What’s most interesting about the Miami Heat right now isn’t this season. It isn’t that an injury-wracked team has slumped to the point merely making the playoffs has been cast in some doubt.
Hassan Whiteside and what to do with him — that is what’s most compelling and generates the most discussion and debate within the organization.
Miami fans cannot be sure whether the team’s child-giant will be a centerpiece of the franchise’s future … or soon be gone. Fans can’t know because not even the people deciding know.
The Heat is run by one of the NBA’s greatest winners and most accomplished and self-assured executives, a decisive leader, a champion and Hall of Famer, the man who astounded the league by giving Dwyane Wade the gift of LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
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Now, not even Pat Riley knows what to do.
As concerns Whiteside, Riley is uncommonly torn. Vacillating.
The word dilemma often is misused to simply mean a difficult decision. What it really means is a choice between equally undesirable options.
Whiteside is a dilemma, the most fascinating money-related conundrum this franchise has ever had.
If the Heat secures Whiteside, a free agent after this season, by investing the money it would take for a long-term contract, the club removes itself from the wherewithal to go after Kevin Durant, the summer of 2016’s grand prize.
But if the Heat lets Whiteside go to a higher bidder, it has lost him and his potential and gotten nothing in return, still with no assurance it would land Durant.
The option in between, trading Whiteside before next month’s league deadline, isn’t real plausible. The trade market would be minimal and offer Miami little in return, because whatever team acquired him would be at risk of losing him to free agency after, in effect, renting him for a few months.
That adds up to a dilemma.
What is more valuable to the team? Keeping Whiteside or having the salary-cap space to perhaps be in play for Durant?
If you opt to keep Whiteside, you are telling your fans this basic core is good enough to win a championship. Does Riley believe that?
Riley could have avoided what he now faces by securing Whiteside with a low-cost, long-term deal, but did not. That rare failure to anticipate, that lapse of vision, has painted Riley into the corner he is now in.
Wade wanted a long-term deal last year but Riley convinced him to sign for one year with the summer of ’16 in mind, with financial flexibility and Durant in mind. Would Riley now give all of that up to re-sign both Whiteside and Wade?
The Heat does not believe the 7-foot Whiteside, a still-inexperienced 26, is a max-deal player who will command $18 million-plus a year. But the market will decide that, and by market I mean whatever team is willing to pay the most. It only takes one to force Miami’s hand.
It is plain to see why Riley vacillates on Whiteside’s future and worth.
Riley has done most of his big winning with a great center (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O’Neal), but has seen the position diminish as the NBA goes smaller.
Riley watches Whiteside delight fans with his blocked shots (he leads the league by a lot) and his top-five rebounding totals, yet also sees the metrics explaining that Miami is not appreciably better defensively when Whiteside is on the floor.
There also are the off-court intangibles.
Whiteside seems at odds with the Heat culture. Does not seem a “Riley-type” in a way that rookie Justise Winslow is.
In a team-first culture requiring personal sacrifice, Whiteside seems uncommonly concerned with, for example, getting blocked shots.
During the recent game in which he had a triple-double that included 11 blocks, at one point Whiteside patted his hands together to the scorer’s table as he jogged downcourt to make sure he got credit for a block that might not have been obvious.
Whiteside, after all, has incentive to get his stats to drive up his market value and perhaps encourage a bidding war, even if getting those stats sometimes is at odds with what Miami would prefer he do.
After that game, teammates weren’t lauding his triple-double as much as they were kidding him about a kick-out pass to a teammate on the perimeter — so rare is an assist from the unwilling passer.
“That was historical,” Wade jokingly said about the Whiteside assist.
The young center went hard on Twitter to ask for All-Star votes. Reminded Charles Barkley on Twitter that he’s top five in rebounds despite playing less than 30 minutes a game. Calls himself “The People’s Champ.”
But will Whiteside work hard enough to improve his all-around game? And would he work hard enough to sustain that once he has been lavished with a long-term deal with its guaranteed millions?
You know how the Dolphins are not quite sure what they have in Ryan Tannehill?
The Heat is less sure what it has in Whiteside.
And the Heat has never before entrusted the kind of money Whiteside will command to a player whose history makes him hard to trust.
It leaves the Heat in a most unusual situation.
Riley has always had all the answers.
Now, simply put: He isn’t sure what to do.
Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at miamiherald.com and follow @gregcote.