The Miami Heat fined center Hassan Whiteside an undisclosed amount on Sunday, one day after he complained about a lack of playing time and called coach Erik Spoelstra’s lineup decisions “bulls***.”
After playing just 20 minutes and sitting out much of the fourth quarter and overtime of Saturday’s 110-109 loss to the lottery-bound Brooklyn Nets, Whiteside told reporters, via the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “Man, it’s annoying. Why we matching up? We got one of the best centers in the league. Why we matching up? A lot of teams don’t have a good center. They’re going to use their strength. It’s bulls***. It’s really bulls***, man. There’s a lot of teams that could use a center. S***. That’s bulls***.”
Asked if his minutes decline could lead to an exit from the Heat, Whiteside said, via the Miami Herald, “I don’t know. Maybe.” A member of the team’s public relations staff reportedly cut the interview short as Whiteside was pondering whether he should address those concerns again with the organization.
According to the Sun-Sentinel’s Ira Winderman, the fine exceeds $5,000 and is eligible to be appealed. Whiteside will not be suspended and is expected to be in uniform for Tuesday’s game against Atlanta.
Appeal or not, suspension or not, this issue isn’t expected to go away anytime soon. After leading the league in blocks per game (3.7) in 2015-16 and rebounds per game (14.1) in 2016-17, Whiteside has seen his minutes drop from 32.6 per game last season to 25.6 this year. At least three times before the All-Star break, Whiteside publicly questioned his playing time, but his latest rant was the most explicit.
Spoelstra cited Whiteside’s conditioning and favorable matchups when explaining his decision to play without a center for much of the game’s final 20 minutes. Whiteside returned on Thursday from a nine-game absence due to a hip injury and asked out of Saturday’s game after getting winded four minutes into the first quarter. Then, down the stretch against a Nets team juggling center-less lineups, Spoelstra relied on guards Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade and forwards Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and James Johnson — a group that erased an eight-point deficit in the final 7:21 to force OT.
“He had some good moments and then they went to the smaller lineup,” Spoelstra said of Whiteside, just prior to his center’s media availability, via the Associated Press. “Their speed got to our size.”
But Whiteside wasn’t buying it, suggesting his minutes have been diminished all season. This is the latest in a series of public disagreements between the center, his coach and team president Pat Riley over Whiteside’s effort, role and offensive limitations. Expectations from all parties are not being met.
Considering the additions of rookie Bam Adebayo and 26-year-old Kelly Olynyk, Whiteside’s dwindling playing time comes as little surprise to anyone but Whiteside, especially in the NBA’s small-ball era. Miami’s offense jumps from a league-low level (100.1 points per 100 possessions) without Olynyk to a top-five level (110.2 points per 100) with his floor spacing, all with a negligible difference defensively.
Meanwhile, the Heat have been five points per 100 possessions better with Whiteside on the bench.
Whiteside’s argument — that the Heat should create problems for opponents at center, rather than matching mobility in smaller lineups — makes sense in theory. But not in practice. Because the max-salaried Whiteside isn’t the dominant center he imagines himself to be or the Heat pay him to be.
Almost 70 percent of Whiteside’s made baskets have come from within five feet of the basket, mostly as the recipient of passes as the roll man on the pick and roll or from drive-and-dishes. Almost a quarter of his possessions have come in post-up situations, where he is not an especially great scorer.
Both Olynyk and Adebayo are equally adept (if not better) scorers as roll men, cutters or on the break. And Olynyk brings the added bonus of being an above-average 3-point shooter. If Spoelstra is looking to create matchup problems for opponents at the center spot, he has a superior option offensively.
Defensively is where Whiteside should be the difference-maker. Olynyk is no rim protector, and opponents are shooting 8.6 percent worse than their season averages around the rim against Whiteside. Problem is, Adebayo is just as good on the block defensively and athletic enough to switch or help on the perimeter, as he did in contesting Isaiah Thomas’ failed game-winner two weeks ago.
Adebayo will make $8.4 million over his first three seasons, and Whiteside is due $25.4 million next season with a $27.1 million player option still to come in 2019. This presents a problem for the Heat, because that salary better spent could mean the difference between Miami battling for one of the Eastern Conference’s lower playoff seeds every year and inching closer to contention in the future.
It’s no wonder the Heat were reportedly open to moving Whiteside at the trade deadline, with Milwaukee mentioned as a potential destination, but Miami was unwilling to part with him without a significant return. You wonder whether the price tag for parting with him got lower over the weekend.
Whiteside is still a productive player at age 28, posting per-36-minute averages of 19.9 points, 16.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks, but a bone bruise in his left knee cost him a quarter of this season, and he hasn’t been the same force that made the meteoric rise from minimum-salaried D-League flier to max-salaried burgeoning star two years ago. The questions both he and the Heat must now face is whether that rise already reached its apex and if the once-promising relationship has run its course.
The playoff race, which currently has the Heat in the seventh seed — a game back of sixth-place Washington — should provide some answers for Miami. But if Whiteside can’t get on the floor for crunch time of a regular-season game against the Nets, Spoelstra might already know the solution.
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