After months of speculation, rumors, and debate, it is time for fans of the Los Angeles Lakers to find out precisely who the team intends to pursue in NBA free agency and at what price. Armed with approximately $65 million or more in cap space, the team has plenty of spending power, but will there be any takers? At long last, we are about to find out.
There are superstars in play like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. There are All-Stars like DeMar DeRozan and Al Horford. There are players who should be All-Stars like Mike Conley, and former All-Stars like Rajon Rondo. Someone has to be the number one priority for the Lakers, someone they will pursue and covet above everyone else. It is abundantly clear who that should be.
Hassan Whiteside is 7’0” tall and weighs 265 pounds. He just turned 27 on June 13. Raised in Gastonia, North Carolina, he attended five separate high schools before playing one season at the collegiate level for Marshall. In 34 college games, he averaged 13.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 5.4 blocks per contest. He was chosen with the 33rd pick in the 2010 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings and played mostly in the D-League before being waived by the Kings in 2012. Whiteside played abroad in 2013 before returning to the NBA with the Memphis Grizzles in 2014, who waived him after a very short stint.
Several NBA teams passed on Whiteside in 2014 including the Lakers, but he landed with the Miami Heat in November 2014. No one knows why or how it happened, but he became an instant success and had some truly eye-opening games for the Heat that season. He averaged a double-double on the year with 11.8 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. On January 11, 2015, Whiteside had 23 points, 16 rebounds, two steals and two blocks in a game against the Los Angeles Clippers. On January 25, 2015, he had his first triple-double, registering 14 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 blocked shots, the first NBA player to accomplish that feat in 25 years. On February 4, 2015, he scored 24 points on 12-of-13 shooting, and grabbed 20 rebounds, in a game against the Timberwolves. He became one of only four NBA players to shoot 90 percent in a game while scoring at least 20 points and having 20 rebounds.
Along the way, Whiteside got into some trouble. On March 2, 2015, he got into a fight with Alex Len of the Phoenix Suns and was fined $15,000 by the league. In a game on March 9, 2015, against the Boston Celtics, he had an altercation with Kelly Olynyk and received a one-game suspension.
Whiteside was even better in 2015-16, starting the season with 20 consecutive games in which he blocked two or more shots, only the third player in NBA history to do so. He had three more triple doubles, making him one of only seven players in history to have multiple career triple-doubles that included double-digit blocks. As the year went on his offense picked up significantly, and he was regularly scoring close to 20 or more points per game.
Critics say Whiteside is immature and a headcase. But no one can argue with his incredible statistics the past two seasons. Not only that, he was never a featured player in the Heat rotation, and often came off the bench. There is every reason to believe Whiteside’s game will continue to get better as he gains more experience and becomes a featured part of an offense.
The Lakers have a good young core with D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson at guard and Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle at the forward positions. They also have back-ups at forward with Larry Nance, Jr. and Anthony Brown. But the team has no center. That is the number one need this summer, and that is why Whiteside must be the Lakers main target when the free agency period starts at midnight on July 1.
Imagine a starting line-up of Russell, Clarkson, Ingram, Randle, and Whiteside. No doubt that is what the Lakers’ front office is imagining. On paper, it is a near-perfect fit. It is a young group, and there will be bumps in the road. There are some who are wary of Whiteside’s attitude. There are risks, but if it works, the Lakers could be set for the next five to 10 years, and all that will be necessary is fitting some good role players around this core.
There are other centers available in free agency, but none fits the Lakers’ existing line-up like Whiteside. The Lakers thought Dwight Howard would be their rim protector, but for whatever reason, he couldn’t do it in his lone season with the team. Then came Jordan Hill and Ed Davis, but Hill fell in love with the outside shot and Davis was underutilized by Byron Scott before choosing to leave for Portland. Then last season, former All-Star Roy Hibbert was recruited to protect the paint, but he proved too slow for the modern NBA game.
Enter Whiteside, who led the league in blocked shots and was third in rebounding this past season. That does not even take into consideration the hundreds of shots he altered. Defense is his forte, but Whiteside has shown good potential on offense as well. His main competition in free agency at the center position is Al Horford, and while Horford is a good player, he is 30, and his statistics have been declining the past couple of seasons. Whiteside, in contrast, is just entering his prime and will improve.
After months of rumors and debates about who the Lakers should make their number one priority in free agency, the obvious answer is Hassan Whiteside. If they get him and no one else, it will be a huge acquisition and free agency will be a success.
The problem is, several other teams are reportedly targeting Whiteside as well so the Lakers will have stiff competition. On the positive side, in contrast to other top free agents who have all but announced they are returning to their teams, Whiteside’s comments have suggested he is open to the possibility of moving. If he does, let’s hope the Lakers are the winning bidder.