As an organization, the Miami Heat pride themselves on their hard-hat, not-for-everyone culture. They don’t solve problems, they grind them into the dirt and make things tough for anyone in their path. That’s the mentality Pat Riley brought to the team with his arrival in 1995.
Ironically, that same ethos has put the Heat in the worst positioning of the Riley Era.
At 8-13, the Heat aren’t close to being contenders. Heck, they barely look like they could be a playoff team in the underwhelming Eastern Conference. The offense is a banged up bundle of sadness, and the defense isn’t good (or tough) enough to compensate like it normally is.
A down year would be easier to swallow if the payroll matched the product. Instead, the Heat are buried in contracts that float between “meh” and “yuck.” Their roster, cap sheet, and record is the culmination of failed bets, particularly on themselves. No player epitomizes Miami’s current situation better than their highest paid player, Hassan Whiteside.
To be clear, this isn’t to blame Whiteside for Miami’s current predicament. He’s objectively a good basketball player. But if we’re going to talk about Miami’s middling position and gambles that didn’t quite work out, it’s hard to find a better figurehead than the seven-footer.
Whiteside burst onto the scene in 2015 virtually out of nowhere. After failed stints in Sacramento and multiple stints overseas, the Heat took a flier on the raw big with impressive physical tools. He didn’t disappoint, swatting shots, grabbing boards, dunking on fools and protesting for a higher 2K rating.
It’s safe to say he’s the same guy.
Whiteside is the league’s leading shot blocker at 2.9 per contest. He uses his massive 7’7 wingspan to bother shots from virtually any angle. Dare to challenge him at the rim, and you’re bound to get your shot rejected like a bad “promposal”:
Even jumpers aren’t safe around the big fella when he’s in the zone:
Whiteside doesn’t just use his length to send shots away; he also snags misses off the rim at an elite rate. He’s second only to Andre Drummond (16.4) in rebounds per game at 13.6 and joins Drummond as the only other player to average at least four offensive rebounds and nine defensive rebounds. Miami boasts a rebounding percentage of 52.5 with Whiteside on the floor; it plummets to 49.0 when he goes to the bench, according to NBA.com.
Offensively, Whiteside can be a devastating pick-and-roll partner. Per Synergy, Whiteside is generating 1.31 points per 100 possessions on rolls to the rim, placing him in the 72nd percentile. He’s a willing screener now, which allows the ball-handler to get downhill and create 2-on-1 opportunities. In those situations, Whiteside’s size and lob radius make him virtually impossible to stop:
At his best, Whiteside is a game-altering presence on both ends of the floor. His screening and roll gravity opens up an offense short on individual creation. Defensively, he can serve as the anchor of Miami’s drop scheme, allowing them to hang tight on shooters and coax enemy ball-handlers into mid-range jumpers.
If you want an example, peep his stat line against the Spurs on November 7th: 29 points, 20 rebounds and nine freakin’ blocks. He steamrolled San Antonio’s athletically-challenged bigs while walling off the paint on the other end.
It’s unfair to expect those kind of numbers, but a fully wired-in Whiteside can impact the game in a way maybe a handful of other bigs can.
While the rim-running, rebounding and shot-blocking has been consistent throughout Whiteside’s Heat career, his flaws have remained consistent as well.
Whiteside still has extreme tunnel vision. Asking him to pass the ball is akin to asking a toddler to give you what they’re hiding in their hands. Somehow, he has only racked up 162 assists in 272 games since joining the Heat.
Nobody’s asking him to be Nikola Jokic, or even make plays out of short-roll like a Draymond Green. Even with that caveat, passing after offensive rebounds or failed post-ups shouldn’t be met with the enthusiasm of a root canal.
Here’s a stat for you: Whiteside is generating 0.97 points per possession (28th percentile) on putbacks this season, a laughably low mark for a guy with his touch. You know why he’s so inefficient? Because he’s been throwing up contested junk like this:
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to score, nor is it always a bad thing for Whiteside to be aggressive after offensive rebounds. He’s drawn a shooting foul on roughly 17 percent of his putbacks, one of the league’s highest marks. But there are times where his desire to score becomes a detriment to the team.
You can get past some of some of the physical limitations. The Heat have to employ a drop scheme with Whiteside in the game because he doesn’t move well enough laterally for anything else. The Heat’s pace drops by two possessions with Whiteside on the floor because he can’t (and sometimes, flat-out won’t) change directions fast enough for a quick-hitting system.
In those regards, Whiteside is who he is. The fact that his decision making hasn’t gotten much better, if at all, is an indictment against him. It adds up to the Heat, in terms of net rating, being a better team with Whiteside on the bench for the second straight season.
The give-and-take is frustrating enough. Once you factor in Whiteside’s contract and the way the league has changed right under him, the situation starts to feel a little dire. This, of course, is before acknowledging the elephant in the room: second-year stud Bam Adebayo.
In a way, Adebayo represents everything Whiteside isn’t.
Where Whiteside is a menacing paint presence, Adebayo is effectively a wing in a big man’s body. Some of the best highlights from his rookie year included isolation stops against Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and some guy named LeBron James. Whiteside couldn’t dream of defending on the perimeter the way Adebayo can.
Adebayo is a more willing screener, has ball-handling chops and his never-ending motor vibes with the way Miami wants to play. He poses the same kind of vertical threat as Whiteside while also being a much more effective ball-mover. Adebayo isn’t a better player yet—he doesn’t disrupt shots at the rim, rebound, or finish as well—but the gap is close enough that it’s hard to justify Whiteside playing significantly more minutes than him.
The ugly truth is that Miami can’t do anything about it without admitting defeat on Whiteside. The Heat dangled him in trade talks over the summer, only to find out the market was pretty dry. Getting rid of him would mean selling incredibly low, and that’s not something any organization wants to do. But keeping Whiteside in hopes of rehabbing or boosting his value limits Adebayo’s playing time. For a team that isn’t close to contending and needs their young guys to pop, that isn’t a great proposition either.
This was the risk of maxing out Whiteside while the rest of the league, namely the Golden State Warriors, started to go smaller. Miami attempted to zig while others zagged, but now they find themselves a bit stuck. Again, that isn’t really Whiteside’s fault. Miami knew what he was and wasn’t when it signed him. The hope was that he’d be so good it wouldn’t matter.
Sadly, that just hasn’t been the case.
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.