Greg Cote

This season for Heat is about Whiteside justifying Riley’s faith (and dollars)

It’s never really real until the finality of it slaps you in the face.

For Dwyane Wade that happened Thursday night, after his first regular-season game in a Chicago Bulls uniform. “I closed the Miami chapter right there,” he said.

For the Heat that moment came one day later, Friday night, at Miami’s 29th NBA home opener. You walked into the home team’s lockerroom an hour before tipoff against Charlotte and by habit or muscle memory the eye swiveled to where — for almost half of the franchise’s existence — there was always a nameplate that reassuringly read “3 WADE.” Now that stall was unoccupied. Empty. At least it wasn’t entombed in glass and turned into a shrine like the Dolphins did, once, with Dan Marino’s locker.

During pregame introductions you half-expected Wade’s name to be saved for last, as always. Old habits, you know? This marked the first home opener since 2002 when Heat fans were not cheering for Wade, rookie to iconic veteran. That’s 10 Marlins managers ago. Nine Dolphins head coaches ago.

Soon enough, Nov. 10, Wade will return to Miami for the first time since he unexpectedly departed this summer in free agency to join his hometown team. It will be a formal goodbye, an emotional night surely like few we have seen in South Florida sports, but it will feel different, drenched in memories and nostalgia.

Time, and teams, march on.

This season-opening week including Miami’s 97-91 loss Friday has been about that for Miami, team and city. A franchise is looking for somebody to, metaphorically if not literally, fill that locker stall Wade left empty. Chris Bosh, not cleared medically, remains on the team, technically, but he’s a man without a country. The Heat is holding auditions: Who will be the next star?

The inside lane to that answer seems clear.

He’s the 7-0, 265-pound man-child, center Hassan Whiteside.

Pat Riley believes it. He’d better. He enriched Whiteside with a four-year, $98 million contract extension over the summer. That’s star money, face-of-franchise money. That’s money that might have been devoted to keeping Wade. That’s also money that allowed Whiteside, 27, to buy a $7 million Miami Beach mansion into which he had installed a 1,500-gallon fish tank. Hey, when you’re big, you go big.

Now the justifying of that lavish contract has begun — and we have seen already this young season that it will be a challenge.

Whiteside said the other day, “I want to have to earn everything.”

Riley, the roster architect in rebuild-mode, liked that.

“I’m going to get a little blue card that I like to type up, plasticize it and give it to him like it’s a credit card [to remind him],” Riley kidded before the game. At least I think he was kidding. “He said, ‘I want to earn everything.’ So I’m going to hold him to that. He said, ‘I want to earn what may come my way. I want to earn possibly being Defensive Player of the Year, I want to earn being All-Defensive, I want to earn being an All-Star.’ And he has the ability to do that.”

He has shown that potential fast.

After 18 points,14 rebounds and four blocks in Wednesday’s season-opening win in Orlando, Whiteside had 20 points and 15 rebounds in Friday’s loss.

We have seen how unstoppable he can be. But Friday we also were reminded how opponents almost nightly will try to prod Whiteside, test his composure, trigger his temper. Charlotte deployed professional irritant Cody Zeller to do that. At one point the two centers collided, with Zeller pulling him down and getting Whiteside on his lap. Whiteside sustained a small cut on his left elbow.

Keeping his composure will be what Whiteside must prove he can do; about the scoring and rebounding and blocked shots, there is little doubt. But his minutes Friday were limited by an early fourth foul. That contributed big to Miami blowing a 19-point lead. Points in the paint dried up with Whiteside on the bench or playing in foul trouble.

I thought coach Erik Spoelstra should have put Whiteside back in the game sooner than he did.

“Wanted to make sure he could finish the game,” Spoelstra said. “In hindsight, there’s a lot of things you can go back on.”

Playing smart and with composure will be the challenge for Whiteside. For sure, motivation doesn’t appear to be an issue.

“I eat breakfast and I get motivated,” Whiteside said. “I look at my fish tank — I get even more motivated.”

Said Riley of Whiteside: “He doesn’t have to defer to anybody. I don’t think anybody on our team has to defer, they just have to play. [He has] got incredible skills, instincts defensively, great rebounder, shot blocker, and so its all focused on maintaining a real focus on what it is he wants to earn.”

Riley smiled, adding, “He can’t earn any more money. He’s made enough money. It can never be about that.”

Miami has largely been written off as it launches the post-Big 3 era. Most media estimates don’t have the Heat making the playoffs. But Spoelstra has emphasized that the club’s standards have not changed in the transitional new era; the playoffs remain the foremost goal. The youthful core of Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson surrounding the epicenter Whiteside will give Miami a chance.

“It is a season to rebuild,” as Riley put it, “But you have to stay, as Spo says, in the moment. There really is a lot to be said about working and getting better and creating chemistry. What will emerge, out of that, I truly believe — and we’re very high on some of our young talent — will be probably a star, somewhere. I don’t want any one of them to think they’re stars now. By working every day, by trying to win games, by being competitive, I think somewhere players will emerge and the cream rises to the top. But playoffs and all of that? You can always dream about it, but stay in the moment today and maybe someday in April you’ll wake up and say, ‘Hey, we’re in the first round’. But don’t give that much thought right now.”

The season, not the media prognostications, will tell us how good (or not) the Heat is, post-Wade.

The season, not anybody’s lavish contract, will tell us who is most ready to be this franchise’s next big star.

The finding out should be interesting, because it’s been awhile since Heat fans have entered a season not being sure of either.

Related stories from Miami Herald