The minimum-salary contract that broke open Hassan Whiteside’s career was little more than a lark for the Miami Heat. With it the team could more closely appraise Whiteside, a mobile giant at bare minimum, at no real cost; even if Whiteside were to have flamed out spectacularly, Miami was never bound financially to appease him or even keep him on the roster. Their stakes were exceedingly low while Whiteside’s motivation for model NBA citizenship was incredibly high.
Starting today, that gambit changes irrevocably. The Heat took the plunge with Whiteside on the first official day of free agency, sealing an agreement in principle that would pay Whiteside a reported $98 million over four years. This is a functional max contract given Whiteside’s years of NBA experience and lack of Bird rights, a mechanism that would have otherwise allowed him larger year-to-year raises. Miami gave Whiteside, who had soured on the interest of eight teams around the world before landing in Miami, the kind of security that affords a player his occupational freedom. Whiteside got paid. The Heat, in the process, have wagered almost $100 million on the hope that the entitlements of a massive new contract won’t get in the way of their working relationship.
It’s an uneasy arrangement born of Miami’s ongoing transition. Whether Dwyane Wade actually follows through on his implied interest to sign with another team in free agency this summer or not, Miami is looking to find the ground to support its next contender. Whiteside isn’t stable enough for him to actually play that role, though what he contributes as a shot-blocker and rebounder might be attractive enough to help entice a foundational star or help trade for one. Don’t mistake Miami’s investment as a complete vote of confidence. This franchise understands better than any the ways in which trusting in Whiteside can be trying. They also know better than to let a shot-blocker of his exceptional ability slip away for fear of his contract when the market around the league runs wild.
The very presence of a player like Whiteside forces opponents to make more difficult moves. What might be a layup becomes a floater. What could be a straight-line drive requires hesitations and changes in direction. Little comes simply for an opposing offense so long as he’s around to stall some intended first option and buy his teammates time to recover. Some of that value is spatially confined. Whiteside has neither the interest nor aptitude to step out to the perimeter in containment, stopping instead around the elbow with his arms down as he waits for a ball handler to come to him.
That invisible wall between Whiteside and the perimeter is strategically restrictive. Offenses geared toward pull-up jumpers or pick-and-pop play find open looks when Whiteside plays on his heels and create even better ones when he decides to leap wildly to contest their shot from a distance. Whiteside is just tall and long enough for that flail to work on occasion, and just stubborn enough to see those results as reason to keep trying. Any full view of Whiteside’s defense is complicated for this reason: so much of what he he offers as a rim protector, rebounder, and space eater is offset by a characteristic lack of diligence.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra never seemed to fully trust Whiteside for that reason among others, even as he racked up huge box score totals and swatted shots into the third row. The way Whiteside plays is unquestionably impressive. It’s also flighty enough when it comes to fundamentals to irk his teammates and coaches. Most will grin and bear it due to the fact that Whiteside’s complete collection of skills—as an interior defender who can finish, rebound, and even post up on occasion—is so rare. A front office, too, will shell out a max deal (or a near-max, in the event that Miami can sell Kevin Durant) for such a player despite all their qualms about his approach and infamy within the basketball equivalent of human resources. Miami is extremely picky when it comes to the people it brings into its organization. Whiteside exists far outside the franchise’s typical parameters, but the context of his free agency and the particulars of his game create room for a sort of exception.
Miami never had the financial resources to do much improving upon last year’s roster. The short-term deals of Whiteside and Luol Deng, the purgatory of Chris Bosh’s health scare, and Dwyane Wade’s giant cap hold limited the Heat’s ability to go beyond the salary cap to retain its talent while adding more. Deng is surely gone. Wade would likely have to take a significant pay cut to make room for a Durant-level max and would be unlikely, for fair reason, to sacrifice otherwise. A Whiteside max isn’t without its many complications. Yet it serves as a reasonable bridge between the team the Heat were last season and the eventual contender they hope to be.