This could have gone one of two ways with Hassan Whiteside after the Heat was unable to find an appealing trade for him this summer:
After his humbling, ineffective first-round playoff series against Philadelphia, he could have spent the summer pouting, pushing for a trade and putting the onus on Erik Spoelstra, not himself, to change.
Or Whiteside could have spent the summer polishing and expanding his game and making changes his teammates sought – primarily setting more forceful screens, a particular irritant to them in the past.
Whiteside chose option two and Heat people – while cautious – are also appreciative, knowing the alternative would have been potentially toxic.
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This outcome so far, Udonis Haslem said, “is about as good as it could have been with the expectations. But I had confidence that he would do this. He’s as hard on himself as anyone could be. I knew he wanted to come back and prove something this year.”
Teammates knew he was serious not only by his summer work in the gym and on the beach (running in sand on the recommendation of NFL All Pro receiver Antonio Brown), but also, Haslem said, when he passed the pre-camp conditioning test, a precursor to Whiteside practicing and playing at a high level in preseason.
“It’s not mandatory that you pass the conditioning test it but it shows commitment early if you are in shape enough and conditioned enough to be able to pass it,” he said.
But beyond that, “he’s definitely focused on his screens, just being engaged with his minutes on the floor and off the floor,” Haslem said. “That’s what we need from him, to be engaged. When he’s engaged, whether he has a great game or subpar game, it changes the energy of our team.”
There wasn’t a single time this summer when Whiteside canceled a summer workout with assistant coach Juwan Howard.
“No BS-ing you, he hasn’t a bad day [since Spoelstra’s five-hour June meeting with him in a Miami hotel],” Howard told Bleacher Report’s Tom Haberstroh. “Everyone has helped him. Pat [Riley], [Heat owner] Micky Arison, Spo, Alonzo Mourning, U.D. [Udonis Haslem], [Heat shooting coach] Rob Fodor. We want to raise the trophy with him.”
“He seems very motivated; I think you’ll see a different player,” Tyler Johnson said.
But even if Whiteside continues to do everything asked and even if he remains healthy after missing 28 games last year, one thorny issue remains after a season in which Whiteside was unhappy playing just 25.3 minutes per game:
How does Spoelstra create closer to the 32.6 minutes per game that Whiteside averaged two seasons ago – while creating enough minutes from Bam Adebayo (the team’s most improved player) and Kelly Olynyk, who led Miami in plus/minus last season?
That will be more difficult to manage when James Johnson returns soon after sports hernia surgery; Johnson won’t play in Wednesday’s regular season opener in Orlando.
It would be enormously helpful if the Whiteside/Adebayo pairing would work. They logged just 52 minutes combined together, over 11 games, last season and Miami was outscored 113-92 in those minutes.
The Heat shot just 6 for 26 on threes in those minutes (23.1 percent), and the effectiveness of that duo on offense remains a question.
Some scouts are skeptical about whether a Whiteside/Adebayo pairing can work in large doses, though Adebayo has the athleticism defensively to defend perimeter-shooting power forwards.
“They could play Bam and Hassan together, but [playing two natural centers] has sort of gone by the wayside in the NBA,” former Heat and Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said by phone. “Now you are putting two guys up there who are not stretching the floor. Spacing has always been key to the way Erik is going to play and most of the league is playing. I am sure there are times they can do that [combination] – both are pretty effective mid-range shooters and Bam is quick enough to guard fours - [but] I don’t think you will see a lot of it.”
Whiteside said there’s no reason he and Adebayo can’t play effectively together.
“I don’t see why not,” Whiteside said. “If you can’t do something well, work on it. We’ve got all day. This is our only job.”
The other issue is whether the Heat will involve Whiteside enough offensively to make him feel consistently engaged, which has residual dividends on the defensive end. Whiteside told Haberstroh he believes he can shoot threes and go coast-to-coast “at least two times a game” this season.
“Let’s go back to showcasing the skilled big,” he said.
But Spoestra will need to be convinced to give Whiteside that sort of freedom. His 10.7 field goal attempts per game last season tied with Brook Lopez for seventh-most among centers.
Van Gundy, speaking of traditional big men in general, makes a good point about the fact several of them, including Whiteside, have voiced unhappiness about their role on offense in the past (though in Whiteside’s case, not since May):
“The center position has changed in our league,” he said. “What most teams want out of those guys has really changed. It’s become primarily defend and rebound, but offensively it’s pick and roll to the rim and make the other team make some decisions. It’s not a game now where people play through guys in the low post. For big guys, that’s been frustrating. They want a bigger role in the offense. I am not saying that critically of anybody. They want a bigger role.
“[But] the analytics will show post play even for the really good players is not as efficient as driving the ball for layups, throwing it out for threes. The ball is not going to go through them very much. They are now all working on trying to extend their shooting range. We’re getting to a point where a stretch four [power forward] is staple of everybody’s lineup.”
One thought is to get the ball to Whiteside even more early in games to make him feel involved, hoping that leads to consistent maniacal focus on the other end of the court.
But some NBA people caution against that.
“I don’t know if the focus should be getting him engaged than having Whiteside understand how he can more productive in their current scheme,” said NBA TV analyst and former Knicks coach Stu Jackson. “That should be the focus. It’s still a team game. It’s not about any one individual.”
Van Gundy makes the point that “Erik has always tried that to get him involved early. I know in our preparation, they always try to go to him early to try to get him established and into the game. Whether Erik will continue, I don’t know that.”
Goran Dragic said “probably it helps” to get Whiteside the ball early, but “the most important thing is energy. If you show energy, like Spo usually says, the ball is going to find energy. That’s the main thing for Hassan, to play with that energy. If we see that he’s passionate, that he wants it, of course we’re going to feed him.”
Spoelstra, so far, couldn’t be happier: “He’s playing winning basketball right now. He’s mentally prepared. He’s coming in to work every day with a purpose to get better, to impact this team in a positive way, and it’s happening. He just has to continue with that approach.”
Though the Heat made Whiteside available in trades this summer, according to two opposing general managers, Miami never offered carrots such as a first-round pick or another player to try to entice teams to take him. That’s because Pat Riley always believed the situation could be salvaged.
The true test for Whiteside will come on nights he’s given a quick hook or nights when he’s frustrated offensively or because of foul trouble.
“I think it’d be my job,” Dwyane Wade said, “as well as his job, to continue to keep him engaged all year, understand there’s going to be moments of frustration but understand his importance to this team.”
JIMMY BUTLER UPDATE
In an interview with the newspaper he owns (the Minnneapolis Star Tribune), Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor spoke publicly for the first time about four-time All Star Jimmy Butler - who has been a Heat trade target - and reiterated plans to trade him.
“I think that he’s made it very clear that he would not re-sign with us at the end of the year and therefore it is in our interest to get a trade so that we can get a player or two to replace him that helps our team,” Taylor told the Star-Tribune’s Sid Hartman on Tuesday.
Taylor said he is “OK” with how coach and president of basketball operation Tom Thibodeau has handled the matter.
“Initially when Butler told him that he wants to leave, Tom did everything he could to try to keep Jimmy here and I understand that,” Taylor said. “They have a close relationship. Thibs brought him here so that he would stay here, but eventually I think that listening to Jimmy, Thibs and I are lined up on this. We need to be looking at a trade.”
But Taylor also said of Thibodeau: “The only thing now is that we are starting to play games and I am asking him to concentrate on coaching and the GM Scott Layden will help to see if any trades are available.”
A Heat source said last week that Miami would not go back to Minnesota to re-start talks, but the Heat would not rule out a trade if Minnesota reaches out to them.
In the meantime, Butler will play in games for Minnesota.
“The latest is he is going to be going to practice every day, which he has been, and plans to play in games,” Taylor said. “He will be a regular team player. What I said to him in the meantime is our GM, Scott Layden, will be talking to other teams to see if there is a trade that works.”
Here are my Heat notes from Tuesday, including injury news on several players and Dwyane Wade’s plans to chronicle this season.
Here’s the Dolphins’ outside-the-box way of finding a kicker.