Charlotte Hornets

Hassan Whiteside posed problem in NBA playoffs; this was Hornets’ effort at an answer

Charlotte Hornets center Roy Hibbert (55) blocks Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) in Thursday’s preseason exhibition.
Charlotte Hornets center Roy Hibbert (55) blocks Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) in Thursday’s preseason exhibition. Getty Images

As well as Dwyane Wade played against the Charlotte Hornets in the playoffs – and he was a spectacular shot maker – the player who most impacted that seven-game series was Gastonia native Hassan Whiteside.

Whiteside controlled the lane defensively with such dominance that the Miami Heat’s other defenders never had to leave the Hornets’ outside shooters. That was the difference in a series the Hornets nearly won in six games.

So one of the Hornets’ off-season priorities was to look at Whiteside’s value as a rim-protector and say, “Gotta find one of those.”

If you squint a little and have a very open mind, his name is Roy Hibbert.

Hibbert once was Whiteside and then some. He might not have made the head-shaking blocks Whiteside does now, but he intimidated drivers and allowed fellow Indiana Pacers some relief when they were beaten off the dribble.

Hibbert’s reputation was a bit soiled the past two season, his last with the Pacers and only one with the Los Angeles Lakers. Now the Hornets are looking to make him their starting center, and reclamation projects have been somewhat this coaching staff’s specialty.

There wasn’t a ton of entertainment value in the Hornets’ sloppy, 96-88 preseason victory over the Heat at the Spectrum Center Thursday. Hornets coach Steve Clifford used the game as a dress rehearsal, playing roughly what will be his regular-season rotation. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra used this more like a scrimmage, liberally substituting in deep reserves who will no doubt end up with Miami’s Development League affiliate.

But it did get interesting during the first-half minutes when Whiteside and Hibbert were both in the game. Whiteside – predictably – blocked Hibbert’s attempt at a jump hook. The older Hibbert did likewise on a Whiteside shot, prompting the following response from a fan in the stands.

“We’ve got a rim-protector, too, Whiteside!” the fan yelled.

Seems that way.

Opening-night starter by default

With Cody Zeller still out with a deep bone bruise in his right knee, Hibbert is the obvious starter at center on opening night. He didn’t shoot well Thursday, going 2-of-7 from the field. But he finished with eight points, 11 rebounds and three assists. He looked competent as a starter and provides a defensive element with his 7-foot-1 size the Hornets didn’t have last season.

I asked Spoelstra before the game whether Hibbert still has the goods to be somewhat a countermeasure to what Whiteside provides the Heat.

“There’s not many of them around the league,” Spoelstra said of old-school rim-protectors. “Hibbert’s a different player than Hassan, but we saw his impact firsthand in three seven-game series against him and while he didn’t block an incredible amount of shots, he really does protect the rim well.”

Not since Biyombo

The Hornets haven’t had anything like that since they gave up on Bismack Biyombo, declining to make the qualifying offer to restrict his free-agency in the summer of 2015.

Biyombo moved on to the Toronto Raptors and re-ignited his career with a strong playoff performance. He signed over the summer with the Orlando Magic. Some fans are frustrated the Hornets gave up on Biyombo. But I’m not sure what the Magic is paying him, as a player so limited offensively, is a sound investment.

The Hornets gave Hibbert a similar chance at redemption and playing time. He’s here on a one-season, $5 million deal that seems like a win-win. Hibbert is playing for associate head coach Patrick Ewing, a fellow former Georgetown Hoya, and I think this is a worthy experiment.

At minimum they addressed a problem that was disastrous in that Heat playoff series. At maximum, they found themselves a starting center.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell