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Kerry Eggers On the NBA: Fill-in center says he'd like to stay with Trail Blazers; numbers say that won't happen

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Hassan Whiteside has rung up impressive stats in his short time with the Trail Blazers.Damian Lillard seems a lock to appear in the NBA All-Star Game Feb. 16. The Trail Blazers' point guard ranks among the league's top 10 in scoring (26.8 points per game, seventh) and assists (7.6, eighth) and will likely join Houston's James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Utah's Donovan Mitchell and Dallas' Luka Doncic (who is considered a guard for All-Star consideration but is really a small forward) in the Western Conference backcourt in Chicago.

The Blazers are pushing CJ McCollum, who is averaging 21.9 points, but he is probably down the list of a strong collection of guards in the West, including Oklahoma City's Chris Paul, San Antonio's DeMar DeRozan and Phoenix's Devin Booker. That is especially true given Portland's lousy record (17-24), which factors into All-Star consideration.

Portland's Carmelo Anthony would be a nice sentimental choice, and while his addition has been a godsend for the Blazers, he won't make it unless he announces his retirement and becomes a farewell pick (hello Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade).

Aside from Lillard, Portland's player most deserving of All-Star recognition is Hassan Whiteside, who somehow has been overlooked in the voting process. He is not among the top 10 in the fan vote at the frontcourt positions in the West. Anthony is eighth.

(The fan vote accounts for 50 percent of the total vote to determine the All-Star Game starters. Players and media members split the other 50 percent. Each ballot consists of two guards and three frontcourt players from each conference. Reserves are chosen by head coaches. All-Star captains will then draft their teams from the eligible pool of players — starters in the first round, reserves in the second round. Captains will be selected based on which players earn the most fan votes in each conference. They are not required to draft based on conference affiliation or position.)

Whiteside is the second most-deserving center in the West behind Denver's Nikola Jokic, but that won't matter since it could be six forwards named to the West squad along with Jokic.

The 7-1 Whiteside, who turns 31 in June, is having a terrific season in his first (and almost surely only) campaign with the Blazers. He leads the league in blocked shots (2.9), is fourth in rebounds (13.9) and double-doubles (29) and has averaged 15.5 points while shooting .594 from the field, ninth-best in the NBA. He is also shooting a solid .765 from the free-throw line, a remarkable improvement from his .449 mark a year ago with Miami.

The Blazers have been issuing tweets trumpeting Whiteside's achievements this season. To wit: "Fourth player in NBA history with at least 21 points and 16 rebounds in less than 23 minutes." And: "First player with 100 blocks in his first 35 games of a season since Whiteside in 2015-16." And: "Fourth player in NBA history to collect 500 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocks in the first 36 games of a season."

Which all plays into Whiteside's reputation: "He's a stat-chaser."

I've heard that from a number of folks, some of them NBA and former NBA officials. Whiteside is seen by some as not a team player, as a guy looking out mostly for himself. Some think his blocked shots numbers are misleading, that he is only an average defending hunting blocks at the expense of guarding his own man.

He has been a pretty effective hunter, I'd say.

Whiteside has done a nice job cleaning up things around the basket after an opposing perimeter player has beaten his man. He is not the reason Portland is porous defensively, ranking 21st in the NBA in opponents' field-goal percentage, 23rd in opponents' scoring and 24th in defensive rating.

"He is just great defensively," New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said after Whiteside collected 11 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks against the Pelicans on Dec. 23. "He really pursues the ball and has a great feel for angles and where (the ball) is going to come off (the rim). He is a real force on the boards, too."

The rebound and shooting numbers speak for themselves. Whiteside may be a little moody, but he has played hard and been a sensational fill-in in the post as Jusuf Nurkic rehabs from his broken leg.

"We got him because we thought he could help us with 'Nurk' out, and that he is a defensive guy, rebounding and blocking shots," Portland coach Terry Stotts told me not long ago. "Our expectations were that he would come in and get a lot done for us.

"People don't realize how difficult it can be coming into a new situation, especially after you've been somewhere for a long time. He was with Miami for five years and was used to that system. Coming into a new situation, you're just trying to find your way and the best way to make it work. He has done a great job with that."

Deportment has not been an issue with Whiteside.

"Teammates like him," Stotts said. "He's upbeat. His attitude has been fine. If you follow him on Instagram — he enjoys life."

But I sense Whiteside is feeling some pressure as he ponders his future, which is not in a Blazer uniform.

Nurkic is Portland's center of the future. The Blazers can't afford to keep Whiteside, who is making $27.1 million this season in the last year of his contract and will be a free agent on July 1. Portland has the NBA's highest payroll at nearly $148 million — well above both the salary cap ($109 million) and luxury tax threshold ($132 million).

Eliminating Whiteside and Kent Bazemore ($19 million this season) drops the Blazers to under $100 million in commitments for next year, but that's with only seven players under contract — Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr. and Nassir Little. General manager Neil Olshey has plenty of work to do, adding or retaining pieces while trying to stay beneath the luxury tax, which is estimated at $143 million for the 2020-21 season.

Olshey will almost surely trade Whiteside (and probably Bazemore) before the Feb. 6 deadline. If Olshey doesn't deal Whiteside by then, he'll get nothing for him, because the center becomes a free agent in the summer, and he won't be signing with Portland.

Whiteside could be an attractive candidate for a title contender shy on interior presence on a rental basis. It's also possible he is used as a salary dump for a non-contender. That would be the case if the Blazers send him to Cleveland in a deal for Kevin Love, who is in the first year of a four-year, $120-million contract. The Cavaliers are going nowhere; Love, 31, is not a piece of their future.

By now, Whiteside has heard more than he wants to hear about a potential trade for Love. Last month, after collecting 17 points, 15 boards and five blocks in a win over New York, he turned to Anthony and said, "Kevin Love don't rebound like that!"

The next game, after going for 33 points and 11 rebounds in a loss to Denver, Whiteside told The Athletic, "And Kevin Love don't block shots like that, either."

Whiteside said then that the trade talk "don't enter my mind a lot. I was more just messing with 'Melo.' I'm not thinking about it. If we are struggling on defense and you want to (trade for him), I mean, good luck. Good luck with that."

A trade is almost assuredly going to happen, and Whiteside doesn't relish the thought. When I asked him how much the possibility enters his mind after Monday's win over Charlotte, he shook his head. "Why would you ask me that question?"

It's clear he'd like to stay with Portland. "Of course I would," he said.

The Blazers would like that, too. They're in between a rock and a hard place, though.

It's ironic. Odds are high that a player who is deserving of All-Star Game consideration will be wearing another uniform by the time the league's elite go at it in Chicago.

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@kerryeggers


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