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The incredible journey of Hassan Whiteside

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BOSTON – When Hassan Whiteside declared for the 2010 NBA draft, he was considered a likely lottery pick.

Three years later, his reputation in the United States was in tatters. A failed two-season stint with the Kings seemingly confirmed the maturity concerns that pushed him to the second round coming out of Marshall. After all, if his physical tools – 7-foot with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and impressive leaping ability – couldn’t keep him in the league at age 23, what was wrong with him?

So, Whiteside went to Lebanon to play for “the only team that would take me.”

“I’ve always been NBA, NBA, NBA since I was little. So, it didn’t really change anything as far as,” Whiteside said, tapping his heart, “it went for me. But other people was probably like, ‘No way he’s going to get back there.’”

Not only is Whiteside back, he’s thriving.

Whiteside is averaging 9.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game for the Heat. Per 36 minutes, those numbers translate to 18.0 points, 15.2 rebounds and 4.7 blocks.

His PER (28.0) ranks No. 2 in the NBA – sandwiched between Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant. Miami has brought Whiteside along slowly since signing him in November, sending him to the D-League and initially bringing him off the bench. But it’s time to question whether the the Heat discovered a true star hiding in plain sight.

Whiteside looks exactly like his best-case projections entering the draft, so this isn’t completely out of left field. It just took longer – and required overcoming more obstacles – than expected.

The NBA didn’t embrace him until now, but when was Whiteside ready to tear through the league as he has?

“You never know if you’re ready to swim unless you jump in the pool,” Whiteside said.

After his experience overseas, Whiteside jumped in with both feet.

Whiteside recalls seeing a man die in front of him following a car crash in Lebanon, the man’s son crying at his side. Whiteside still thinks about it, grateful for where he is now.

Another time, Whiteside had a scheduled physical interrupted because there was a car bomb earlier in the day near the Beirut hospital he planned to visit.

“It really put things in perspective,” Whiteside said. “It’s different watching it on the news and when it’s down the street.”

Or in the arena.

In Whiteside’s second Lebanese game, a fight in the stands interrupted the contest with players going in and out of the crowd.

“Where did I come?” Whiteside thought to himself. “I want to go back to America. This is crazy.”

You can watch the game – a big upset for Whiteside’s team – including the fight (29:20) and Whiteside’s postgame interview (1:34:30):

“You do some things when you’re chasing a dream,” Whiteside said. “You do some crazy things. I love basketball. So, that’s where basketball took me.”

It also took him to China, where as he put it, “your translator is basically everything to you.”

“If he’s lazy and he don’t want to help you, you’re going to struggle,” Whiteside said.

How was his?

“He had his good days and bad days,” Whiteside said. “I’d give him a C.”

Now, Whiteside cherishes these experiences, the two-year odyssey around the globe.

“It really made me who I am,” Whiteside said. “It’s really coming out to be a great journey for me.”

Whiteside said he never understood the criticism that ensnared him after he left Sacramento. He insists he “just got older. I’m the same person.”

For what it’s worth, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says nothing but good things about Whiteside’s work ethic so far.

“He embraced it,” Spoelstra said. “And I think it helped, his perspective and his experiences the last couple years. So, it was the convergence of a lot of good timings.”

Really, Whiteside can retroactively erase his old reputation by remaining a model NBA citizen in Miami. If he does, the Kings’ credibility will suffer, whether or not the criticism was fair at the time. Whiteside was too irrelevant then for most fans to remember his alleged thorniness now. They’ll just wonder how Sacramento ever let him go.

In the spotlight – his emergence dubbed Hassanity – Whiteside has an effective fresh start. Asked how he continues to stay hungry amid his recent success, Whiteside reveals a mindset that will effectively clear any demerits on his permanent record.

“So what whatever I did in the past,” Whiteside said. “Every day is a new day. I just really want to make people just remember my name.”

If he keeps this up, people will.

Whiteside is averaging 13.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game in the calendar year. Only Alonzo Mourning, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Dikembe Mutombo, Patrick Ewing, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo – Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers – have hit those marks over a full season.

They each played more than 36 minutes per game. Whiteside is doing it in just 24.3 minutes per game.

And these aren’t empty numbers.

The Heat outscore opponents by 2.2 points per 100 possessions with Whiteside on the court and get outscored by 6.6 points per 100 possessions without him. None of the other dozen Miami players who’ve appeared in at least 20 games have such a positive influence:

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Whiteside’s impact is particularly noticeable defensively.

Opponents are more selective about shooting in the paint – certainly due to Whiteside blocking shots at a per-minute rate the NBA hasn’t seen in a few years – but they’re not selective enough. Miami allows 57 percent shooting in the paint without Whiteside and 46 percent with him.

Whiteside is showing his offensive range, too. He has a soft touch to the point this shot, while exceptional, is not a huge outlier:

There’s still a segment that believes Whiteside is succeeding by catching teams off guard – that once they game plan for him, Hassanity will end.

“I mean, if they’re not putting me in their scouting report now,” Whiteside said, “thank you.”

To be fair, there is an element of surprise among Whiteside’s peers. Chris Bosh said he’d never even heard of Whiteside until his Heat workout.

Bosh said Whiteside “hasn’t done anything yet” and likes to remind the third-year player of it. Frequently.

“He doesn’t like talking to me all the time about that stuff,” Bosh said.

Is that true?

“Oh, nah man,” Whiteside said. “Chris Bosh is the man. He’s a 10-time All-Star. Anybody would want to take advice from him.”

Add Bosh to the list of people wrong about Whiteside.

Bosh doesn’t want to be in the group wrong about Whiteside’s next step, though. He’s pushing Whiteside – whose minimum salary for this season and next has been a huge bargain for the Heat – to earn a big contract.

“I’m demanding, I guess,” Bosh said. “It’s just because I see the potential that he has.”

Bosh is looking toward Whiteside’s future.

Spoelstra is focused on Whiteside’s present: “It’s hard not to root for somebody like that, but the most important thing now is to be able to sustain that. And the things we talk about are the work ethic and the program we have set every single day for him, and he’s been good about embracing the work.”

And Whiteside can’t stop thinking about his past.

“A lot of people like that story where somebody started from the bottom, and now they’re starting to see progress and success,” he said. “Because I feel like everybody can relate to that.

“Everybody got dreams of theirs. And people like to see other people succeed, even when it’s times in their lives that they struggled.”

Report: NBA cancels vote for in-season tournament, play-in tournament

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
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The NBA had some big ideas about revamping its schedule – in-season tournament, play-in tournament and reseeded semifinals.

It seemed strange that the least radical of these proposals – replacing the conference finals with reseeded semifinals – gained no traction. Who disapproved of that yet supported an in-season tournament and play-in tournament?

Apparently not enough teams.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This vote won’t happen, because the proposal would lose. The official vote is merely a formality. The NBA knows too many governors would vote no, so not even holding the vote saves the league some embarrassment.

I don’t see how further study will help the in-season tournament. It’s just a bad idea. People won’t care about it. That’s why there have been so many suggestions for generating interest. It’s a losing battle.

A play-in tournament could work. There are several viable permeations. I buy that time to build consensus for that could be helpful.

These changes don’t have to take effect in 2021-22. The 75th-anniversary season just provided an opportunity for spin. If the NBA implemented the new schedule that season and it backfired, the league could drop it and claim it was a one-time alteration.

That window isn’t quite shut, but read the writing on the wall: Too few owners want these changes.

LeBron James again leads NBA jersey sales, Giannis Antetokounmpo second

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Combine the brands of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers and it’s going to sell a lot of jerseys.

If you needed confirmation of that — and why would you? — the NBA announced that LeBron leads the league in jersey sales through the start of this season (October 2019 through the end of the calendar year). Giannis Antetokounmpo is second, and Stephen Curry rounds out the top three. Then the list gets interesting.

Here are the top 15 players in jersey sales:

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors=
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics=
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
6. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
7. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
8. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
10. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
11. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
12. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
13. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
14. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
15. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Tatum climbing up to fourth — in front of Harden and some other established stars — shows both the growth in his popularity and the power of Celtics’ nation.

The fast-rising popularity of Luka Doncic also is evident with him being sixth, in front of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, both of whom switched teams (which often can spike jersey sales).

Also, note Zion Williamson is 15th without having stepped on an NBA court. Yet.

The Lakers head the list of the team with the most merchandise sold, with the Celtics second and the 76ers third. Toronto is fourth after its championship run (their first time in the top five), and the Brooklyn Nets are in the top 10, a first for that franchise.

These results are based on NBAStore.com sales from October 2019 through December 2019.

Frustrated Bradley Beal reportedly “angry with and emotional about” Wizards

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Just before the start of training camp, Bradley Beal locked himself in with the Wizards agreeing to a two-year, $71.8 million contract extension. That new contract meant not only some bigger paychecks down the line but also Beal could not be traded during this season — a season everyone realized would be difficult with no John Wall.

All the losing is wearing on Beal, however, who said after Thursday night’s Wizards loss to the Bulls:

“I don’t like losing. I’m sorry — especially winnable games… I don’t like losing, so [my frustration is] gonna keep building up for me until we starting winning and changing our culture.”

How do you change the culture?

“Winning games. Have a winning attitude, winning habits.”

This is more than just frustration of the moment with another loss, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Bradley Beal’s pique after his team’s 115-106 loss to the Bulls was real. Really real. A source who was also there told me Thursday that Beal was as angry with and emotional about his team as he’s ever been since being drafted by the Wizards in 2012.

Beal may have intellectually understood what he signed up for this season, that doesn’t make going through it easier emotionally. This season in Washington was going to be about finding players to go around Beal and Wall and make this team a threat. They found a few — Davis Bertans has had a breakout season (but may be tough to keep as a free agent this summer), rookie Rui Hachimura showed promise before his groin injury, Jordan McRae and Thomas Bryant have had their moments.

The concern for GM Tommy Shepard and the Wizards is Beal gets so frustrated he demands out, throwing off Washington’s plan. Technically, Beal cannot be a free agent until the summer of 2022 (or 2023 if he picked up a player option), but that has not stopped players in recent years from leveraging their way out in “pre-agency.” Maybe Beal doesn’t go that route this summer, but you can be sure a lot of teams will be calling Washington just to check on his availability. (This is where we say “the league is cracking down on player-to-player tampering/recruitment,” but if you think that will stop players I know a Nigerian prince who needs a loan and wants to talk to you.)

Much like with Karl-Anthony Towns, expect teams to be monitoring this situation. Just in case. Wizards fans may want to monitor it, too.

 

 

Barrier to entry for NBA playoff race is historically low

NBA playoff race includes Grizzlies, Nets
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As free agency neared last summer, Andre Iguodala told his wife he suspected he’d get traded. She asked, where?

“I’ll probably end up in Memphis or some s—,” Iguodala replied.

The tone seemed apt. The Grizzlies were in the initial stages of a rebuild. Hardly a fit for 35-year-old Iguodala. In fact, Memphis – which of course traded for Iguodala – has agreed to let Iguodala sit out since training camp began. The Grizzlies could search for a trade. Iguodala could stay fresh for a team ready to win now.

But a funny thing happened: Halfway through the NBA season, Memphis is in playoff position.

The Grizzlies are exceeding expectations, of course. Ja Morant and a young core are thriving far sooner than expected. That isn’t the whole story, though.

Memphis (19-22) has won just 46% of its games. That would have been good for 11th place last season. In the East.

The Grizzlies are fortunate to play in Western Conference with a weak middle class. Memphis on pace to become the first sub-.500 Western Conference playoff teams since the conference expanded to 15 teams.

And it’s not as if the Grizzlies are getting pushed hard from behind. The ninth-place Spurs (17-22) are on pace for the worst ninth-place finish in the West in this era (since 2004-05).

It’s a similar story in the East.

The Nets (18-22) are in playoff position with a winning percentage barely ahead of the 2003-04 Celtics, who went 36-46 and made the postseason. That Boston team set the low watermark since the Eastern Conference expanded to 15 teams (since 1995-96).

Like Memphis in the West, Brooklyn faces uninspiring competition. The ninth-place Bulls (15-27), 10th-place Pistons (15-27) AND 11th-place Hornets (15-29) are all on pace for the worst finish for their spot in the standings in this era.

Here’s how each team’s win percentage in each conference compares to teams in the same place in the standings in prior 15-team conferences. The 2019-20 teams are shown by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15. After the graphics, 2018-19 teams are compared to the worst, average and best teams ever to finish in each place, 1-15.

Western Conference

NBA Western Conference standings

NBA Western Conference standings

Eastern Conference

NBA Eastern Conference standings

NBA Eastern Conference standings

At least several decent teams are lurking in the West. Even the 14th-place Kings would rank ninth in the East. Between the Grizzlies, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Suns, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Kings, one probably emerges with a winning record.

Both conferences feature relative strength in the 3-6 range. That could mean a high-quality first-round series or two in each conference.

So, why do the conferences look how they do? I wouldn’t rush to ascribe meaning.

The NBA implemented lottery reform last season, and that might have something to do with a lack of teams deeply bottoming out. But it’s too soon to say with certainty how the new lottery odds will affect things. After all, the shape of the standings looked quite different around this time last season.

The league getting further removed from the 2016 cap spike might also play a part in producing parity among good teams. Again, though, it’s too early to carve conclusions into stone.

Mostly, I think there’s just a randomness to it. Some years, the standings shake out a certain way. Other years, it’s a different way.

But now that we know how this year looks, we can see that only a few teams are out of the playoff race. Twelve teams ought to believe they have at least a fair chance of winning a postseason series. That could produce more buyers than usual before the trade deadline.