Ethan J. Skolnick

Pat Riley is banking on Hassan Whiteside to invalidate our assumptions

There are concerns about how a contract might affect the motivation of Hassan Whiteside, above, but Pat Riley reshaped the argument, suggesting Whiteside can just worry about winning.
There are concerns about how a contract might affect the motivation of Hassan Whiteside, above, but Pat Riley reshaped the argument, suggesting Whiteside can just worry about winning.

Pat Riley doesn’t speak publicly as often as he once did, but when he does, he remains masterful at reshaping a narrative — and what he did Wednesday was subtle and sublime.

Specifically, he changed the conversation on Hassan Whiteside, certainly one of the more complicated characters Riley has come across during five decades in the NBA. The Heat president is cognizant of concerns, inside and outside his organization, about how Whiteside would respond to sudden riches after a lifetime of relative struggle. It is understandable to worry whether the 7-1 center would view such as a signing as his summit and become satisfied to slide and Snapchat down the mountain.

It is reasonable to stress about whether he would relax.

Riley still might have similar misgivings, even as he referred to the pending free agent as “our No. 1 priority” at 12:01 a.m. July 1. Yet rather than risk offending Whiteside prior to the offseason even officially opening for business (recall how Riley’s tough subliminal talk toward LeBron James backfired in the summer of 2014), Riley redefined the concept of relaxation. He reframed it as mental and emotional peace rather than physical sloth, something Heat fans should welcome rather than fear.

“He’s 26 years old, he’s a game changer,” Riley started.

And then …

“I don’t think he’s even reached his real ceiling in a couple of areas of the game,” Riley said. “And I think that now he’ll be more comfortable once his situation ends. When a player spends six years of his career having everybody tell him why he’s not good enough to be in the NBA … I think when he gets an opportunity, what young players try to do first is, ‘I’m going to show you I’m good enough to play in the NBA.’ … [And what] could be individually important might not be as good for the team. But once that’s out of the way, I think the roof is the ceiling.”

So, that last sentence didn’t quite make sense. Even a wordsmith can render the occasional awkward analogy; substitute “sky’s the limit” and you get the idea. Still, what is most striking about Riley’s overall statement is the implication that Whiteside’s weaknesses — not passing out of the post, searching for swats and stats rather than always playing proper positional defense — are because of a desire to prove, and earn, his worth. Riley is suggesting these are not fundamental and irreversible character flaws that would only worsen once Whiteside attains contractual and financial security. He’s arguing that getting a big payday would get Whiteside to focus more, not less, on the little stuff that helps the Heat win.

This is counterintuitive to the way sports observers typically consider these circumstances — it’s human nature, after all, to lose some drive when you achieve massive financial gain.

Yet, in rewarding Whiteside for what he has done while projecting what he can become — “there’s an upside to this guy” — Riley would be betting on what has made Whiteside challenging to coach. Whiteside has a stubborn side, largely based on his belief that nobody believes in him; he just got more fuel when he was overlooked for postseason awards. Yes, Riley and Micky Arison would be showing extreme faith in Whiteside. But he would undoubtedly be driven by the doubters who believed they were foolish to do so. In that sense, his drive might be able to survive even this perfect cash storm.

“Ask anybody in the Heat organization, ‘Does Hassan work hard?’ ” Whiteside told me in March. “Nobody’s going to say I don’t work hard.”

Heat officials and coaches didn’t dispute that. They just wanted him to work smarter — more with his teammates and more toward winning. He started to as the season progressed.

Another answer, back in March, was more telling.

Why didn’t he quit, when he was overseas, his career seemingly dead-ending?

“There were times when I’m looking at the TV, and I’m looking at other NBA guys,” Whiteside said. “No offense to them, but I’m looking like, ‘I can dominate these guys, and I can play with these guys, and I can play against these teams.’ And that just kind of kept me motivated. I always watched NBA games, and I was like, ‘Why can’t I be out there?’ ”

Would that motivation cease when he could buy whatever he wanted? Or could Riley, Erik Spoelstra, Juwan Howard, Alonzo Mourning and others convince him that it was now even more important to dominate those players because they were trying to prove themselves against him?

Riley has some blind spots; again Wednesday he exuded reluctance to entirely embrace the NBA’s three-point and small-ball revolutions, with Spoelstra more progressive on those topics. But even if Riley might place outsized importance on a center in the modern game, he certainly knows a good one when he sees it. He coached a fearsome four of all-time centers, albeit not all in their absolute primes — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for nine seasons, Patrick Ewing for four, Mourning for much of 11 and Shaquille O’Neal for nearly three.

Abdul-Jabbar’s best statistical season for Riley was 23.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks. Ewing’s best, arguably — since the four were nearly identical — was 24.0 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.0 blocks. Mourning’s best was 21.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.7 blocks. O’Neal’s best was 22.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks.

Whiteside averaged 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.7 blocks this season, but in 36 minutes — closer to what all the others played — he recorded 17.6 points, 14.7 rebounds and 4.6 blocks. He also progressed with screen-setting and free-throw shooting.

“I think he wants to be part of a winner,” Riley said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt his next level is to, along with others, carry. He’s got to carry … a load, almost every night. That will allow you to win. And be a contender. And I think he can do that.”

So, now, do you think you can relax?

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