Hassan Whiteside and the max-contract question

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Heat center Hassan Whiteside is on pace to become the first player in 20 years to average four blocks per game, but one he didn’t get stuck with him.

In a game against the Knicks earlier this season, Whiteside double-teamed Carmelo Anthony as the New York forward turned his back from the basket. When Melo pivoted, he looked shocked to see Whiteside and turned the ball over:

“Some guys will throw it into the crowd before they let me block it,” Whiteside said.

Does Whiteside appreciate that intimidation factor?

“I appreciate it all,” Whiteside said.

He has reason to be thankful.

Whiteside overcame a two-year absence from the NBA, getting shunned everywhere but Lebanon, before signing with Miami. Now, he’s a star, averaging 12.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per game at just age 26. He’s 7-foot with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and hops, a physical profile that indicates promise to become even better.

He’ll become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and he has a chance to attain what – sentimentality aside – might actually be the highest honor in the sport:

A max contract.

Whiteside’s max projects to be about $90 million over four years, a big outlay even as the salary cap skyrockets.

Paying Whiteside that much is particularly tricky for the Heat.

Because they don’t have his full Bird Rights, they can neither exceed the cap to give him anything realistic nor offer a fifth year. They have a small advantage in that they can offer 7.5% raises rather than the 4.5% of other teams – which projects to put their max offer at $93,215,263 over four years, up from the $89,444,758 he could get elsewhere.

In addition to figuring out Whiteside, Miami also needs to re-sign Dwyane Wade.

The Heat have $48,008,675 committed next season – to Chris Bosh, Goran Dragic, Josh McRoberts and Justise Winslow. If they trim their roster to those four, giving Whiteside and Wade max salaries would put them right near the cap – to the point knowing the exact salary cap, not a projection, will be necessary to determine whether they can max out both.

Maybe Wade, at age 34, would accept a little less than a max starting salary in exchange for a longer contract. Maybe Miami could move McRoberts. Or maybe the cap will land high enough for this to work with minimal haggling.

But that still leaves one very important question:

Is Whiteside worth the max?

“In this league, in this day and age, if you can walk and chew gum,” Bosh said, “if you’re 7 feet and can rebound and set screens, you can make a nice living.”

Whiteside can do more than that, though, right?

“Yeah, he can,” Bosh said. “But we need him to set screens and be big. We don’t need him to do much else.”

This is Whiteside’s dilemma. Miami has done him wonders, giving him a chance to repair his image and working to develop his game. But the Heat also sometimes hold him back when he most needs to show his talent.

On the simplest level, Whiteside plays only 28.2 minutes per game, 108th in the league. He often sits in the fourth quarter. Forgetting Whiteside’s elite blocking for a moment, only one other player in NBA history has posted Whiteside’s per-game scoring and rebounding marks in such little playing time (Swen Nater, who averaged 13.0 points and 12.0 rebounds in 27.2 minutes per game for the 1976-77 Bucks).

If Whiteside is so great, why doesn’t Miami play him more? Defense.

Despite all the acclaim Whiteside receives for anchoring the Heat’s top-five defense, they allow more points per 100 possessions with him on the court (102.5) than off (92.3).

He too often chases blocks at the expense of maintaining sound position, a balance Whiteside admittedly struggles to find.

“That’s probably the toughest thing,” Whiteside said. “When you block shots, you might lose out on a couple more rebounds, but it’s not about, for me, it’s not about averaging 15-plus rebounds or averaging a bunch of rebounds. I’m really a defensive-minded guy. I’d rather go send it the other way.”

The problem with that philosophy: A defensive possession doesn’t end after a missed shot – even a blocked one – unless the team secures a defensive rebound. Miami allows 14.3 second-chance points per 48 minutes with Whiteside on the court, which would rank 28th league-wide. That’s far too many for a rebounder of Whiteside’s ability.

And it’s not just rebounding. Whiteside’s block-chasing ways sometimes leave him out of position to defend shots. He’s a quality rim protector, though not as good as his historic block numbers suggest. Opposing players shoot 45.8% at the rim when Whiteside is defending it – a very good, but not quite elite, mark. Overall, opponents shoot better, draw more fouls and turn the ball over less against the Heat with Whiteside on the court than off.

The differences can’t simply be pinned on Whiteside. His floormates factor.

But even that raises questions about Whiteside’s value.

Miami has defended much better when going small this season. How much is a big man like Whiteside still worth in a league getting smaller?

There are at least signs Whiteside can adjust.

He has improved defending the perimeter. He’s decently light on his feet, capable of applying at least a little pressure on pick-and-roll ball-handlers. But he must do it more consistently.

On the other end, Whiteside is a dominant finisher, which can be a dangerous complement to a team otherwise full of spacers. Whiteside has even shown a little ability to score away from the rim, shooting 42.6% from five feet and out in his Heat tenure. But Miami hasn’t exactly asked him to show his outside-shooting touch – or shoot by design at all.

Some of his offensive shortcomings can’t be blamed on the team, though. Whiteside has dished just 12 assists in his entire career. Despite his charming excuse – “I can’t get a lot of assists because a lot of the times I’m the one that’s dunking” – that’s preposterously low. On one hand, if Whiteside isn’t a skilled passer, it’s better to force a shot than commit a turnover. But he can be too selfish at times – a red flag for teams looking for one.

Any attitude issue with Whiteside will be put under the microscope. That’s the result of a failed stint with the Kings, when his lack of maturity prevented him from maximizing his talent after they drafted him in 2010.

“That was a long time ago,” Whiteside said. “If they want to think about things that happened four, five years ago, that’s up to them.

“I don’t think it’s something that should follow me, but I really don’t know right now. That was years ago. Things didn’t work out in Sacramento. I worked my way to get back here. I could’ve easily gave up and went back home and just chilled. But I put in the work, and I feel like I’m a hard worker or I wouldn’t be here.”

If it sounds like I’m arguing from both sides of my mouth on maxing out Whiteside, you’re getting the picture. Whiteside is no lock to be worth a max contract. But there will be more teams with big money to spend than free agents to spend it on. I’d rather take a chance on Whiteside and give my team a chance of major success than settling for a value play on someone who has established himself at a lesser level.

That bet paying off is predicated on Whiteside – who has been mentioned as an All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year candidate – remaining hungry.

“I’m pretty easily motivated,” Whiteside said. “Everybody know my story, and I’ve had so many ups and downs in my life, I think that really motivates. I’ve still got a chip on my shoulder of just all the years of being looked over and still being doubted. You carry that with you for a long time.”

What if he gets a max contract? All his hard work to get to this point will have been rewarded. Will he have to find new sources of motivation?

“No. No. No. No,” Whiteside said. “I don’t see it.”

But what does the league see in Whiteside?

Understandably, some teams will hesitate to make a big offer to someone who has started just 58 games. But Whiteside has played at an elite level in that short span.

His rags-to-riches tale hasn’t includes relative riches. He’s earned more than the minimum only his rookie season, and he earned less that year than any of his other NBA seasons.

He has a few more months – likely including his first playoff appearance – to show just how much that should change.