stein and Shelburne weren’t already reporting the Lakers’ plans, this player (or ones who come close to replicating what he provides) should be the target(s) in free agency. The Lakers desperately need a long term solution at Center, and specifically one who does the things Whiteside does on both ends of the court.
One thing the Lakers will sorely need is a big man who can be a force as a finisher in the P&R. Whiteside is one of the best in the league at that, sporting good hands and an ability to catch on the move, especially on lobs for dunk finishes. His massive wingspan and excellent frame give him an enormous catch radius, translating to even bad passes being received with at least the potential to end up with a good shot at the rim. Whiteside also has good touch around the rim, showing a nice jump hook and some solid post work where he is able to get to his sweet spots.
Defensively you will find some debate about how impactful a team defender he is, but he led the league in blocked shots by a wide margin and has a paint presence defensively which cannot be denied. Per NBA Savant, teams only shot 52.5% in the restricted area against Whiteside — the league average is 60.3%. And while the Heat’s defensive efficiency for the year was about the same when Whiteside was on the floor vs. when he sat, post all-star break Miami was over 3 points/100 possessions better with him in the game.
All this seems so straight forward, but of course nothing ever is. If Whiteside were the traditional can’t-miss, force of a big man, there would be no questions about free agent value to any team. But Whiteside is a 27 year old who bounced around the NBA, D-League, and elsewhere before finally breaking through with the Heat this past season. There have been questions about his maturity, selfishness, and how that will all translate after he receives a fat contract. Read some comments his teammates have made about his year and, well…they’re not always great.
As for his game, there are also cracks here which matter. He’s not only not a very good passer, he often doesn’t look like a willing one. Defensively he can be too ball focused, tracking for blocks too often and hurting the continuity of his team’s scheme in the process. There’s a reason the Heat had a better defensive rebounding percentage when Whiteside was on the bench vs. when he was in the game. Challenging shots he shouldn’t have been led to zero help on the backside where his man could clean up for misses.
He’s also not the type of big who can consistently switch in the P&R and defend a wing on the perimeter in isolation. The Heat often had him sit well below ball screens and there were times he was not as active as he could have been when showing out or challenging the dribbler before he got a head of steam going to the basket.
These things aren’t deal breakers, but they do matter in the bigger picture. When taken in the aggregate, it’s worth questioning if the trade-off between paint protection and offensive rebounding is worth it; wether the trade-off between some of the three point shots which will get surrendered when guards get hung up on screens and the type of mid-range jumpers more often forced are worth it. It is also fair to wonder if he’s not a featured part of the offense whether he will always be as engaged as needed on the other end of the floor.
I won’t pretend to know the answers to these questions or to be able to speak to how those trade-offs will play out over an 82 game season. I also won’t pretend to know whether him getting his first major contract of his career will impact how hungry he is. Maybe doubts aren’t just fair, but justified. Maybe not.
What I do know is that we will find out. Whether he’s on the Lakers or not. Because someone will pay him that money. Whichever team does sign him, though, will want to have the type of organizational culture and locker room structure to help facilitate and get the most out of him. Will the Lakers have that next season with Luke Walton and, potentially, a few other key veteran signings? We cannot say now for sure.
But, what is clear, is that they are willing to find out. As they should be. The things he does well are too much of a need for them not to.