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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.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

Michael Jordan NASCAR
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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

Raptors coach Nick Nurse
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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri

Dwight Howard is talking a lot of trash

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The Lakers put Dwight Howard on final warning BEFORE even signing him.

And for most of the season, Howard kept a low profile.

But he has been breaking out of his shell in the bubble. Related to basketball, too.

Howard has played excellent defense on Nuggets star Nikola Jokic in the Western Conference finals. The day after Game 1, Howard told Jamal Murray about it.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

The Nuggets were wrapping up their practice, which took place not far from the Lakers’, with Murray about to begin his media session in the convention center hallway. Howard, as it so happened, walked by right then and the banter restarted.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said to Howard, with both men smiling.

“What?” Howard said.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said again.

“Where’s Joker at?” Howard replied. “Where’s his room?”

As was the case in the series opener, there was no answer.

Then, Howard (and JaVale McGee) pointed out Jokic’s defensive deficiencies against Anthony Davis in Game 2.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Once the Lakers’ bench saw it was Jokic tasked with guarding Davis, it brought the noise with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard screaming, “Thanksgiving, steak dinner, appetizers, filet mignon and potatoes, a glass of champagne!”

Davis, who faced up Jokic and maneuvered his way around the big man for a bucket in the paint. McGee shouted, “Told you it was a feast out there!”

Howard didn’t let up after Davis’ game-winner.

Amick:

As the Lakers mobbed Davis on the court after his shot, big man Dwight Howard broke off from the group and decided to taunt the Nuggets as they exited the basketball stage. If you somehow haven’t noticed, Howard is leaning hard into this tough-guy approach.

“Go home!” he yelled over and over while laughing, jumping, pumping his fist and getting closer to the Nuggets’ side of the floor with every second. “Go home!”

A small group of Nuggets staffers, including one of Jokic’s biggest supporters in assistant strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger, did not take kindly to the mocking that had taken place all game long and returned to the court to shout back. The two sides exchanged words, and eventually retreated to their corners that came with conflicting emotions.

This works because Howard is playing well – in his role.

Howard was slow to recognize he’s no longer a superstar. Yet, he still has the energy for being the center of attention. That used to mean doing things like posting up too much,

Now, Howard is focused on defending, screening and sometimes finishing at the rim while playing all-out in limited minutes. It’s what the Lakers need and what Howard can provide at age 34.

If he wants to talk trash along the way, more power to him. It’s a lot of fun.

But there’s also a fine line between the endearing villain and loathed jerk. Outside Denver, Howard appears to be the former. For now.