Eighteen months ago, Hassan Whiteside was a second-round draft pick who'd run aground in Sacramento and spent two years plying his trade in the D-League, China and Lebanon hoping to break back into the NBA, only to see his chance with the Memphis Grizzlies end in an early-season waiver. Now, after finding an opportunity to shine in South Beach with the Miami Heat, the 7-footer is in line to become an incredibly wealthy man, hitting unrestricted free agency after averaging a double-double for the second straight season, leading the NBA in blocks, finishing third in the league in rebounds while making the NBA's All-Defensive Second Team and placing third in Defensive Player of the Year voting ... and while earning just under $1 million to do it.
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Whiteside will have multiple suitors when free agency opens on July 1, including the team that gave him the second chance to make a name for himself on the NBA stage:
Riley on Whiteside, "He's our number-one priority, period. Our number-one priority is Hassan Whiteside."
— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) May 18, 2016
But while it's been reported that Whiteside "wants to re-sign" with the Heat "if all things are equal financially," it doesn't sound like he's especially interested in taking a hometown discount in the event that they aren't:
Hassan Whiteside, on his Snapchat, when asked if he was a basketball player said he responded, "'I'm a businessman that plays basketball."
— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) June 24, 2016
Whiteside seemed to double down on that sentiment during a Sunday chat with reporters, according to Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel:
"I really don't think it's about loyalty," the shot-blocking center said while making an appearance at "Dew NBA 3X," a nationwide three-on-three basketball competition that made a weekend stop at the National Young Arts Foundation. "I think it's just about the best situation for myself and that's what I think it is."
Whiteside said he is hopeful of having a decision by the end of Friday's opening day of free agency and acknowledged that the Heat have taken advantage of this period for exclusive contact before he can be contacted by outside teams.
"I talked to Pat Riley probably two weeks ago," he said of the Heat president, who said at the conclusion of the season that Whiteside would be the Heat's priority in free agency. "We had a meeting and we talked and it went good. And we'll see what happens." [...]
"I didn't say it wouldn't be the best situation, but we're going to see what happens," he said. "So it's not that I'm really counting the Heat off or I'm counting on another team. It's just open."
How exactly Whiteside intends to showcase his business acumen promises to be very interesting. As Bobby Marks of The Vertical noted back in April, the mechanism Riley used to sign Whiteside back in 2014 — a two-year minimum salary exception, which brought his total NBA service time to four years, meaning he couldn't be a restricted free agent at the end of his deal and would enter the market unfettered — limited Miami's options and leverage in a second negotiation in the event that the center broke out:
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.
As enticing as those post-cap-explosion paydays seem from the outside, though, we saw many examples last summer — Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kevin Love and Goran Dragic, among others — suggesting that lots of players still crave the security of here-and-now long-term contracts that are very rich, even if they don't pay out the absolute top dollar players could receive by opting for the kind of one-and-one deal that LeBron James has chosen in Cleveland.
If other clubs are indeed serious about presenting Whiteside with full max offers that would pay him just under $95 million over the next four years — ESPN's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne reported Monday morning that the Los Angeles Lakers will "aggressively pursue" him, with the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers also expected to be in the mix — would Whiteside still entertain a below-max or delayed-payday offer from the Heat that would afford Riley the flexibility to retain fellow free agents like Johnson, Deng and franchise cornerstone Dwyane Wade? Or will a 27-year-old with very fresh memories of what life outside the NBA is like prefer to strike while the iron is hot and stack as much paper as possible today, even if that means changing his address?
It's one of the biggest questions of this free agency period, and it's one to which — right now, anyway — Whiteside himself might not know the answer. From Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press:
Asked Sunday what was the most important factor — money, location, surrounding talent or something else — Whiteside said he couldn't pinpoint which would be the top thing.
"It's a toss-up," Whiteside said. "It's a lot of things that come into it. It's not one specific thing. It's like you having a wife. You can't say one specific thing you like about her. You've just got to like her as a whole. I've got to choose it all together. All the dots have to connect."
Heat forward Udonis Haslem, who also becomes a free agent Friday, said he hopes Whiteside stays.
"The team that gave you a chance when nobody else did, for me, it would be a no-brainer," Haslem told AP [...] "I'd just tell Hassan to be good and be loyal to the people who were good to you. No one else believed in you when you were in China or at the YMCA or whatever. The Heat gave him an opportunity and he maximized that opportunity, so I hope he's loyal to that."
Hope's a heck of a thing, but Haslem and others who'd like to see Whiteside back in a Heat uniform might not want to start holding their breath just yet. In the defining negotiation of his career, the "businessman who plays basketball" doesn't sound like he's going to let emotion carry the day.
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