Last year’s top five in Player Efficiency Rating in the NBA — per-minute statistical production — features a rather predictable list of league superstars.
New Orleans’ shot-swatting center Anthony Davis, who signed a league-record $145 million deal this summer, is at the top. He’s followed by league scoring champion Russell Westbrook, 2015 league MVP Stephen Curry, 2014 league MVP Kevin Durant and last year’s players’ selection for league MVP, James Harden.
It’s who is next on the list — ranked ahead of Chris Paul, LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge — who raises a pair of Anthony Davis-sized eyebrows: Heat 7-foot, 265-pound center Hassan Whiteside.
Before the late-November D-League pickup made his big splash, averaging 11.8 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.56 blocks per game in 48 games, the Heat only had three other players rank in the top 10 in PER since the stat first began being tracked in 2002-03. Those players: James, Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal.
“His ability last year when we weren’t a good team was impeccable,” Wade said last week when Whiteside returned to practice from a strained right calf that had sidelined him for the first three weeks of training camp. “To have him when you have a pretty good team, it can be that more special.”
That’s what makes Whiteside the x-factor for the Heat entering the 2015-16 season.
If he expands on what he did in just less than 24 minutes a game last season, the Heat could zoom right back into title contention after missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
If he just does what he did last year — averaging a double-double and defending the paint at an elite level — he’s still headed toward a monster payday (anywhere from $12 million to $18 million per season).
And if he goes backwards, it’s only going to make what is shaping up to be another interesting summer (when Durant hits the free agent market) only that more interesting.
The Heat, who has only $48 million and four players (Chris Bosh, Goran Dragic, Josh McRoberts and rookie Justise Winslow) on the books for next season, could build its future around Whiteside. Or, it could go in an entirely different direction.
For now, though, there are at least 82 games to go through. The ride for Miami’s new starting five — finally whole again with Bosh back from the blood clots in his lungs and point guard Goran Dragic directing what should be a faster pace on offense — begins Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena against the Charlotte Hornets.
Most pundits are picking Miami to finish anywhere from second in the East behind James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to fifth or sixth behind younger teams like Washington and Atlanta or the veteran-laden Chicago Bulls.
Coach Erik Spoelstra, though, isn’t pinning the Heat’s hopes on one player. “You can’t just point it to one guy,” Spoelstra said. “It’s a five-man game. Hassan’s not going out there in UFC by himself or playing tennis. We have to build cohesiveness, and that takes some time to develop that trust.
“What Hassan gives you is a presence in the paint on both sides of the court. He’s bigger and stronger than most people you play against. Defensively we hope he can be one of our anchors near the rim and someone who can put a lot of pressure on the rim offensively.”
Pressure is something Whiteside, 26, said he doesn’t feel. Having played in Lebanon, China and in the D-League during the past three years, he’s simply happy the Heat has given him a chance to shine on basketball’s biggest stage. Being surrounded by proven veterans and a deeper bench this season only helps, he said.
“I don’t really have any goals as far as [statistics],” Whiteside said. “But I plan to be one of the best rebounders in the league. That’s really what I want to do, get every rebound. The scoring is going to come. We’ve got a lot of scorers on our team. I’m just trying to work my way into the game. Chris Bosh and D-Wade are going to get the majority of the shots. I’m just going to play around those guys.”
The Heat is doing all it can to make sure Whiteside is groomed right. Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning, who has challenged Whiteside to win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award, meets with his new star pupil two to three times a week. Whiteside said they either go out to lunch or meet at Mourning’s house and talk about basketball and about life.
Meanwhile, Bosh zeroes in on Whiteside in the locker room. His locker is right next to Whiteside’s inside AmericanAirlines Arena.
Bosh said he spends a lot of time in Whiteside’s ear, making sure he doesn’t lose focus or let emotions get the best of him. Last season, Whiteside was suspended for one game for elbowing Celtics center Kelly Olynyk in the back of the head. Those kind of emotional explosions, Bosh said, can’t happen this season.
Getting Whiteside upset, he said, used to be the book on him last season. Now, Whiteside said, the book is “don’t let me dunk on you.”
Bosh said he knows what playing in a contract year feels like, and he has seen it become an issue for some young players who often try to do too much. He and Wade said their message to Whiteside has been clear and concise — just do what you do and the shots will come via pick and rolls or in the flow of the offense.
“He’s a luxury,” Bosh said. “[Our offense is] not predicated around him. Coach always wants to have a positionless basketball concept. But him being there is a huge impact. Just what he brings in his second-chance opportunities, having a big body to carve out space is good.”
Six-time NBA All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire, who along with Gerald Green, another veteran free agent pickup, has beefed up the Heat’s bench this season, said Whiteside reminds him a lot of 2012 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler. Chandler and Stoudemire were teammates with the Mavericks and the Knicks.
Wade, who won a title with Shaq and Mourning, prefers not to compare Whiteside to anyone in basketball’s new era of open three-point shooting and fast-paced play. He just likes the fact “the kid’s got big dreams.”
“The more you focus on basketball and the better you try to become as a basketball player, the better the team’s success and the more you get paid,” Stoudemire said. “If the team isn’t successful, history shows you won’t get paid. It’s all about winning. Once you win in this league everyone is happy and everyone gets paid.”