When a coach and player don’t see eye-to-eye on how many minutes that player should be getting, the situation can often become contentious. When that situation involves the team’s highest paid player, who has won a rebounding title and led the league in blocks, it can become flammable to a team’s fabric and focus.
Thus far, conversations between Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and center Hassan Whiteside haven’t reached a boiling point over the number of minutes Miami’s starting center has received since coming back from a 13-game absence. But there’s no telling what might happen if the Heat, 22-17 entering Tuesday’s game against the Raptors, suddenly start to struggle and Whiteside remains a spectator on the bench.
Whiteside has averaged only 22.1 minutes per contest – and played no more than 29 in a game – since his return the day after Christmas. His diminished role, especially in the fourth quarter and overtime (where he’s played only 15 of a possible 72 minutes), has bothered him. But he’s swallowed his frustrations in part because the Heat has gone 5-1 since he’s been back.
“As along as we’re winning,” the 7-footer responded Tuesday at shootaround when asked what his approach will be moving forward if he continues to sit on the bench in crunch time. “You know, we won. So as a player, of course you want to be out there. But we won the game, so I can’t really be mad at that. That’s what you’re out there to do anyway. You’re out there getting all them rebounds and blocks to win a game. So every point counts. We won by one point. Everybody’s points count.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Does Whiteside think he should be getting more minutes?
“You always want to play,” he said. “As a player, I don’t want to come out. If you ask me, I want to play 48 minutes. So that’s a tough question. But coach sees different things. Maybe he sees different things on the court. Sometimes it’s tough to take those guys out, too, because you got to take somebody off the court. And them guys were playing well.”
Spoelstra said he’s made it very clear to Whiteside what he has to do if he wants more minutes. He has to reach Spoelstra’s level of expectations.
In his first six games back, Whiteside has averaged 11.5 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting with 8.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.3 blocks. Sunday’s performance versus the Jazz – when Whiteside had 14 points, 10 rebounds, an assist and a season-high four blocks – was one of his better efforts since his return, Spoelstra said.
But there’s more he wants out of him.
“He’s still getting there,” Spoelstra said Tuesday after shootaround. “It has nothing to do with the knee. It’s just a habit for him of doing more, of getting more, of being more consistent with all of it. And I won’t stop with my expectations for him and what this team needs from him.
“It’s both ends,” Spoelstra replied when asked if there’s a specific area where he wants Whiteside to improve. “He’ll get there. Some things he’s doing better. As he does it more consistently, harder and with a better motor and attention to detail, he’ll earn more minutes.”
Spoelstra said whether or not Whiteside gets more minutes in the fourth quarter going forward will not always be dependent on his level of play either. It could be relegated by matchups as well.
Spoelstra has opted for “smaller” lineups lately in cruch time with Kelly Olynyk as his only big man on the floor because that is what he says the game called for. In the future, though, the Heat could use Whiteside’s rebounding and shotblocking ability down the stretch of games because it’s more necessary then.
“Different games require different things,” Spoelstra said. “The fourth quarter could be his tonight. Like any player, it’s whatever we feel is best for the team at that time. You have to stay with it. All those opportunities are earned.”
For now, Whiteside is taking the right approach teammates say, showing a positive attitude on the court and in the locker room.
“That’s really important,” point guard Goran Dragic said. “Today he had a really good shootaround. He was vocal. He was engaged. That helps to make things progress, so you can play better.
“Like Spo said today, our game changed a little bit from the first 15-20 games. It’s tough when you miss 13 games. Now, he’s trying to fit in, get his rhythm back. We encourage him all practice to try to be more vocal, try to do his thing. Of course, it takes time because he needs to get his rhythm back, his feel for the game. We are comfortable enough that we know he’s going to play a tremendous role in our team [eventually].”
Whiteside said Spoelstra has told him not to get frustrated over his playing time.
“He told me don’t get frustrated with it, always trust he’s on my side, we’re all on the same team and don’t get frustrated with it,” Whiteside said. “He’s proud of me.”