Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: In new-age NBA, Heat’s Hassan Whiteside doesn’t always fit in

Heat center Hassan Whiteside, shown defending Thunder star Kevin Durant, leads the NBA in blocked shots. But when opponents go with a small lineup, he becomes a liability.
Heat center Hassan Whiteside, shown defending Thunder star Kevin Durant, leads the NBA in blocked shots. But when opponents go with a small lineup, he becomes a liability. AP

There were many oddities in the fourth quarter of Miami’s 114-103 loss Monday, whether Washington wing Jared Dudley playing center for the first time since junior high, or the officials allowing Bradley Beal to pass to himself before finding Gary Neal for a dagger three-pointer, or an unusually angry Erik Spoelstra flailing his arms with enough force and friction to propel a fleet of helicopters.

But little was stranger than this:

Heat fans were essentially aligned with the Wizards coaching staff.

Neither would have minded seeing Hassan Whiteside return to the game.

Washington made that clear with the way it played, daring Spoelstra to re-insert Whiteside for any of the game’s final 14 minutes, even after the Heat center had made all seven shots in the 22 minutes he had played. Wizards coach Randy Wittman said as much, acknowledging that with two frontcourt starters out, he had little other option but to size down some, while explaining his decision to go even smaller: “If they wanted to go big, we felt we’ll let ’em post Whiteside. You know, that’s something I don’t think they do a whole lot the way they play.”

And Heat fans made their preference clear through social media, with many criticizing Spoelstra for keeping Whiteside sidelined for all that time, allowing Washington to dictate the terms of engagement, rather than attempting to dominate Dudley inside with a man much taller and stronger.

What isn’t so strange? That this controversy would stretch into a second day, with Hassan-ukah almost sure to outlast Hanukkah. Now that Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic are finally establishing a connection, the Whiteside dilemma has become Spoelstra’s primary conundrum. As more teams study Washington’s bold work, more, likely including Charlotte on Wednesday, will toss out unconventional lineups that force the choice to use or sit a gifted but somewhat limited, and thus limiting, center.

How you see this could come down to how you see the game.

For those with an old-school lens, it’s simple: Play your best five as much as possible, including the big guy who swats shots and slams lobs. Don’t overthink. Don’t overadjust. The raw statistics, those used for decades, support that case. Whiteside is averaging 13.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 blocks in just 29.4 minutes, while shooting 61.7 percent. The more he plays, it would seem to follow, the bigger a boxscore bonanza he’ll produce, and the better the Heat will be.

But others can find support in the NBA’s new-age approach. The analytics still don’t call for Whiteside to play more than he has, and certainly not in every situation.

The Heat is averaging the same 102.2 points per 100 possession whether Whiteside is playing or isn’t, and is allowing 7.6 more points per 100 possessions (99.2 to 91.6) when he isn’t. Miami grabs a higher percentage of offensive rebounds when Whiteside plays — that’s what most worried Dudley about Whiteside re-entering the game — but its assist percentage dips precipitously. And he’s still more of a relief option than primary option; his post-up points per possession are higher than only Roy Hibbert among the 36 players with at least 50 such possessions. That explains the reluctance to which Wittman referred.

Further, when Whiteside is on the floor, opponents shoot much better from three-point range (35.6 percent) than when he’s off (27.4 percent). You don’t need numbers to know it’s not prudent to play a paint protector if a small-ball opponent is forcing clunky switches and launching from deep.

Spoelstra called Monday’s game “very extreme,” with Washington playing five guards down the stretch: “Was it the right decision after the fact? You never know. But each game is different. Hassan understands that.”

That actually seemed so Tuesday, at least when Whiteside maturely addressed the media. He appeared irritated Monday night, hiding near the back of huddles, and left before addressing the media. But on Tuesday, he said he had “a good conversation” with Spoelstra, and “we just got a better understanding of the future.” He didn’t want to discuss the details, but did say if teams continued to downsize, “I can guard it.” He called this a “teaching point,” and said he was “glad this is something that happened this early in the season.”

“I’m going to be the defensive player you all love,” Whiteside said.

The Heat love having his existing skill set available on both ends. But this isn’t just about love. It’s about trust, too. Spoelstra’s trust. Trust to avoid — or play through — foul trouble. Trust to make late free throws. Trust to stick with smaller matchups. It’s hardly strange that such trust would take time.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

Wednesday: Heat at Hornets

When, where: 7 p.m., Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte, North Carolina.

TV, radio: Fox Sports Sun; WAXY (790), WAQI (710, Spanish).

Series: Heat leads 56-37.

Scouting report: Miami won the season opener against Charlotte, with Gerald Green scoring 19 off the bench. Al Jefferson won’t be available, so expect some small Hornets lineups. Luol Deng went through a full practice Tuesday and said he hoped to return for the Heat after missing six games with a hamstring injury.

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