Since retiring from the NBA in 1963 and again after a brief return to action in 1970, Bob Cousy has seen plenty of incredible defensive-minded big men. The 86-year old, who winters in Florida, doesn’t have to hover over NBA League Pass every night to see all manner of rim protectors cabled to him on either national TV, or through local Miami Heat broadcasts.
Those Heat have had an up and down year, as partially exemplified by the ascension or former journeyman center Hassan Whiteside. And just 41 games into Whiteside’s career with the Heat – that’s half an NBA season – Bob Cousy has seen enough.
In a good way. He's now comparing Whiteside to the legendary Bill Russell. From Bill Doyle at the Telegram & Gazette:
"I have never said this in the 40 years since I retired," Cousy said in a recent telephone interview, "but he is the first big guy, not (Patrick) Ewing, (Hakeem) Olajuwon, Shaq (O'Neal), who reminds me defensively and on the boards of Russell. He runs the floor well, he has excellent timing, he blocks shots and keeps them in play the way Russell did."
"I don't get excited too often about these guys," Cousy said, "but this kid looks to me like a turn-around guy.
"This kid moves to every rebound, he just reacts to everything on the defensive boards and he reacts the way Russell did. He leaves his man and comes over to help. He'll block five or six shots a game and he catches them. The league hasn't caught up with him yet."
Cousy paused for a moment and added, "Maybe I'm overreacting."
And how did Whiteside respond to Cousy possible overreaction?
"That's a great honor," Whiteside said before the Celtics hosted Miami Wednesday. "Everybody knows that Bill Russell is probably one of the best shot blockers that ever lived. That's really a big honor that he thinks of me that way."
Whiteside, suffering from a laceration on his right hand, did not play against the Celtics and will be listed as “questionable” for Friday’s Heat game against the Atlanta Hawks. Like the left-handed Bill Russell, however, Whiteside blocks a goodly chunk of his shots with his left hand.
And, once again, he’s only 41 games into his season with the Heat, he may only finish the campaign with 50 games to his credit and 33 starts due to injury, suspension, and the fact that Miami didn’t even sign the guy until the third week of November, and didn’t play him until Dec. 1.
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After being selected with the 33rd pick in the 2010 NBA draft, the 6-11 center bounced around with the Sacramento Kings, five different D-League clubs, and professional outfits in Lebanon and China prior to finding a home with Miami. Whiteside does have a bit of a problem with his temper, something he’s copped to, but under the guidance of fellow basketball vagabond Michael Beasley the Heat hope to act as the stabilizing force that can turn Whiteside into a perennial All-Star.
Still, Bill Russell?
Blocks weren’t even kept as a statistic during Russell’s Hall of Fame career, and the NBA didn’t even differentiate between offensive and defensive rebounds during his run as the league’s best defender from 1956 through 1969. Still, Boston’s perpetual ranking atop the NBA’s defensive efficiency charts and all manner of black and white game tape show Russell absolutely dominating on that end of the court, acting as a modern NBA player in what was more or less an archaic style of game throughout most of Russell’s career.
As a result of this, and the speed in which the game was played in the 1950s and 1960s (Russell’s 1964 Celtics averaged 125 possessions per game, in comparison to the Golden State’s league-leading 99 possessions per game in 2015), Bill Russell put up some borderline-laughable rebounding numbers in averaging nearly 25 a game one year and 22 per contest on his career. It’s highly conceivable that Russell could have enjoyed some seasons with six or seven blocks per game averages:
How does Whiteside compare?
Not only has the game slowed down, but centers are encouraged to alter shots defensively rather than outright swatting them in the modern era, so as to not leave themselves out of position defensively or on the glass. Whiteside averages “just” 2.5 blocks per game, but he blocks nine percent of the shots taken against his Heat when he is on the floor – that number would lead the league by a wide margin had Whiteside played enough minutes this season, and it would rank him sixth all time in terms of yearly block percentage. Whiteside would fall behind players like Manute Bol and Shawn Bradley on that list, two centers that were asked to swat at just about everything, regardless of defensive positioning.
Whiteside’s defensive positioning allows the Heat to act as an average defensive team when he’s on the court, which doesn’t seem like much until you consider the fact that the Heat’s defensive numbers rank them amongst the worst teams in the NBA on that side of the ball when Whiteside is off the court. Whiteside’s 9.8 rebounds per game wouldn’t even rank him in the NBA’s top this season, but because Whiteside doesn’t lope after every block, the percentage of defensive rebounds and total rebounds he reels in tops the NBA.
“Tops the NBA” if he’d played enough minutes, that is, which is why Bob Cousy admitted to a possible overreaction after spying some of Hassan Whiteside’s 928 total minutes in 2014-15.
For Cousy to laud Whiteside ahead of defensive luminaries such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Dennis Rodman, David Robinson, Nate Thurmond, Kevin Garnett, Dikembe Mutombo or Ben Wallace? Don’t dismiss the Hall of Famer.
It’s a small sample size, and Whiteside has disappointed before, but the 25 year old has the potential to be a destructive force on the defensive end for another decade. His offensive game is limited to put-backs and lobs at this point and he barely makes half his free throws, but Whiteside has nailed 61 percent of his shots with the Heat (in a different era, Russell’s top career mark is 46.7 percent) and is far from a liability on that end in averaging nearly double-figure points in just 22 minutes a contest.
Bob Cousy may be overreacting, and perhaps he should have credited some centers from previous eras prior to 2015, but Bob Cousy also knows a stud when he sees him. If Hassan Whiteside can continue at his current rate, leading the NBA in both block and rebound percentage at unprecedented levels, he will most certainly have earned those comparisons to the great Bill Russell.
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