Hassan Whiteside has a nice, relaxing vacation planned for this weekend on “an island somewhere.”
But the truth is the Heat’s $98 million center boarded a flight back home to Miami after Wednesday’s impressive, wire-to-wire win over the Houston Rockets a bit disappointed he wasn’t heading to All-Star weekend in New Orleans.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver could have rewarded Whiteside and named him as a last-minute replacement for Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, who had left knee surgery Tuesday and will be out for the next six weeks. Instead, Silver designated Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony as Love’s replacement, leaving the Eastern Conference still without a true center in Sunday’s All-Star Game.
Being snubbed obviously hurt Whiteside, the league’s leader in rebounds this season, and last year’s leader in blocked shots. But what stings him perhaps even more is the notion centers aren’t as important to team success anymore.
It’s something he proved at least Wednesday wasn’t true when his 23 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks loomed large in an statement-making win over MVP candidate James Harden and the Rockets, who average at least six more three-point attemps per game (39.8 total) than the rest of the league and own the third-most wins (40) at the break.
“I would have loved for a center to represent the East,” Whiteside said when asked if he was disappointed he didn’t get the call from the league to replace Love. “But that's not what the fans want to see. Hey, the coaches voted him in. I really have no control over that. I’m trying to make the playoffs. That’s my focus.”
If you ask coach Erik Spoelstra that’s where Whiteside’s focus needs to be all the time — in winning.
That’s what Spoelstra said will be the key for the 27-year-old to earn himself any future All-Star invites. It’s a point Spoelstra has been trying to hammer home with Whiteside all season and one he finally believes is starting to make its way inside Whiteside’s head after the team’s 11-30 start.
“His best level of winning basketball was after the month of January when we came back from our road trip, and it was probably his worst statistical stretch of the season,” Spoelstra said of Whiteside, who averaged fewer points (14.9), fewer rebounds (12.6) and fewer blocks (1.8) during the Heat’s 13-game win streak than his regular-season averages (16.8 points, 14.1 rebounds, 2.1 blocks).
“Not that any of it was all on him, but when you shoulder a bigger responsibility as one of your better players and you have a losing record even with good stats the league might not recognize that being an All-Star,” Spoelstra continued.
“What I’ve enjoyed about this process is developing and teaching a player really how to win. And he still is such a young player in terms of experience. He’s never been in this situation before where he’s been responsible for winning, and he’s been able to fit in on other teams. When you shoulder bigger responsibility it’s fun to see players grow.”
That growth was evident Wednesday. After the Heat’s back-to-back losses against Philadelphia and Orlando — teams behind Miami in the standings — Whiteside had to sit through film sessions and “hear the truth” Spoelstra said about Miami’s defensive breakdowns in those games.
Whiteside then got a phone call Wednesday morning from Heat Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning, who urged him to trust his teammates to have his back to rebounding so he could take more chances swatting shots on the defensive end. Whiteside listened and delivered, something he’s learning to do more and more lately.
“Everybody on this team noticed,” point guard Goran Dragic said of Whiteside’s change to be more focused on winning plays and less about his own stats.
“[Before the win streak] we were struggling on pick-and-roll defense. We were No. 1 in that span of those 13 games. A lot of credit goes to Hassan because he’s up there with the pick and roll. He’s in step stance and that buys a lot of time for us to get back in front of the guy. He’s at the right spot where he should be all the time and that’s huge for us.”
The issue as always with Whiteside is consistency. He said part of the reason he may have been a step slow last week was because he was sick. Wednesday, though, he felt better and was more active.
“When he plays at that level of physicality and effort it's plain to see we are a much different basketball team,” Spoelstra said.
Whiteside knows that of course.
Sitting on a beach somewhere this weekend and not being in New Orleans among the league’s best players will only drive that point home further.
“Keep believing,” Whiteside told Heat fans as he looked directly in the camera after Wednesday’s win and delivered a message. “If you're going to believe in any side, believe in Whiteside.”
▪ Shane Battier, who was part of the Heat’s last two championship teams and spent three seasons in Miami draining three-pointers and defending some of the best scorers in the league, has joined the franchise’s front office.
The Heat announced it has hired Battier, 38, as the Director of Basketball Development & Analytics. His duties will include the development of analytics in evaluating all talent, including college, free agents and current Miami players according to a press release from the team.