Even with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh providing their usual level of stellar play, the first year of the post LeBron James era has not been easy in Miami. Were it not for the abysmal state of the bottom half of the Eastern Conference, the Heat would likely be on the outside of the playoff race looking in. As is, they are the No. 7 seed with a 20-25 record and a -3.3 point different. Nevertheless, there is one gigantic reason for optimism in Miami and his name is Hassan Whiteside.
Over the last month, Whiteside has become one of the biggest stories in the NBA, emerging from literally out of nowhere to become a dynamic force on both sides of the ball. In 18 games with the Heat, Whiteside is averaging 7.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks on 67.4% shooting in only 15.9 minutes per game. His per-36 minute numbers have to be seen to believed - 17.4 points, 14.0 rebounds and 5.8 blocks. As you would expect for a big man with Whiteside’s numbers, the Heat have been a totally different team when he is on the floor:
At 7’1 265 with a 7’7 wingspan, Whiteside has an extremely rare combination of size and athleticism. Not only is he one of the biggest players in the NBA, he’s one of the most athletic too, as he put up a ridiculous 31.5 inch max vertical leap at the NBA draft combine. From a physical standpoint, the key to protecting the rim is a combination of length and vertical leap, two things which Whiteside has in abundance in comparison to even the best C’s in the league:
Even for NBA players, it’s almost impossible to finish over the top of Whiteside. When he’s in the game, Miami’s defense is designed around funneling penetration to him and they can use him in many of the same ways that Indiana uses Roy Hibbert. The truly scary part about his rim protection numbers is that he’s still operating primarily on instinct. His foul rate, as you would expect for a young C, is off the charts and it will take him years to fully grasp all the mental intricacies necessary to be a top-flight interior defender.
While Whiteside is only 25, he’s still a baby when it comes to NBA experience. A No. 33 overall pick of the Sacramento Kings in 2011, he spent parts of two seasons playing behind DeMarcus Cousins and never made much of an impression around the rest of the league. Everyone knew about his physical talent, but concerns about his maturity and approach to the game, confounded by his lack of production in college at Marshall and in the NBA, meant teams steered clear of him. It took him over two years to get another shot, when the Heat picked him up after losing Josh McRoberts for the season.
The crazy part about it is that if Miami had kept LeBron James there’s no guarantee Whiteside would have ever gotten another chance. With the Big Three still in place, the Heat would have been trying to win now, which would have meant going after veterans like Jermaine O’Neal instead of rolling the dice on an unproven youngster with numerous off-court red flags. However, given their lack of size upfront and the way their season was spiraling away from them, Miami had almost no choice but to give Whiteside a shot.
His rebirth in South Beach is a testament to how hard he worked and how ready he kept himself while he was bouncing around the fringes of the minor leagues, which isn’t always an easy thing to do. Just as important, it’s a reflection of Miami’s ability to rapidly integrate players into their rotation. This isn’t the first time Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra have found a center off the street who changed the dynamic of their team - they don’t win their 2nd championship without Chris “Birdman” Anderson.
Like Birdman, Whiteside isn’t being asked to do much on the offensive end of the floor. With Bosh spreading the floor from the PF position, Miami runs a pure 4-out system that creates a ton of room for Whiteside to roll to the rim on the pick-and-roll. Probably the most underrated part of his game are his hands, which allow him to vacuum almost any type of pass around him. Whiteside already has great chemistry with Wade on the two-man game and his offensive efficiency numbers are off the charts:
In essence, playing in Spoelstra’s system has turned Whiteside from a fringe NBA player to one of the most valuable players in the league. That’s the beauty of playing 4-out basketball and allowing guys to operate in maximum space. Whiteside doesn’t need to overthink the action on offense - see the ball, catch the ball, dunk the ball. For as well as guys like Draymond Green, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson have played, it’s hard to see anyone competing with Whiteside for Most Improved Player if he keeps this pace up.
He changes the whole dynamic for the Heat. All of a sudden, if they close out games with Wade, Luol Deng, Bosh and Whiteside, they have four two-way players on the floor with plus length for their position. The new nucleus on South Beach fits well together - Whiteside makes up for the older guys declining athletic ability on defense and the boards while their shooting and passing ability makes his life much easier on the offensive end of the floor.
If their older players can stay healthy over the course of the season, the Miami Heat aren’t going to be an easy out for anyone in the playoffs. Going forward, Whiteside looks like the C of the future for the next decade, a guy who can anchor the defense and complement Wade and Bosh as they move deeper into their 30’s. That’s a victory not just for himself but for the entire organization in Miami. If the San Antonio Spurs had pulled off something similar, we would be hearing no end to the genius of Gregg Popovich.
The Heat are reading from the same playbook as the Spurs - spread the floor, put multiple shooters and passers out there, run multiple pick-and-rolls and move the ball from side to side. That’s what made the 2013 NBA Finals so exciting, with Spoelstra and Popovich going back and forth over seven games, adjusting to each other’s rotation and alternating blowouts.
The difference in the 2014 NBA Finals wasn’t the coaching, it was that the back end of the Miami rotation fell apart. The Heat were trying to squeeze minutes out of guys like Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem and they just had nothing left to give against a Spurs team that was clicking on all cylinders. They had fallen in love with their veterans and they didn’t have any fresh legs at the end of their bench to give them a boost.
Say what you want about the Miami organization, but they know how to recognize their mistakes. They are bringing along two young players who can get out and run - Whiteside and James Ennis - and who come on the type of affordable cost-controlled contracts a team with two max players on the books needs. As long as they have Wade and Bosh and they can spread the floor around them, they can keep finding guys to plug into roles that maximize their skill-sets.
We should have known better than to count the Heat out. Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra are just Popovich and Mike Budenholzer in nicer suits.