SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
Most interesting storyline of what remains of this Heat season? How far Miami can go in the playoffs, of course.
Second-most fascinating subplot? Whether Hassan Whiteside can sustain the effort, passion, focus and attention to detail displayed in two brilliant performances off the bench in Dallas and Charlotte this past week.
Nobody expects Whiteside to routinely post triple doubles, of course. The question is whether Whiteside can demonstrate the type of growth we witnessed the past few days in several areas that are important to people in the organization. Among them:
### On-court basketball issues. A person in contact with the Heat’s front-office says even though the Heat clearly values Whiteside’s shot-blocking and rim deterrence, a Heat executive also privately has expressed concern about the times he compromises the Heat’s defense by being out of position.
Wednesday, he gambled for a steal, leaving the Heat vulnerable, and Dallas scored. But generally, this wasn't an issue the past two games, with Chris Bosh and Erik Spoelstra noting that Whiteside did a good job defending even when Charlotte spread the floor Friday.
Earlier this season, Boston's Jared Sullinger said Whiteside simply would not go to the perimeter to defend jump-shooting bigs. That has clearly changed.
There are times Heat players wish he would be more receptive to their direction or pay more attention to detail in setting screens --- a skill that Udonis Haslem and Amar’e Stoudemire are more proficient at.
“I’ve always been on Hassan about his screen setting, especially when it comes to me,” Dwyane Wade told The Palm Beach Post last week. “He needs to put his body on them… be more consistent.” He did that more effectively the past two games.
### On-court mental/effort issues. Here’s one view we heard from inside the locker room recently: He has so much talent; if only he played with the same effort and motor every possession. He clearly did that during his off-the-bench stints in Dallas and Charlotte.
One concern, as explained by a Heat official, is that the organization wishes his concentration wasn’t adversely affected by minor setbacks, whether it’s not being credited with a block, or not getting a referee’s call.
### Maturity issues. Whiteside is not a bad guy, not a chemistry-killer in the locker-room. But the Heat wishes he made better decisions, wishes he didn’t engage as much in social media.
It wasn’t merely arguing with a fan on Instagram who said on Monday that the Heat is better without him, citing a Miami New Times piece.
According to a team official, the Heat prefers he did not participate in Snapchat at all, though he has not been banned from that. But the Heat will not allow him to do it inside the locker-room --- something that was made very clear earlier this season.
There was the game early this season when Whiteside appeared to be pouting on the bench, upset he wasn’t on the floor, after a big late basket from Wade, who later made clear that he expected Whiteside to be engaged and cheering for teammates. Whiteside has been much improved in that regard since then.
Though he figures to return to the starting lineup at some point soon, the Heat will be very curious to see how Whiteside responds to this bench role. So far, he has said all the right things.
Whiteside also must dispel any perception that his own stats are of primary importance to him. He can go a long way toward doing that by never again motioning to the scorer's table, during a game, and asking them to credit him with a block or assist. Whiteside has done that a couple of times this season and it's not a good look.
There’s another question that might never be answered as long as he’s on this team: What could Whiteside (who's first in the league in blocks and sixth in rebounding) potentially achieve if the Heat fed him the ball more, like Jan. 14 in Denver, when he produced 19 points and 17 rebounds while Wade sat out with shoulder injuries.
When Whiteside scored 25 and 23 points in two of the Heat’s first four games, it raised expectations that he would become a greater offensive force. But it hasn’t really happened, at least not consistently. He has reached the 23-point mark only twice in 38 games since the first week.
Whiteside is scoring 12.2 points per game --- up from last season’s 11.8 –--- and that ranks 13th among centers. He’s second in the league in field goal percentage (61.6), but his 8.3 field goal attempts per game rank just 16th among centers, well behind DeMarcus Cousins (20.7), Brook Lopez (16), Jahlil Okafor (14.8) and many others.
Whiteside, merely answering questions and not complaining, said his offensive skills are underappreciated around the league and believes he could accomplish more if he had the chance. He said the Heat did not run plays for him earlier this season but has started running a few.
“Sometimes I get a play on a post-up or a look and sometimes I can create plays and get an assist,” he said. “They’re looking for me a little more. I feel like a lot of times my defense overshadows my offense.”
Whereas TNT’s Charles Barkley spoke of Whiteside having the ability to average 20 points a night, Chris Bosh said the notion of Whiteside getting enough shots to average even 18 points per game is unrealistic with this team, partly because the Heat has others who warrant a lot of shots.
“What he can give us is awesome, but we’re not dumping it down to him, like, ‘Hey, here you go,” Bosh said. “Those days are over in this league. If he’s going to roll to the basket, we’re going to hit him. But I don’t agree at all [with Barkley] that Hassan is the key [to the Heat season]. In the playoffs, you have to rely on your guys who have been there before.”
While a limited number of attempts is the primary reason Whiteside’s scoring average ranks outside the top 10 among centers, there are other factors. Though his jump shot has improved, he’s shooting only 40 percent beyond two feet. He shoots a league-best 80.4 percent at the rim, where 54.2 percent of his attempts have come.
And there’s this: Whiteside’s passing also remains a shortcoming. His six assists last season were the fewest ever for an NBA player who played 500 minutes. He has 15 this season --- 53rd among centers and less than any NBA player who has played as many minutes. Conversely, he has 86 turnovers, 18th-most among centers.
Whiteside’s big scoring games haven’t made a huge difference in the outcome. Miami is 7-6 when he scores 15 or more. Surprisingly, the Heat is only 15-13 when he has double figures in rebounds.
Whether the Heat keeps Whiteside in free agency depends on several factors: 1) Whether Pat Riley can lure Kevin Durant (odds are against that), because there's not enough cap space for both; 2) Whiteside's play, particularly in postseason, and how far Miami advances in the postseason with this cast. 3) Whiteside's ability to address the aforementioned issues. 4) Whether bidding this summer exceeds the Heat's comfort level. That comfort level cannot be determined until this season plays out.
Regardless of whether he stays or not, this much is abundantly clear: The Heat's defense is better with him, despite often-cited early-season metrics that suggest otherwise.
Overall, the Heat had allowed 99.9 points in eight games he missed, compared with 95 when he plays. In January, as ESPN noted, the Heat allowed 96.8 points per 100 possessions with Whiteside on the court, compared with 102.7 without him.
"Whiteside just dominated every aspect of that game," Hornets coach Steve Clifford said after Whiteside's 10-point, 10-rebound, 10-block triple double in 27 minutes Friday. "He's the premier rim protector in this league."
### A few historical postscripts on Whiteside, courtesy of Elias: Since blocks first were first officially compiled by the league in 1973-74, he is the first player with more than one triple double off the bench, with one of the categories being blocks. He also achieved that in Chicago last season... Whiteside is the first player in history with exactly 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks in a game. (Others, including Whiteside, obviously have surpassed those numbers in different games.)...
Whiteside has four triple doubles with at least 10 blocks in his career, all coming in the past 13 months. Over the last 30 seasons (since the 1986-87 season), only four other players had at least four games of this type: Dikembe Mutombo (10), Hakeem Olajuwon (nine), David Robinson (nine) and Shawn Bradley (six). Mutombo and Olajuwon share the NBA record for the most such games, with 10 each. Olajuwon had one such game prior to the 1986-87 season....
Whiteside has the NBA's last four triple-doubles that included blocked shots as one of the categories. The last NBA player to produce four triple-doubles-with-blocks over a span in which no other NBA player had any was Shawn Bradley, who had all five NBA triple-doubles-with-blocks while playing with Dallas and New Jersey from April 17, 1996 to April 7, 1998.
### Early word is that the Dolphins view keeping defensive end Olivier Vernon as more important than retaining running back Lamar Miller, but it appears efforts will be made to retain both. They believe they do have another starting-caliber running back on the roster (Jay Ajayi) but not someone who could step in for Vernon. The franchise tag, worth nearly $15 million, remains an option for Vernon.
### At Georgia, Mark Richt never had a recruiting class rated lower than 15th by Rivals.com; 11 were in the top 10. His first UM class was ranked 22nd.
UM is still stinging from the loss of cornerback Tyler Byrd, who flipped to Tennessee on the eve of National Signing Day, and an inability to land several other cornerback targets. Byrd was rated the nation’s 35th-best recruit by ESPN, leaving quarterback Jack Allison (No. 68) as UM’s highest-rated 2016 recruit.
Cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph said Byrd “felt the vibe better at Tennessee. He liked the atmosphere at the school. He made the decision like a man. He talked to me and told me how he felt. You can’t look down on that. You’ve got to let a kid be a person he wants to be. I can’t be upset with that. He’s going to have a bright future at Tennessee. He’s one of the first kids I recruited. I just wish him the best.”
Rumph said this UM staff “learned a lot through this [recruiting] process --– some good, some bad. You’ve got to be on top of everything or you’re going to be left behind. You’ve got to be really innovative as a staff. Through every loss, there’s a lesson learned of what we have to do moving forward. I’m excited about 2017, having a full year to recruit kids and getting back to the team I know we can be…. This city won’t allow you to be mediocre.”
### We're told UM plans to look for cornerback and receiver transfers who are eligible to play immediately (meaning graduate transfers) because of shaky depth at both positions.
UM has eight receivers on scholarship (including three signed last week who haven't yet enrolled) and six scholarship cornerbacks (including freshman summer arrival Malek Young). Safety Jaquan Johnson also could play corner if needed, coaches say.
### Panthers goaltending has been so good that both their goalies are on pace to top John Vanbiesbrouck’s team record for lowest goals against in a season (2.29/minimum 20 appearances). Entering Saturday, Roberto Luongo was at 2.08, Al Montoya (1.93 in 13 games). That 1.93 is best among NHL backups.
### Marlins executive Michael Hill said manager Don Mattingly will decide whether to platoon Justin Bour and Chris Johnson at first base or merely have Johnson be the backup. Hill would be fine with either.