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Should the Heat Build Around Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside?

February 12th, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments
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The foundation of the Miami Heat’s future championship aspirations was supposed to rest largely on the shoulders of point guard Goran Dragic and center Hassan Whiteside.

Dragic was supposed to be a catalyst for the Heat offense, as he was for a Phoenix Suns offense that ranked eighth in the NBA in 2013-14 and seventh through the All-Star break last season before being traded to Miami. He was supposed to allow the Heat to play at pace, having flourished in transition with the Suns. He was supposed to be a force in the pick-and-roll, having been, statistically speaking, the best pick-and-roll ball-handler in the NBA two seasons ago.

Whiteside was supposed to rampage through the NBA with reckless abandon, utilizing his massive 7-foot, 7-inch wingspan to wreak havoc on both ends of the court. His superior shot-blocking, shot-altering and rebounding were supposed to make him the dominant defensive anchor the Heat has long-since coveted. His undeniable potential in the pick-and-roll and developing low-post game were supposed to make him an emerging offensive threat.

Things haven’t necessarily gone as planned. 

Dragic has thus far struggled through perhaps his worst season since he became a regular NBA starter in 2012, often relegated to walking the ball up the court and standing in the corner as future Hall-of-Fame backcourt teammate Dwyane Wade initiates the offense. His usage rate (19.7 percent) ranks fourth on the team, behind Wade (31.7 percent), Bosh (25.3 percent) and Gerald Green (20.1 percent), and falls precipitously as games wear on (to a low of 15.7 percent in the fourth quarter). The Heat didn’t invest two future first-round picks and give Dragic $85 million this summer for him to be a fourth wheel on offense who disappears when the team needs him most.

Whiteside has thus far struggled to progress with numerous elements of his game, as well with consistency of focus and effort and with issues of maturity. He’s had tons of highlight-worthy moments, but the team’s overall performance while he is on the court would suggest his presence is largely inconsequential (the Heat outscore its opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, and by 1.1 when he’s off), leading many to question whether the Heat would be wise to allocate the big-money contract he is sure to command this summer.

The struggles of Dragic and Whiteside have forced the Heat to do the very thing from which it was attempting to transition away – rely heavily on Wade, who has demonstrated remarkable health and delivered remarkable play despite having last month turned 34 years old. But there is a potential underlying issue which, however unpopular, can’t be entirely dismissed: the Heat’s franchise player may actually be at the core of the problem.

Dragic is using just 19.7 percent of the Heat’s possessions while he is on the court, scoring just 13.6 points per 36 minutes played, and shooting just 46.9 percent from the floor, all multi-year lows. But there is a huge dichotomy to his performance.

When Dragic plays alongside Wade, he uses just 18.1 percent of the team’s possessions, scores just 12.2 points per 36 minutes played, shoots just 45.6 percent from the floor, and the Heat overall has a net rating (scoring margin per 100 possessions) of just 0.2.

When Dragic plays without Wade, he uses 24.9 percent of the team’s possessions, scores 17.7 points per 36 minutes played, and shoots 50.0 percent from the floor. The Heat overall scores more points (103.5 points per 100 possessions, vs. 102.7) and plays much better defense (91.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, vs. 101.9), producing a net rating of 11.4.

To repeat: When Dragic plays without Wade, the Heat outscores its opponents by an average of 11.4 points per 100 possessions, a mark which would be good for third in the entire NBA (behind only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs).

When Wade plays without Dragic, the Heat gets outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions.

Miami has played substantially better with Dragic as its lead guard, and Dragic has played substantially better without Wade. When he has instead played alongside a three-point shooting threat who allows him to operate in space, his performance has improved. When he shares the court with Tyler Johnson, Dragic shoots 50.0 percent from the floor. With Green, he shoots 51.8 percent.

The questions therefore need to be asked: What if Dragic is still very much the player we all dreamed he would be when he was acquired from the Suns last February? What if his poor performance thus far in a Heat uniform is a reflection of being shackled by the presence of a ball-dominant backcourt teammate who tends to slow the pace, doesn’t space the floor, and doesn’t play defense?

And what if Whiteside is facing similar issues?

Whiteside’s individual statistics thus far this season, struggles notwithstanding, are ridiculous – 15.5 points (on 61.6 percent shooting), 14.1 rebounds and 5.0 blocks per 36 minutes played.

For many, however, those statistics feel somewhat hollow. Whiteside doesn’t really fit with what the Heat tries to do on offense. He doesn’t set particularly good screens. He never passes. He turns the ball over way too much. He doesn’t always make his free throws. And, generally speaking, he’s a massive presence who sucks in defenders and clogs the paint for the likes of Wade and Chris Bosh, making it more difficult for the team’s primary scorers to score.

But he’s a transformative talent.

Which necessitates that the following questions be asked: What if the Heat were to completely reverse its thinking? What if rather than trying to fit Whiteside into what the Heat tries to do, the Heat were to instead build an offense around him? What if rather than surrounding Whiteside with a bunch of players who want to score at the rim, the Heat were to instead surround him with a bunch of shooters who would allow him to operate in space?

How dominant could Whiteside be if he had the space with which to maneuver? Is it so preposterous to imagine he could become one of the best, and most efficient, scorers in the whole of the NBA?

It remains to be seen whether Whiteside can become a consistent offensive force, in large part because on this Heat team, as presently constructed, he simply isn’t a primary scoring option, and, even if he were, he simply doesn’t have the space with which to maneuver. He puts up the numbers he does despite the fact that he always seem to have three, four or even five defenders surrounding him, a luxury afforded to opposing defenders because they know the Heat can’t hurt them from the outside.

None of that, however, impacts his defense, where Whiteside attracts some of his staunchest criticism. At various points throughout the season, he has been caught chasing blocks rather than committing to solid team defense, biting on pump fakes, declining to rotate out to the perimeter to defend jump-shooting bigs, and generally being out of position and slow to react and recover.

The statistics bear that out. The Heat actually has a better defensive rating (points surrendered per 100 possessions) when their defensive anchor is off the court (99.8) than when he’s on it (101.4).

But even that’s not entirely fair. When Whiteside plays without Wade, the Heat’s defensive rating falls to 95.5, a figure that would be second in the NBA (just barely behind the Spurs).

Whiteside’s Wade-impacted performances are less striking than those of Dragic — he scores slightly more (15.9 vs. 15.3), shoots slightly better (62.7 percent vs. 61.5 percent), rebounds more (16.0 vs. 13.5), and blocks more (5.6 vs. 4.8) without Wade.

However, the Heat’s overall performance when Whiteside plays with vs. without Wade is similarly striking.

When Whiteside plays with Wade, the Heat scores 102.7 points per 100 possessions, but also gives up 102.7 points per 100 possessions, for a net rating of 0.0.

When Whiteside plays without Wade, the Heat scores more points (103.2 points per 100 possessions, vs. 102.7) and plays much better defense (95.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, vs. 102.7), producing a net rating of 7.8.

To repeat: When Whiteside plays without Wade, the Heat outscores its opponents by an average of 7.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark which would be good for third in the entire NBA (behind only the Warriors and Spurs).

When Whiteside plays with Dragic but without Wade, despite a chemistry which has only recently started to develop, the Heat nonetheless outscores its opponents by an average of 9.8 points per 100 possessions.

In fact, as difficult as it is to believe, there is not a single rotation regular for whom the Heat performs better when paired with Wade than without him:

  • +/- when Wade is on the court: Whiteside (-50), Bosh (-33), Deng (-87), Green (-1), Winslow (-12), Johnson (-13), Udrih (-36)
  • +/- when Wade is on the court but not Dragic: Whiteside (-31), Bosh (-49), Deng (-72), Green (-7), Winslow (-41), Johnson (+6), Udrih (-37)
  • +/- when Wade is off the court: Whiteside (+31), Bosh (+64), Deng (-31), Green (+57), Winslow (+51), Johnson (+22), Udrih (+31)

Conversely, the Heat plays better when every rotation regular is paired with Dragic but not Wade:

  • +/- when Dragic is on the court but not Wade: Whiteside (+29), Bosh (+71), Deng (-1), Green (+83), Winslow (+58), Johnson (+24), Udrih (+1)

Is this just a fluke? An anomaly of statistics? An unfair characterization which ignores specific match-up issues and game situations? A statistical selection bias?(1)

Or is there some truth to the concern?

Whatever you believe, this much is clear: It is very hard to win in today’s NBA without enough shooting to space the floor. Miami heads into the All Star break ranked 25th in three-point attempts (18.9), 26th in three-point makes (6.1), and 28th in three-point percentage (32.3 percent).

It’s doubly hard to do so with a shooting guard who doesn’t play defense, tends to dominate the ball, and can’t shoot three-pointers.

Could it be that the Heat truly plays better without its best ever player?

The loss of Tyler Johnson to possibly season-ending left shoulder surgery could be a significant one in that regard, in that he represents a sharp contract to Wade – a 40.9 percent three-point shooter (excluding half-court heaves) who spaces the floor, plays well off the ball, allows the team to play at speed, and is a strong on-ball defender.

But Johnson is almost certain to remain with the Heat over the long-term.

Which makes the following questions critical for Riley to consider as the thinks about the Heat’s future, with Wade and Whiteside set to become unrestricted free agents after the season:

Should he be willing to allocate a big-money contract to Wade this summer?

Or should he build around Dragic and Whiteside, try like hell in free agency this summer to attract the best shooters his team’s money can buy, and thereafter initiate the type of spread offense in which they thrive?(2)

And if those questions about this summer are valid, perhaps these questions about the rest of the season also need to be addressed:

Is this a Heat team that can do real damage in the plaoyffs? Should the Heat’s primary mission be more about seeing how good Whiteside can be? If he can prove to be that dominant two-way force we all envisioned him to be, the type of franchise cornerstone who can lead his team to future titles if only he had the space with which to maneuver, would that not provide the Heat with vital information as to how to attack free agency and build for the future?

***

With the 2016-17 salary cap currently projected at $90 million (and rising), in addition to being able to re-sign Johnson, the Heat will have at least $38 million of cap space with which to allocate to a pair of free agents this summer. If the Heat were to trade Josh McRoberts, the total would increase to $43 million.

At that cap level, maximum salaries would be more than $21 million for players with fewer than seven years of service (e.g., Whiteside), more than $25 million for players with between seven and nine years of service (e.g., Kevin Durant) and nearly $30 million for players with ten or more years of service (e.g., Wade).

How would you allocate those free agency dollars?

Notes:

I have loved Hassan Whiteside since the moment he arrived in Miami. I acknowledge his issues with maturity and consistency of effort, and those are serious concerns which need to be addressed. But I strongly disagree with those who feel the Heat should trade him at the upcoming trade deadline. I also disagree with those who feel the Heat shouldn’t be willing to invest significant dollars to re-sign him if he improves upon those issues. He’s a game-changing talent. You don’t get rid of him. You build around him!

(1) This post is clearly riddled with selective statistics which aren’t necessarily a perfect or complete depiction of what actually happens on the court in all situations. As just one example, the Heat currently ranks fourth in the NBA in the “clutch” (defined by the NBA as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, where neither team is ahead by more than five points) – outscoring opponents by a whopping average of 18.2 points per 100 possessions. Dwyane Wade is a huge part of that (he leads the team in clutch scoring and assists), while both Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside have tended to struggle in a more limited role. 

(2) My humble, and controversial, opinion from last June was that the Heat should have leveraged the seemingly incomprehensible six draft pick offer from the Boston Celtics to acquire both Devin Booker AND two future first round draft picks in the 2015 NBA Draft. I believe Booker’s elite shooting would have made a massive difference for the Heat’s spacing at the shooting guard position on offense, and would have left the Heat a gifted-shooting small forward away from what could have been a potentially perfect offense.

 My vision at the time was that the floor spacing provided by a Dragic – Booker – Bosh – Whiteside core might have made for a hugely compelling argument to Kevin Durant, which could have been financially feasible (if not altogether likely) pending how the Heat were to handle Wade and McRoberts. What I did not know at the time was that the first of the two future first-round picks which could’ve been acquired along with Booker, from the Brooklyn Nets in 2016, has an outside chance to be high enough to select my favorite player in the coming 2016 NBA draft, Duke’s Brandon Ingram. Instead, as it currently stands, the Heat has no selections.

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