Barry Jackson

Heat’s Hassan Whiteside defends his play: ‘Run the numbers’

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) is fouled by Charlotte Hornets center Dwight Howard (12) in the first quarter of a game last Saturday. Whiteside has been very good in some games, less so in others.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) is fouled by Charlotte Hornets center Dwight Howard (12) in the first quarter of a game last Saturday. Whiteside has been very good in some games, less so in others. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

DALLAS – Perhaps more than any other Heat player, there’s a glass-half-full and glass-half-empty perspective on Hassan Whiteside’s season, and there’s a significant disparity between the two.

The glass half full view: He’s averaging more points, rebounds and blocks per 36 minutes than he did last season. Even playing barely more than half the game, he’s fourth among centers in blocks (1.9), sixth in rebounds (11.8) and 11th in points (14.2).

The Heat is still better when he plays (19-12) than when he doesn’t (9-9) and he’s 10th in ESPN’s NBA efficiency rating formula. And credit Whiteside for improving as a free throw shooter; he’s making 74 percent compared with 62.8 last season.

“Hassan has played well,” coach Erik Spoelstra said Monday after the team’s shootaround at AmericanAirlines Center. “If you look at the big picture of since he’s been back, there’s some very good things that he’s been doing. So we just have to build on that and understand depth is a strength of our team, as well.”

The glass half empty view: His minutes per game are down substantially, from 32.6 to 25.9 – partly a function of matchups and the Heat having more quality bigs, but also a byproduct, at times, of Whiteside sometimes not playing with the maniacal intensity the coaching staff wants.

Whiteside entered Monday’s game in Dallas ranked just 18th among NBA centers in minutes per game, despite earning more money than all but one of the 17 centers who rank above him (Detroit’s Andre Drummond, who has an identical salary).

And Whiteside hasn’t been able to sustain dominance in every game, something management challenged him to do last offseason.

Asked Monday if he has been as consistently dominant as he would like, Whiteside defended his play.

“My numbers are the same as they were per 36 or 32 or whatever you guys run it by, per minute,” he said. “Nothing has changed. Run the numbers.”

Hassan Whiteside had 22 points and 13 rebounds but the Heat lost to the Brooklyn Nets for the second time in less than a month on Friday, Jan. 19, 2018.

Whiteside – who’s tied for 20th among NBA players in salary this season at $23.7 million – is playing less than other players earning that kind of money. But he said Monday he’s OK with that if the team is winning.

“It’s been different,” he said.”Sometimes I come out [and] those guys come on and get on a roll. I just stay on the bench. It’s fine with me. We’re winning.”

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle mentioned Monday how he has seen Whiteside cheering for his team on the bench. Whiteside wonders why that’s an issue.

“So much of the time people get caught on Hassan, what are you doing?” he said. “If the team is playing great, we all win.... I’m excited. I’m happy for them guys. If you don’t see me jumping up and down, I’m probably exhausted. I love celebrating with those guys.”

Heat president Pat Riley hasn’t spoken publicly since the season began, but his comments about Whiteside on three separate occasions last year were telling when analyzing his 2017-18 season:

• Riley said last February: “Being accountable as a franchise player is an all-of-the-time thing and one of the most difficult things in this league to do as a great talent, where a franchise, a city and your teammates depend on you every night to bring it. This is not saying that he doesn’t, but to bring that every single night, that in itself is a skill…. When I think he plays the way that he plays some nights, we can be unbeatable.”

To this point, Whiteside hasn’t been an “all of the time” franchise player, though he could say he has fewer opportunities to show he can be because his minutes are down dramatically.

• Riley said immediately after last season that “there is so much more we need from him for us to beat Golden State or the world champions in Ohio. We are going to need to have a championship center. He has the capability of being that.

“Can he be a 17, 14 and 4 guy.. which he is now... or can he be a 25 and 17 and 6 player? I think he can be that. You have to carve out something more for him offensively. He has the ability to carve out bigger numbers... We have to get those 30, 20, 10 nights out of him five nights a year. I think he has the ability. I’m proud of him. I’m glad we made him a priority last summer.”

Though averaging 25, 17 and six would seem unrealistic, Whiteside doesn’t have a single game with those numbers this season. He has scored at least 25 points twice (including the opener), has four games with 17 rebounds (none since Nov. 15) and one game with six blocks. He has no 30/20/10 this season.

His field-goal attempts are down from 12.6 to 10.7 per game and teams are paying more attention to him when he’s in the low block.

“Three years ago, I remember we would post him up and you could tell he wasn’t on anybody’s scouting report,” Spoelstra said. “He literally could just dribble in, shoot a hook, and nobody was guarding him, really.

“When he’s in the paint, it’s a high-percentage shot. If it’s outside the paint, he has to make other offensive reads to be able to generate a different look. And I think he’s been making progress with that. We’ve been trying to put him in areas where he can see the defense in front of him, where he can make simple reads.”

Whiteside said “the offense has been a lot different. A lot less pick and roll. It’s a lot more Wayne Ellington. We’ve seen the emergence of Wayne Ellington. We run more sets to get Wayne involved.”

• Just before the start of training camp in September, Riley said this of Whiteside: “I really believe he wants to be the best. If he wants to achieve the goals he talks about in the media, and puts out on social media, which are great goals - to be Defensive Player of the Year and make the all defensive team and be respected. Those are things you must bring every single night.”

Fast forward five months. Whiteside hasn’t played at a Defensive Player of the Year level “every single night.”

He certainly has some nights. But not every night.

If the Heat ultimately trades Whiteside – which certainly cannot be ruled out - the market could be fairly limited. One purely hypothetical trade that would work within the constraints of the salary cap is Whiteside for Cleveland’s Kevin Love, though it’s unclear if either team would do that.

Whiteside has two years remaining on his contract after this one, at $24.4 million in 2018-19 and $27.1 million in 2019-20.

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