There is strong support among numerous people inside the Heat to trade Hassan Whiteside, and the question this offseason becomes this: To what measures will Pat Riley go to dump the two years and $52 million left on his contract.
Amid his public comments that he would intervene in the Whiteside/Erik Spoelstra disconnect, Riley is now mulling what to do with Whiteside, according to someone close to the situation.
If the Heat can snag a high-quality rotation piece for Whiteside, it’s a no-brainer, because his dissatisfaction with his role and playing time, and the unevenness of his play, have exasperated numerous Heat people.
The more difficult question that Riley must decide is whether to deal Whiteside if he gets back clearly less value in return — but less value with shorter contracts.
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In order to have the cap space to offer max contracts in 2019 for potential free agents Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving or Klay Thompson, Miami must purge the contracts of Whiteside and Goran Dragic, or Whiteside and at least one other player earning significant money. Whiteside has a $27.1 million player option for 2019-20, which he seems likely to exercise.
So the first step toward clearing space is dealing Whiteside for a contract with one season left.
But here’s the problem: Only a few teams would be realistic potential suitors for Whiteside, who’s due $24.4 million next season before the bump to $27.1 million in 2019-20, and his late March rant and poor playoff series (albeit in limited playing time against Philadelphia) will make it even more difficult to trade him.
“He had a bad year this year,” Riley said.
There’s also this issue: More teams are winning without traditional centers in this new era of smallball and space-and-pace basketball.
Earlier this season, I asked an opposing NBA head coach how far Whiteside is from the top group of centers (Joel Embiid, Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins). The coach scoffed and said not remotely close. So you can assume a lot of people in the league share that opinion, which should temper expectations of what the Heat could get back in return.
Portland and Dallas, who pursued Whiteside in free agency in 2016, seem less likely to bid now, but can’t be ruled out.
It would be surprising if the Blazers offered C.J. McCollum — who wasn’t available before the trade deadline — and even if Portland did, Miami would need to include more quality in the deal and take Portland’s bad contracts.
Dallas could offer Harrison Barnes, but that doesn’t help the Heat with the cap because he’s due $24.1 million and $25.1 million (player option) the next two seasons and isn’t going to make this team a title contender.
Milwaukee reportedly has had interest in the past in Whiteside, who has played very well against the Bucks.
Though a deal involving Jabari Parker and center Jon Henson for Whiteside and another player would make some sense, the complication is that Parker will be a restricted free agent this summer and might command a multiyear offer elsewhere that the Heat would find unappealing. Parker, by league rule, would be permitted to work with the Bucks on a sign and trade provided he does not sign an offer sheet with that team.
Who else could be in play? The Clippers, if they lose DeAndre Jordan. Perhaps Washington, if the Heat could convince the Wizards to flip Whiteside for Marcin Gortat, who has one year left at $13.6 million, and other expiring contracts.
And here’s another team to keep an eye on: New Orleans.
The Pelicans are unlikely to offer All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins a five-year, max contract when he becomes a free agent this offseason, ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported last month. The Pelicans instead reportedly are considering offering Cousins a two- or three-year contract worth less than the max amount.
Lowe suggested Cousins’ season-ending Achilles injury in January, combined with the Pelicans' success without him, has changed the team’s thinking.
The Heat likes Cousins and could propose a sign and trade with Whiteside and an additional player or two for cap reasons and to entice New Orleans (perhaps Justise Winslow, for starters). The Heat figures to explore this possibility.
And if the Pelicans don't want Whiteside, the Heat could offer other players in a sign-and-trade for Cousins and try to deal Whiteside to another team.
Oklahoma City doesn’t seem like a good fit, because Thunder center Steven Adams has three years left on his deal at $24.1 million, $25.8 million and $27.5 million. The Heat wouldn’t want that deal, and the Thunder wouldn’t want Whiteside for the final bloated year of Carmelo Anthony’s contract.
While Whiteside’s offensive game clearly needs development, here are a couple of points to consider defensively:
According to nyloncalculus’ Krishna Narsu, using basketballreference.com technology, Whiteside ranked 52nd of 63 centers defensively when matched up against a guard on defense. By comparison, Bam Adebayo was 11th and Kelly Olynyk 29th.
That adds fuel to the notion that the Heat is more vulnerable defensively with Whiteside on the floor when opponents go small — an opinion the Heat coaching staff seems to believe based on playing time decisions.
And while Whiteside ranks among the NBA’s best shot-blockers, I found this interesting: According to NBA.com, players guarded by Whiteside shot 47 percent this season, which ranked 39th among all centers who played at least 41 games. By comparison, Al Horford and Embiid allowed 40.9 percent. The Heat’s Adebayo allowed 42.3 percent.
Riley said last week that Whiteside simply must make himself a better player able to thrive in a contemporary game.
"That problem is that he's going to have to do something to change because he's a helluva player," Riley said. "You've got Adams. You've got [Clint] Capela. You got Jonas Valanciunas. You got DeAndre Jordan. You've got [Andre] Drummond. You've got Hassan. You've got these quintessential sort of centers that are being forced to play a certain game because the game has changed and there's only one or two or three teams that can play that game, because three or four transformative players can make that game effective. So, how do we make him effective?
"That's what it is. How does he make himself effective? To do the things he needs to do — defend, rebound, shot blocking, all of those things that he did that we fell in love with the first year, second year? He had a bad year this year. He's got to come back strong next year. I'm going to try to help him as much as I can. I'm going to try to help the both of them so we can keep him on the court 30 minutes a game. But he's got to help himself."
Let's be clear on this: Whiteside, when engaged, can still be very productive and a major rim deterrent; we shouldn't gloss over that he led the league in blocks two years ago and rebounding last year. He isn't a bad guy or disruptive or a cancer inside the locker room — not by any means — but his half-dozen public calls for more playing time, and his inconsistency, have worn on the Heat's patience.
If Riley cannot find a suitable trade partner, Whiteside could very well return, and Riley indicated he will intervene to make it work. But some Heat people are hoping Riley can find a trade match and that both sides can move on.