Greg Cote

Is Heat center Hassan Whiteside the ‘whale’ in Pat Riley’s title dream?

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside gets pushed in the back by Brooklyn Nets forward Trevor Booker in the first quarter of their game at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Jan. 30, 2017.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside gets pushed in the back by Brooklyn Nets forward Trevor Booker in the first quarter of their game at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Jan. 30, 2017.

One question of the Miami Heat looms most pertinent at this NBA All-Star break and the reconnoitering that invites.

The question isn’t, “Will the Heat make the playoffs?”

It isn’t even, “What if any moves will Miami make before this coming Thursday’s trade deadline?”

It is simply this:

“Is Hassan Whiteside a whale?”

It all starts there. Because the answer to that, of course, might help resolve those first two questions, as well as the even bigger one down the road: “What mind-set will the Heat take into free agency this summer?”

See, we’re coming into Pat Riley season, the time of roster-building, of maneuvering, of decisions made (or not) that will tell you what the architect thinks of what he has, and what he needs.

The trade deadline looms, the NBA Draft follows on June 22, then by early July comes free agency. Riley calls the upper tier of free agents “whales.” The real game-changers. He boated the greatest whale of all in 2010 in LeBron James. He cast for one last summer in Kevin Durant but never had a shot.

I think of Riley, who turns 72 next month, and note that Ernest Hemingway happened to write his masterpiece, “The Old Man and the Sea,” about 50 miles due east of Miami, in Bimini. It tells the tale of Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman, and his struggles to catch a giant marlin in the gulf waters off the Florida coast.

The novel came to me the other day in pondering how Riley has become Santiago, the old man and the sea, as he tries to catch not a marlin but one more whale before his NBA time runs out.

Or, does he believe he has one in Whiteside? Last summer, Riley lavished a four-year, $98.4 million contract to hold onto Whiteside in free agency. Max money. Whale money. You-need-to-be-the-man-who-leads-us-to-another-championship money.

But the question that lingers, still, even as Whiteside leads the NBA in rebounding, is whether he has the shoulders for that burden, or more pertinently, whether Riley believes he does.

The question of Whiteside mirrors that of Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He’s good, but can he be great? Is he worth building around? Worth pinning your future on?

Riley wants to make the playoffs, sure. But the real point of this season is to show him how far he is from a contender, what it is he needs to do and who on the current roster is worth keeping.

Whiteside, 27, has an acute sense of how he is perceived, always with an ear cocked for doubters and disrespect. He might have been an All-Star playing in Sunday night’s game in New Orleans but was passed over. He could have then been added by commissioner Adam Silver to replace the injured Kevin Love, but Carmelo Anthony was tapped instead.

Whiteside sees slights where they don’t exist, but this arguably was a genuine snub. He averages 16.8 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks. But he also continues to be somewhat inconsistent and too mindful of his own stat sheet. Just last week, teammates James Johnson and Dion Waiters during a timeout criticized Whiteside for his lack of defense in the paint as the driving Orlando Magic treated him like a turnstile en route to the basket.

“I lead the league in rebounds the last time I checked,” he said testily after that game — the kind of remark that makes the Heat’s executive branch cringe.

This very much remains The Whiteside Project, and his falling short of the All-Star team only underlined that question of whether he is close enough to great enough to warrant not only the mone but the keys to the franchise and to its future.

It was as if Whiteside was acknowledging and directly addressing those doubts Wednesday night in Houston, after his 23 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks led an impressive Heat win.

“Keep believing,” he said, of what others should think of him.

It was like he was speaking to fans or maybe straight to Riley. “If you’re going to believe in any side, believe in Whiteside,” he said.

Nobody on this Heat roster is untouchable. The pragmatist with the assassin’s eyes, Riley, let icon Dwyane Wade go, partly because he made Whiteside his priority. But if there is a whale bigger and better than Whiteside and he has the bait, Riley will hit those waters again.

As a quick aside, Wade, dissatisfied in Chicago and a free agent this summer, seemed to be mending a bridge back to Miami while appearing last week on Adrian Wojnarowski’s The Vertical podcast. Would Riley take him back? Yes, but only at the right price, and if he agreed to dovetail into Riley’s grander plan.

See, champions who have spent their entire careers winning and are about to turn 72 — they’ll not be distracted by emotion.

Prior to the 13-game winning streak there was talk of the Heat “tanking” to enjoy better odds in the draft lottery. Riley made clear what he stands for.

“You don’t ever mess with the karma of winning. Never,” he told a group of Heat season-ticket holders recently. “So I will defer the [higher] pick for winning because that’s what we’re all about here.”

Trades. The draft. Free agency.

Perhaps that whale breaching in the distance.

It’s coming around to Pat Riley season again, and this All-Star break must underline to the Heat’s president the work he has to do and how far the Heat has tumbled from the sexy starpower of the LeBron-led Big 3 era to being just another team under the radar.

This year ends a run of 12 seasons in a row in which the Heat had at least one All-Star player, and six consecutive years in which Miami had two or three.

In fact, the Heat is completely shut out this weekend: nobody in the main game, the Three-Point Contest, the Slam-Dunk Contest, the Skills Challenge or the Rising Stars Challenge.

You know Riley thinks he has one more championship team in him and that he knows patience is a luxury of the young.

Hassan Whiteside could be a vital part of the Heat’s next title-run build, or he could be just an asset to move, a bargaining chip to get there. We’ll know in time if Riley will abide Whiteside’s advice and “keep believing.”