Both Nikola Vucevic and Hassan Whiteside took circuitous routes to NBA stardom, and did so in such a discreet way that many NBA fans do not even realize both can be considered basketball stars in their own right.
Vucevic, who was the low man on the SportsCenter ticker when four teams announced the big Dwight Howard/Andrew Bynum/Andre Iguodala/Vucevic 12-player trade in August 2012, surprisingly became the prized asset of that transaction. This season, specifically, Vooch has seen his status rise to legit All-Star candidacy, with the Orlando Magic center averaging 20.3 points and 11.8 rebounds in 31.0 minutes per game, while logging a Player Efficiency Rating (26.8) that ranks first among centers.
On a similar note, Whiteside salvaged a second-round failure of career with Sacramento to become a high-priced asset with the Miami Heat, signing an annual $20-plus million contract back in 2016-17, and consistently raising his League-wide profile, putting up some of the best defensive-rebounding numbers around, averaging 12.9 points, 12.8 boards (fifth in the NBA) and 2.5 blocks (third) in only 26.3 minutes per game, while ranking fifth in PER (21.4) among Eastern Conference centers.
In a conference that boasts Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond, it is doubtful the East coaches will vote two Floridian centers to the 2019 NBA All-Star team. So to help the coaches make their choice, we have paired the Orlando and Miami postmen for today’s H2H.
Stats through January 3, 2019
Key: G games; MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assists per game; SPG steals per game; BPG blocks per game; TSP true shooting percentage; PER Player Efficiency Rating.
Whiteside might dispute this, but Vucevic is the clear leader in this department, owning a 20-to-13 points-per-game edge on the Heat center who has begged for more offensive touches in past seasons. To his credit, Whiteside seems to have finally bought into Miami’s system where teammates concentrate on getting the 29-year-old the ball near the basket (nearly half of his shots come within three feet of the basket). And for good reason—Whiteside’s career 3-to-10 foot range is 43 percent, while two-pointers beyond are only 39-percent shots. Meanwhile, Vucevic has an assortment of moves—pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, pick-and-pass—beyond baskets inside the restricted area, with his greatest leap in proficiency coming this very season. Granted, Vooch has been a top 15 center in years past, but this year, he is literally making a case for All-NBA status, boasting a career-high .592 true shooting percentage that dwarfs his 2017-18 and 2016-17 metrics (.533 and .498 TSPs, respectively). For starters, the 28-year-old Magic center is finally hitting his three-point shot with career-best accuracy (38 percent), which now justifies his frequent attempts. He is becoming impossible to guard with his paint game now impeccable, while his long two-ball game is as good as any big around. Put a small-ball center on Vooch, and he’ll receive the ball on the left block, spin baseline and dunk on the forward, time and time again. Put a big on him who is wary to step out on the perimeter, and Vooch will drain long 2 after 3, time and time again.
Whiteside is a black hole once he gets the ball in the paint, but it is often for good reason: He is a good finisher. Whiteside perennially averages two dunks a game, which places his season-long total at 63 slams in 2018-19 (Vucevic has 16). Meanwhile, Vooch is more the post playmaker, averaging 3.6 assists per game this season, which is a steady progression from 3.4 dimes per game in 2017-18 and 2.8 assists per game the season before that. All along, he has been able to maintain a near 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which makes him the clear winner in this department (Whiteside averages 0.8 assists per game this season).
The 7-0. 250-pound Vucevic is a wonderful defender and rebounder from the post position, but he is not the dominant center that the 7-0, 265-pound Whiteside can be at times. The Heat center led the NBA in rebounds per game (14.1) in 2016-17 and also led the League in blocks per game (3.7) in 2015-16 to give you an idea how dominant he can be in the paint. In fact, nobody can put up the traditional defense-and-rebounding statistics that Young Whiteside produces. On top of that, Miami has a three-man center triumvirate that essentially can shut down any type of center attack, with Whiteside supplying the best rim protection; footwork-technician Bam Adebayo handling the dribble-drive bigs; pick-and-roll specialist Kelly Olynyk. With all that backup, Whiteside is always able to put his best foot forward, which is pretty imposing when he’s locking down 12.8 boards and 2.5 blocks per game as he is this season.
Whiteside has come a long way in maturity and the Miami Heat organization should take a bow for that, considering how far a journey that was. Even as Whiteside shares the position with Adebayo and Olynyk at times, the starting center still realizes his importance to the team and has quit letting minutes insecurities become a problem, as he may have done in the past. Since returning to the lineup after a recent four-game absence, Whiteside has led the Heat on a 7-2 resurgence that comes despite Miami losing Goran Dragic to injury. That said, Vucevic maintains the leadership edge. So much so, that he has become the embodiment of Coach Steve Clifford’s “toughness” and “defense first” mentalities. Still, we hear Vooch trade rumors all the time because the free-agent-to-be has an expiring contract. How much longer Vucevic leads is anybody’s guess. Yes, Orlando has young frontline talents Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba to pick up the slack if Vooch is dealt, but the question is, Who will lead those young Magicians out of the Orlando wilderness in the future if there is no Vooch?
With an expiring $12.5 million contract, Vucevic is now the most valuable trade asset on the market. A playoff contender—say, the Lakers—could acquire him, set his $18.75 million cap-hold space aside this summer, sign another max free agent—say, Kevin Durant—then re-sign Vooch to his max, giving a playoff contender the cap wherewithal to sign two more max free agents while only holding space for one-and-a-half maxers. Whiteside, who makes $27.1 million next season, has an attractive contract on next season’s $109 million salary-cap scale, but it does not offer the same flexibility as Vooch’s. And with 49 percent of the League’s players entering free agency this summer, these are the type of intangibles that matter when trades are discussed on teams with losing records.
Heading into this season, you probably would have had two separate camps when it came to spotlighting Florida’s finest center. However, in the two-and-a-half months we have seen thus far, Vooch has come out and clearly taken the lead. But don’t count out Whiteside and the Heat who are both heating up now as we enter this new year.