When asked about his impending free agency this past March, Hassan Whiteside told reporters, “I don’t want to be the face of a losing franchise. You want to be the face of a winning program.”
The 7-footer then re-signed with the Miami Heat over the summer on a maximum four-year deal worth $98.4 million, and nine months after his prescient remarks, he is the face of a losing franchise. The Heat fell to 9-20 this season following Tuesday’s double-overtime loss to the Orlando Magic — a third straight defeat and eighth in 10 games that left the team’s “franchise player” wanting for more.
— Manny Navarro (@Manny_Navarro) December 21, 2016
Asked if he was getting enough late-game touches in clutch situations following what he described as “the most disappointing loss of the season,” Whiteside gave the response reporters were looking for:
“They say I’m a franchise player,” said Whiteside, via The Miami Herald’s Manny Navarro, a bandage covering the three stitches he required over his right eye for an in-game elbow. “I would think I should get more, but I don’t know, man. I don’t think so, to be honest, but coach is going to coach.”
This all started in May, when Heat president Pat Riley called Whiteside his No. 1 priority in free agency — a proclamation that may have irked Miami mainstay Dwyane Wade enough to leave for the Chicago Bulls. Riley softened that stance after Wade left and Whiteside stayed in July, calling his new $94 million man “worth the investment,” while urging media not to weigh the Second Team All-Defensive center’s performance against his contract. Far be it for media to ever weigh production against salary.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t heed Riley’s advice, either, publicly demanding more of Whiteside before benching him for lack of energy in a 30-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers two weeks ago.
“I want him to dominate at the rim and that’s on both ends of the court,” Spoelstra said before that loss. “If he does not dominate at the rim, in the paint, we don’t have a chance to win. That’s what great players have to shoulder. That’s the responsibility of a great player. … Yes, he can put up 20 and 15 like few I’ve ever seen. And if that’s not enough to get a win then there has to be more. There has to be more. That’s the responsibility all the great players in the history of this game have shouldered.”
Spoelstra doubled down a day later, telling reporters, “It’s just all about development and his understanding of how important he is to this team. And on all levels. I mentioned it so many times before this. He’s starting to see what that actually means and what that feels like. It is a big responsibility and that’s what he signed up for.” This is a team holding a player to his max contract.
Somewhere along the line, whether it be his contract or the words of his team’s president and coach, Whiteside was convinced he’s a franchise player. Whether or not he is one is up for debate. He is averaging a career-high 18.1 points and a league-leading 14.8 rebounds to go with 2.4 blocks per game. He makes two-thirds of his shots in the restricted area and prevents opponents from making more than half their shots at the rim on the other end. These are borderline franchise player numbers.
Then again, if the NBA’s 400-plus players were re-drafted today, Whiteside may not be a first-round pick. So, it’s more apt to describe Whiteside as his franchise’s best player, or we can just stick with “the face of a losing franchise.” However you describe him, that has little to do with the point Whiteside was trying to convey on Tuesday — that his status warrants more crunch-time touches.
In clutch situations — within five in the final five minutes — Whiteside ranks third on the team in field goal attempts, behind guards Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson. Dragic, Dion Waiters, Josh McRoberts, James Johnson and Justise Winslow all have higher crunch-time usage rates, albeit in fewer minutes. Yet, Whiteside is shooting 55.6 percent in those situations, more than 10 percent better than anyone else on the Heat. In 14 crunch-time minutes at then end of regulation and both overtimes in Tuesday night’s loss, Whiteside finished 2-for-4, while his teammates combined to shoot 7-for-20. This after Whiteside amassed 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting and 11 rebounds through the first three quarters.
So, yeah, maybe Miami should look to Whiteside more often at the end of close games. But simply giving a guy more touches isn’t always the answer, especially when it’s a post player who can’t create his own shot and relies heavily on playmakers to put him in position to score. Riley recognizes this.
“I do think that right now Coach Spo is going through the dilemma that I had to go through when you make changes from an offensive philosophy and defensive philosophy to fit your personnel,” Riley told WQAM radio on Wednesday morning, via The Miami Herald. “Trying to find ways to get him the ball where he’s not encumbered with a lot of defenders in his face is not that easy in today’s game. So, he’s caught in betwixt learning the pick-and-roll game and the straight-up post game.”
(Shout out to Riley for dropping “in betwixt.”)
Such is the predicament when your $94 million “franchise player” is a still-developing 27-year-old. As Whiteside told the Palm Beach Post earlier this month, “I really don’t know what I’ve got to do, man. I really don’t know.” This is a learning process for the Heat, and nobody’s going to shed a tear for Miami, not after 13 seasons of Wade and four more with LeBron James as the faces of their franchise.
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