The Heat's Hassan Whiteside problem

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·The Vertical
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The Vertical Front-Office Insider Bobby Marks takes a look at the challenges Miami will face this summer in retaining Hassan Whiteside, one of the top defensive players in the NBA.

THE SCOUTING REPORT
When the Heat signed Hassan Whiteside in November 2014, NBA executives looked at the move as a project signing for the franchise’s NBA Development League affiliate in Sioux Falls. Whiteside, drafted in the second round by Sacramento in 2010, had bounced around the NBA and the D-League, and had a two-year stint playing in Lebanon.

Hassan Whiteside (21) attacks the basket against the Hornets on Wednesday. (AP)
Hassan Whiteside (21) attacks the basket against the Hornets on Wednesday. (AP)

The Memphis Grizzlies, who signed Whiteside before training camp in 2014 but released him as one of their final cuts, were enamored with his talent. Whiteside spent the early part of November with Memphis’ D-League team in Iowa, where he averaged 22 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks in three games. He signed with the Heat on Nov. 24, 2014.

Before the 2010 draft, teams viewed him as a player with NBA rebounding and shot-blocking skills, but with an undeveloped offensive game. The best-case scenario for Whiteside at the time was to be a rotational big with major upside.

Needless to say, Whiteside has surpassed those expectations after averaging 19 points on 89.5 percent shooting and 12 rebounds in his first two playoff games. Whiteside is also on the verge of being named to the NBA All-Defensive team and has played a major role in helping Miami to a 2-0 first-round series lead over the Charlotte Hornets.

The concerns with Whiteside were about his maturity level. The key for players entering the league is whether they can grasp the mental side of the game.

Players often fall through the cracks when there is not a strong support system in place. Whiteside was drafted at 21 and had only played one year of college basketball before landing on a Sacramento team that was void of leadership.

What Whiteside needed was an organization with a healthy culture, veterans, strong player development and a no-nonsense attitude from ownership and management.

Enter the Miami Heat.

HOW CAP SPACE HURT THE HEAT
In an odd set of circumstances, the one season in which Miami didn’t pay the luxury tax – 2014-15 – may prove to be the costliest.

When LeBron James bolted to Cleveland in 2014, the Heat went from a luxury tax team to one with cap space. Miami was able to bring in Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts and use Bird rights to re-sign All-Stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

Having cap space meant Miami only had the mid-level exception. Unlike the tax mid-level that can be used to sign a player to three years, the room mid-level limits a team to only a two-year contract. The room mid-level was used to sign Udonis Haslem, leaving the Heat with only the minimum exception, which can only be used to sign a player to a maximum of two years.

The Heat signed Whiteside using that minimum exception, and that’s where things get interesting.

THE CONTRACT

Whiteside is an unrestricted free agent this summer. (AP)
Whiteside is an unrestricted free agent this summer. (AP)

Signing a two-year minimum contract enabled Whiteside to earn early Bird rights this summer in free agency.

He also will be an unrestricted free agent because he will have four years of service in July. Only a player with three years of service or less can be a restricted free agent.

Miami will not be able to control the free-agency process.

EARLY BIRD RIGHTS DILEMMA
The early Bird rights will restrict Miami to paying Whiteside the average player salary, which is projected to be north of $7 million. If the Heat want to use cap space, they can exceed the average player salary, but they will need to be creative while also having their own free agents make a sacrifice.

Joe Johnson and Luol Deng are also free agents, which makes everything more complicated.

Whiteside has another option, however. He can sign a one-year contract with cap space at a below-market salary, which would establish his Bird rights. He then could sign a long-term contract in 2017 when the cap is expected to rise to a record $109 million.

Similar to San Antonio, the Heat take pride in putting the team above individuals, with players often sacrificing for the benefit of the organization.

THE SALARY-CAP PUZZLE
The Heat are known for having one the most creative front offices in the NBA when it comes to the salary cap. Even with the salary cap rising to $92 million, Miami faces a challenge this summer.

Although the Heat only have $49 million in guaranteed contracts this summer, $52 million in free-agent cap holds will push Miami over the salary cap. Although Whiteside has a $1.2 million cap hold, finding enough room for Wade, Whiteside, Deng and Johnson will be difficult. The cap hold for Wade and Deng is $42 million combined.

THE DANGLED CARROT
This July will provide a true test for Whiteside and teams with cap space.

The minimum contract and non-guarantee will not be hanging over Whiteside’s head this summer as a source of motivation, and that has some teams concerned.

Whiteside has found a great role with the Heat, who invested much in his development. Coach Erik Spoelstra and Whiteside have developed a trust with each other that Whiteside didn’t have in previous NBA stops. The maturity concerns now appear to be on the backburner.

Spoelstra said after the Heat’s Game 2 playoff victory Wednesday that Whiteside had his “welcome to the playoffs” moment in the first quarter. After getting baited into his second foul by the Hornets’ Cody Zeller, Whiteside easily could have lost his composure. But he didn’t.

“He’s been through it before,” Spoelstra said, “Guys will try to take him out of the game in a lot of different ways.”

No one can criticize a player for seeking financial security. But taking a player such as Whiteside out of his comfort zone can sometimes result in a big payday but a step back into bad habits.

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