Dwyane Wade has an interesting summer ahead of him and a decision to make about his own future after 15 brilliant NBA seasons.
But the last question asked of him after the Miami Heat was eliminated from the playoffs Tuesday night had nothing to do with what lies ahead for the 36-year-old future Hall of Famer.
It had to do with Hassan Whiteside, the player receiving the biggest paychecks in the organization, his attitude and his disappointing performance in the playoffs.
So what sage advice did Wade, 36, give the soon-to-be 29-year-old who still has two years left on his four-year, $98 million contract after a series like this?
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“Don't give yourself an excuse,” Wade said of Whiteside, who once again complained about his lack of playing time in the series after finishing with 26 points, 30 rebounds and six blocks combined with 12 turnovers in the five games he played a total off 77 minutes in.
“You want to look and see where you can be better,” Wade continued. “It's easy to say that this series -wasn't a big man series. Or it’s easy to say that Coach did this or that, or I got in foul trouble. Don't give yourself an excuse. Just go into the summer and work on what you need to work on mentally and physically and get yourself ready for when this opportunity comes again.
“That shows your real character. When this same opportunity presents itself – because it’s going to come back fast — how are you going to prepare for it? How are you going to be better the next time you are in this situation? I hope [he is].”
Of all the many decisions team president Pat Riley has to make in the coming months to shape the Heat’s future, the biggest revolves around the 7-foot, 265-pound Whiteside and his role with the team moving forward.
It was roughly 18 months ago, right after the Heat signed Whiteside and Wade left for Chicago, that Riley gave Whiteside what felt like a glowing endorsement. Basically, Riley said, Whiteside was going to be the player the team was going to build everything around.
“When you look at how the game is played now, when you look at how it has evolved and how it’s played, he’s the perfect center,” Riley told Sports Illustrated on Nov. 14, 2016. “I’m telling you, within a year, we’re going to be running a lot of offense through this guy.”
But that’s not the way things panned out. After scoring 26 points and grabbing 22 rebounds in the Heat’s season opening loss at Orlando, Whiteside missed time with a bone bruise in his left knee and never seemed to move as fluidly on the court the rest of the season.
By the time Whiteside came off the injured list, coach Erik Spoelstra had changed the Heat’s offense, running a dribble-handoff, high-post attack that benefited shooters like Wayne Ellington and Goran Dragic and was made to take advantage of the screening ability of backup centers Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo.
Whiteside just never really fit back in and It led him to criticizing Spoelstra, who used him very little in the fourth quarter during the regular season and hardly at all against the Sixers even after All-Star center Joel Embiid had returned for Philadelphia.
“At least give me a chance to fight,” a frustrated Whiteside said after Tuesday’s loss. “I can understand if I was playing 30 minutes and I played bad. At least give me a chance.”
Spoelstra, unaware of what Whiteside had said in the postgame locker room Tuesday, had this to say of his starting center during his postgame press conference when asked if he had any regrets how the series had gone for Whiteside:
“I look back on the season and he had a lot of great moments,” Spoelstra said. “It was a little bit uneven and a lot of it to be fair was the in and out of the lineups with his injuries. Our team would evolve and all of a sudden he would have to try to play back in and then do this all with the scrutiny and noise with everything outside. I think he grew this year. I think there are uncomfortable times and there are times when he wanted to have more of an impact. I love that. I don't want players who want to sit on the bench and be cool with that. But he learned how to manage things and handle things better, with more professionalism and class. That will serve him well going forward.”
The question of all questions, though, is if Whiteside can really serve the Heat in today’s modern NBA where the value of the center position keeps dropping and the three-point shot continues to break records season after season.
As it stands, the Heat, which finished the regular season 44-38 and sixth in the conference, appear nowhere close to contending even in the Eastern Conference with Philadelphia and Boston, two premier young powers positioned to compete to reach the Finals for years to come.
With no cap space this coming summer, Riley, 73, is going to have to be creative if he’s going to reconstruct Miami’s roster. ESPN on Wednesday suggested the Heat as one of four possible trade partners with the San Antonio Spurs, who are in a tough spot with All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard.
In this make believe trade scenario Miami would sent All-Star point guard Goran Dragic, starting small forward Josh Richardson and recent first round picks Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo to the Spurs for Leonard and point guard Patty Mills.
Whiteside, meanwhile, is considered almost immovable, which is why even Wade, who could potentially retire this summer, is hoping Whiteside figures things out. The Heat badly needs him to.
“I love Hassan,” Wade said. “I've been able to see his growth from making our team to getting triple doubles to becoming the player he is. Hopefully, he gets motivated from this, this series and comes back better next season.”