Heat starting center Hassan Whiteside will be carrying a grudge into his first game against the team that cut him nearly three years ago.
After making the first start of his career on Wednesday, Whiteside squares off against DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings on Friday at Sleep Train Arena. The Kings waived Whiteside in 2012, and the 7-foot center spent a year abroad trying to make it back to the NBA. He has bulked up since then and improved his game, so the Whiteside who left a struggling team more than two years ago will not be the same player who returns.
“I haven’t been there since I played there, so we’ll see how it goes,” Whiteside said.
It didn’t go well for Whiteside when he played for the Kings.
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Drafted in the second round in 2010, he played less than two minutes his rookie season and bounced between the NBA and the D-League until he was cut in July 2012. After more time in the D-League and stops in Lebanon and China, Whiteside nearly caught on with the Memphis Grizzlies before this season. With no room on their roster, the Grizzlies waived Whiteside and the Heat pounced after Whiteside played against the Heat’s D-League affiliate in November.
“The guys that cut me, they’re not there anymore, so how smart was they?” Whiteside said of returning to Sacramento.
The Heat (17-22) ends its five-game road trip on Friday with Whiteside in the starting lineup, but when the team’s long odyssey on the West Coast began Whiteside was still relatively unknown. All that changed when he had 23 points and 16 rebounds against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday. The 25-year-old center has now had three double-doubles in five games after scoring 12 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the Heat’s 104-89 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday in Oakland.
Whiteside has put on about 50 pounds of muscle since being drafted in 2010, and his impact with the Heat has been undeniable. The Heat is 3-2 since its victory against the Brooklyn Nets last week, and opponents are scoring an average of just 90.4 points per game while shooting 40.8 percent from the field and 31.8 percent from three-point range.
The Heat allowed an opponent to score more than 100 points for the first time in five games against the Warriors, but Golden State is also arguably the best team in the NBA this season. Led by Steph Curry’s 32 points and seven three-pointers, the Warriors improved to 17-1 at Oracle Arena with its victory against the Heat.
The Heat had more than a few circumstances working against it.
First there was Dwyane Wade, who watched from the bench with a hamstring injury. With Wade back on the shelf, the Heat officially has returned to struggling offensively.
Compounding Wade’s absence, Whiteside and rookie point guard Shabazz Napier made their first career starts. Add to that scenario the weariness that goes along with playing on the second night of a back-to-back on the West Coast near the end of a long road trip, and the Heat didn’t have much of chance.
Miami scored just 38 points in the first half and shot 42 percent from the field overall.
“In the first half, we just really didn’t bring much of a competitive oomph and disposition with what we saw [Tuesday],” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “In the second half, I thought we competed better, but it just wasn’t good enough basketball to get over the hump and give ourselves a real chance to win down at the end.”
Wade missed his first game after straining his left hamstring on Tuesday against the Lakers, and he’s doubtful against the Kings. If this setback is anything like Wade’s last left hamstring injury, then he could be out a few weeks. Wade missed seven games earlier this season with a strained hamstring.
There is no question the Heat is now a better team with Whiteside, but losing Wade for any extended amount of time will limit the team’s development.
“We’re just continually learning each other on the fly, and it kind of [stinks] a little bit,” said Chris Bosh, who had 26 points against the Warriors. “One day somebody is in the rotation and the next they’re out, and you kind of have to figure out tendencies and figure out chemistry while the game is going on. It’s not the best situation, but guys are getting there.”
Wade’s ability as a scorer and facilitator has made things easier for Whiteside, so the newcomer will have to adapt to the Heat’s other guards for the team to make any real progress. For the Heat, that’s the next challenge in this new era of its diamond-in-the-rough center.
“It’s a little tougher,” Whiteside of playing without Wade. “It’s a little different because D-Wade really draws a lot of guys in, and throws lobs to me and really draws a lot more attention. It was a lot different [Wednesday].”