Barry Jackson

Weeks after teammates discussed Whiteside's complaints, Heat's center has much to prove

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside looks to the basket as Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid defends him in a Feb. 27 game. The 76ers say Embiid is out for Game 1 because of a facial injury. Whiteside is looking to rebound from an inconsistent season in which he missed 28 games due to injury.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside looks to the basket as Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid defends him in a Feb. 27 game. The 76ers say Embiid is out for Game 1 because of a facial injury. Whiteside is looking to rebound from an inconsistent season in which he missed 28 games due to injury.

If asked to summarize the second year of Hassan Whiteside’s four-year, $98 million contract with the Heat in one tidy little paragraph, the takeaways would be the 28 games missed because of injury, the dramatic drop in minutes per game (from 32.6 to 25.3) and the expletive-filled rant about his playing time late in the season. There were plenty of highly productive nights, too, but not quite as many as everyone around the Heat hoped.

This playoff series against the 76ers that begins Saturday night in Philadelphia presents Whiteside an opportunity to change that narrative, to rewrite the way his fourth season in Miami is framed.

“This,” Whiteside said Thursday, “is where moments are made. It’s big.”

If it’s not enough motivation to try to dominate a 76ers team that has won 16 in a row, then this should be: Whiteside, at some point in this series, likely will go toe-to-toe with nemesis Joel Embiid, who has goaded him on Twitter and insulted him in interviews.

The 76ers say Embiid is out for Game 1 with an orbital fracture in his left eye. His status beyond that is undetermined.

“He started with me,” Whiteside said of Embiid. “I just like to do my talking on the court.”

Due $24.4 million and $27 million the next two seasons, Whiteside enters the postseason still with much to prove to an organization that entrusted him with a max contract. And to the league, too; it was notable that USA Basketball bypassed Whiteside when it selected 35 players to compete for spots on the national team through 2020.

And Whiteside carries a responsibility with teammates, who want to see him play with the energy and force that fuel him some nights and seem oddly lacking other nights.

Two days after Whiteside vented about his lack of playing time in that March 30 rant, several Heat players spoke to him about that misstep in a pre-practice gathering in the presence of all players and coaches, Udonis Haslem revealed.

Haslem said he and the team’s other captains — James Johnson and Goran Dragic — each spoke in that meeting after Erik Spoelstra did. Whiteside also was given a chance to speak and was apologetic. Haslem said he and Spoelstra decided before practice how they would deal with the situation, after Whiteside already had been fined.

“It wasn't necessarily that we didn't understand or appreciate him wanting to be on the court or wanting to contribute, but just the way to handle that situation moving forward, next time not to make that mistake,” Haslem said.

“With Hassan, when you talk to him, you have got to be calm, you got to be direct and you got to be up front and honest with him about what’s going on and what you need from him and what he needs to be doing.

“You don’t have to yell at Hassan to get him going. I felt everybody needed to hear Hassan's side of things and hash it out and move forward. He didn't like the way [his comments] came out. He wasn’t happy about the decision he made. He knew he could have done it differently. We expect [in the future] he's going to be better.”

On the court, what teammates and coaches want from Whiteside remains unchanged: for him to play with the same motor every night.

Perhaps these playoffs — and Embiid’s expected eventual return — will draw that out of him.

Their rivalry percolated in a preseason game in October, when Embiid motioned to the Heat bench to remove Whiteside, claiming Whiteside couldn’t guard him. Both then exchanged barbs after the game on Twitter.

And Embiid criticized Whiteside again March 8, after Whiteside clearly outplayed him in a Heat win.

Referring to a third-quarter incident in which they tussled slightly as they ran down the court, Embiid said: "He tried to hit me in the back, which is kind of dirty because of the fact that I’ve had back problems. We’re going to see about that. I won’t forget about that. ... He hits really soft, so I didn’t feel anything. But just the action of him trying to like do that I think is pretty messed up."

Embiid, who has missed the past eight games with the injury, finished with higher averages than Whiteside in points (22.9 to 14.0) and minutes played per game (30.3 to 25.3). They were very comparable in blocks (Whiteside averaged 1.7, Embiid 1.8), and rebounds (Whiteside averaged 11.4, Embiid 11) despite Embiid playing more minutes.

“He gets 20 shots a night,” Whiteside said. “Not too many teams draw up that many plays for their centers. They basically let him get 20 shots off.” (Embiid actually averages 16.8).

In three head-to-head meetings this season, Embiid averaged 19.0 points and 8.7 rebounds, Whiteside 15.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. The teams split the four-game season series, but the Heat won two of three in which both centers played.​

Whiteside said he will keep his emotions in check. “You know you don’t want to get ejected or anything like that,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a physical game.”

Haslem said Whiteside’s three injury absences this season (spanning five, nine and 13 games) — plus the Heat’s requirement that he wear a knee brace until recently — “took a little bit away from Hassan and the impact that he would have. When he's healthy and 100 percent, we go to another level as a team.”

When Whiteside is playing well, the Heat is clearly better with him than without him. But you can look at a lot of data and come to completely different conclusions about his value.

On the plus side, consider his sterling NBA efficiency rating (16th), the fact the Heat allows by far fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor than with anyone else, and the solid stats, with his rebounds per 48 minutes ranking third among centers behind only DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond. He deserves credit for improving his free-throw shooting to a career-high 70.3.

But on the flip side, Miami was outscored by 75 points with Whiteside on the floor — second worst on the team behind injured Dion Waiters and worse than only Dallas’ Harrison Barnes among the NBA’s 25 highest paid players.

Of the Heat’s six best lineups this season in terms of plus/minus, all involved Kelly Olynyk and not a single one featured Whiteside.

Beginning Saturday, the Heat would love to receive an every-night reminder — not merely spurts — of why Miami gave him a max contract just 22 months ago.