LAS VEGAS - After watching Hassan Whiteside perform unevenly and complain multiple times during an injury-marred season, multiple people on the Heat’s basketball side privately reached the same conclusion earlier this offseason: The Heat should move on from Whiteside and try to find a team willing to trade for him.
Heat president Pat Riley was aware of this sentiment, which was confirmed by several sources close to the situation.
But the Heat’s efforts in recent weeks to find an appealing trade opportunity involving Whiteside have not materialized.
Two opposing general managers said last week that Whiteside has been made available but the trade market is limited, if non-existent, for a player who’s due $24.4 million this season and $27.1 million next season and plays a position that has become somewhat devalued.
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And Riley is not going to accept even worse contracts in exchange for a player who led the league in blocked shots three seasons ago and rebounding two years ago.
While some others in the organization were ready to cut bait, Riley still views this situation as salvageable.
And Whiteside’s return now appears likely, so much so that all parties have begun the process of mending a relationship that grew strained on several occasions last season. Coach Erik Spoelstra said last week that he and Whiteside have been in communication and went to lunch.
And so now the question becomes this: How can the Heat make this work with a player who often seemed so unhappy last season?
Here are the issues that Riley and Spoelstra must resolve in their own discussions and their conversations with Whiteside:
▪ Playing time. Whiteside made clear he wasn’t happy with his average minutes plunging from 32.6 in 2016-17 to 25.3 last season.
In fact, Whiteside never even reached 30 minutes in any of his last 17 games. He averaged just 15.4 minutes per game during the five-game playoff loss to Philadelphia.
But it’s difficult to envision Whiteside’s average minutes surpassing 30 again, with Bam Adebayo in line to receive more minutes as he develops, and the Heat having no intention of reducing the role of Kelly Olynyk, who led Miami in plus/minus.
“This is what the GM wanted,” Whiteside said early this year about Riley’s decision to sign Olynyk and draft Adebayo.
One potential solution is playing Whiteside and Adebayo more together, but that lineup has both offensive and defensive concerns, as one Heat official conceded.
Whiteside defenders can make the case that he should be far higher than 17th in the league in average minutes per game among centers and wonder how he could play less, on average, last season than Robin Lopez, John Henson, and Willie-Cauley Stein.
In a vacuum, that seems difficult to justify, with ESPN rating Whiteside 16th last season in its efficiency ratings, a bit ahead of Victor Oladipo, Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid. And Whiteside, at 11.4 rebounds per game, nearly became the first player in history to average 12 rebounds per game without averaging at least 26 minutes.
But the Heat can make the case that Whiteside’s effort was inconsistent and that the Heat often played poorly with him on the court. Miami was outscored by 75 points with Whiteside in the game – worst among Heat players who appeared in a game during the second half of the season.
“If you are going to keep him, you got to use him,” TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal told WSVN-Fox 7 recently. “If you have a weapon you can use inside, you’ve got to use what you’ve got.”
▪ Playing time against smaller lineups. Whiteside was particularly miffed that Spoelstra often removed him when other teams went small, including late in close games.
But the Heat privately can cite data showing that Whiteside was among the league’s bottom-fifth centers when asked to switch onto a much smaller player.
According to basketballreference.com technology, Whiteside ranked 52nd of 63 centers defensively when matched up against a guard on defense. By comparison, Adebayo was 11th and Olynyk 29th.
In Whiteside’s defense, he is working hard this summer on trying to improve his quickness, an associate said.
▪ Effort and consistency. These were the areas that Heat basketball staffers found particularly exasperating about Whiteside, beyond his public complaints about playing time. The Heat also wishes he did a better job setting screens; he sometimes seems indifferent in that regard.
One Heat person said the “up and down” nature of his performances- the inability to know what nights he will be fully engaged and what nights he won’t be – were a source of frustration.
Offensively, he didn’t consistently play with the force that coaches wanted. Defensively, he allowed players he was defending to shoot 47 percent this past season, which ranked 39th among all centers who played at least 41 games and was far worse than Adebayo’s 42.3 percent.
One Heat person wondered how he could seem so passive, and disengaged, for a playoff series.
“He got the big contract, but sometimes you forget why you got the big contract,” NBA TV’s Greg Anthony said.
▪ Role in the offense. Heat officials weren’t pleased when Whiteside posted a video of himself making a long jump shot in May and saying:
“You don’t know I got this jumper. There’s a difference between you can’t shoot and you’re not allowed [to shoot].”
A source with direct knowledge said Whiteside has never been instructed not to shoot jumpers, though the Heat would prefer he not take a lot of those shots.
He took 47 shots from 16 feet to the three-point line last season, connecting on 19 of them (40.4 percent) and made both his three-point attempts.
Whiteside couldn’t understand why the 76ers made Joel Embiid a more focal point of their offense than the Heat did with him, with Embiid averaging 16.8 shots per game last season to Whiteside’s 10.7.
But Embiid’s offensive game is more developed, and Whiteside lacks a consistent go-to move. Whiteside’s shots per game ranked tied for 11th in the league among centers and he averaged 14.0 points per game.
“If you want him to be active defensively, you’ve got to feed him [offensively],” O’Neal said.
Spoelstra has cited Whiteside’s injuries – which cost him 28 games last season – as a factor in the decline in production. But Whiteside never mentioned that.
One GM said Whiteside might be easier to trade next summer, when he has a year left on his contract.
In the meantime, Whiteside and the Heat will try to get him back to being the player who commanded a four-year, $98 million contract – a deal very few criticized at the time - just 24 months ago.