Most Valuable Center: Al Horford or Hassan Whiteside?

Al Horford and Hassan Whiteside are both centers, but their careers are a study in contrasts.  Horford was born in the Dominican Republic before moving to Michigan and playing college ball at Florida.  However, he was considered a major prospect and Atlanta drafted him third overall in 2007.  Whiteside grew up in North Carolina, attended Marshall, and fell to the second round before Sacramento selected him in 2010.  He spent time in the D-League, China, and Lebanon prior to landing with the Heat in 2014.

Twenty-nine year old Horford has certainly played well this year and recently made the Eastern All-Star team after Chris Bosh bowed out due to an injury.  However, I believe that Whiteside was actually more deserving of the honor.

Horford has free rein to shoot from distance this season which makes guarding him a potentially frustrating duty.  So far, he’s hitting 34% behind the arc, which is impressive for a man who is 6’11”.  What’s interesting is that he rarely experimented with those shots in the past.  Horford had attempted 65 three-pointers total in eight previous seasons but has taken 165 already in 2015-16.

Horford is a gifted overall scorer. His current 50.5% is a 3% dip from last season but mostly explained by the long-range shooting.  Horford averages 15.3 points this year, which is lower than his career-high of 18.6.  However, that is mitigated by the fact that he attempts 12.8 field goals per game compared to 14.5 during 2013-14.

Al Horford Points FG% Rebounds Rebound % PER
2013-14 18.6 56.7% 8.4 14.8% 22.0
2015-16 15.3 50.6% 6.9 11.9% 19.7

Twenty-six year old Hassan Whiteside has never attempted a three-pointer during his NBA career, but he’s an effective inside scorer for the Heat.  Once he got established, Whiteside’s 2014-15 was revelatory in part because he made 62.8% of his field goals.  That’s not quite DeAndre Jordan territory but did place in the top five among players appearing in 20 or more games.  He’s hitting 62.2% this season which proves that last season was no fluke.  It helps that Whiteside takes nearly 85% of his attempts this season from within the painted area, but there’s something to be said for inside scoring ability.

Whiteside also knows his limitations: even some of his other 55 shots this season were located just barely outside the key.  An average of 12.5 points in 2015-16 is not jaw-dropping, but he has accomplished it by taking just eight field goals per game.  Whiteside’s 55% from the foul line is far worse than Horford’s 79%, but it’s a 5% increase from last season and Whiteside only attempts about four free throws nightly.

Hassan Whiteside Points FG% Rebounds Blocks Block% PER
2014-15 11.8 62.8% 10.0 2.6 9.2% 26.2
2015-16 12.5 62.2% 11.2 3.8 10.7% 24.2

Horford is above-average on defense, but Whiteside is one of the very best in that area. For instance, Horford’s opponents have shot 3.4% worse than average within six feet of the hoop this season.  That’s a positive indicator, but Whiteside is simply off the charts as the opposition has shot 11.7% lower against him in that area.  Horford can block shots with 1.5 per game, but Whiteside’s 3.9 swats make him devastating against would-be scorers.  It’s also an increase of more than one block compared to 2014-15.

Horford pulls down an average of seven rebounds, but Whiteside grabs eleven in slightly fewer minutes including three on the offensive end.  Horford is certainly the better passer boasting three assists per contest, but that makes sense given his range and all-around offensive game.  Whiteside is content to make high-percentage shots close to the hoop when given the opportunity.  That helps give him the edge in Player Efficiency Rating at 24.2 compared to  for Horford’s 19.7.  Naturally, he is also a major reason why Miami has one of the league’s finest defensive corps.

Friday, February 19 should have been the final matchup of the season between Horford and Whiteside.  Instead, Whiteside was suspended that night for elbowing Boban Marjanovic of the Spurs on February 9.  Anger has gotten the better of him at times, and he acknowledged the mistake.  Whiteside told the media:

“I mean, I know actions like that kill my career.”

Miami was able to win without him by a score of 115-111, thanks to big games from Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts.  Horford did have his moments, including two blocks and a fourth quarter three-point play.  However, he shot just 4-11 from the field and Atlanta missed an opportunity to improve its playoff seed at home.

The Miami Heat’s Justise Winslow recently made the case for Whiteside as an All-Star in a piece for The Players’ Tribune.  Winslow cited Whiteside’s superlative defensive and offensive efficiency as the primary reasons.  Whiteside may be a teammate of his, but I absolutely agree with Winslow’s premise.  Whiteside has blocked ten or more shots on three occasions during 2015-16 alone.  Each time that resulted in a normally rare way to achieve a triple-double.  The block totals are incredible by themselves, but they also represent the fear he puts into even the best scorers who tend to rush or force shots in Whiteside’s presence.

Whiteside may not be as versatile as Horford on offense, but his powerful inside game is keeping the Heat in the playoff mix.


photo via llananba