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.

Watch Giannis throw down career-high nine dunks, score 38 in comeback win over Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks taught the Cleveland Cavaliers a lesson in playoff-type intensity well before the start of December.

Antetokounmpo scored 38 points and the Bucks capitalized on a 23-2 run in the first eight-plus minutes of the third quarter to rally past Cleveland 117-102 on Friday night to snap the Cavaliers’ four-game winning streak.

Milwaukee came back from a 16-point deficit by outscoring the Cavaliers 35-10 in the third period. The Bucks hadn’t outscored a team by such a wide margin in a single quarter since Jan. 4, 2019, when they outscored the Atlanta Hawks 43-14 in the opening period of a 144-112 victory.

“We had a little bit of luck on our side and were able to knock down some shots and get downhill and were able to get that momentum and keep it going,” said Antetokounmpo, who also had nine rebounds and six assists. “I think it started from our guards defending the pick-and-roll and Brook (Lopez) just contesting every shot on the defensive end.”

The Cavaliers hadn’t scored less than 15 points in any quarter this season before Friday.

“They turned it up to a level that we haven’t seen, that we haven’t experienced,” said Donovan Mitchell, who led he Cavaliers with 29 points. “That’s playoff basketball, and understanding that they’re going to turn up the physicality (and) everything has to be sharper, everything has to be more precise.”

Darius Garland added 20 for Cleveland. After combining to shoot 14 of 26 and score 38 points in the first half, Mitchell and Garland went 4 of 16 for 11 points over the final two periods.

Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen played only 12 minutes and scored one point before leaving with a hip injury.

The Cavaliers lost for the first time since their last visit to Milwaukee, a 113-98 Bucks victory on Nov. 16.

“We were trying so hard, and we were like running in quicksand,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of the second-half struggles.

Jevon Carter scored 18 points and Bobby Portis had 14 for the Bucks.

After trailing 63-52 at halftime, the Bucks turned the game around in the third quarter.

“It felt like us again,” Portis said. “I feel like for the last couple of games, we haven’t felt like ourselves, for real, missing a lot of shots and just not playing how we play.”

Jrue Holiday, who committed three fouls in the first 1 1/2 quarters, scored his first points of the game in the opening minute of the third. He followed that up with a 3-pointer.

Carter then found Antetokounmpo for a dunk, though Antetokounmpo missed a free throw that would have given him a three-point play. Mitchell scored to extend Cleveland’s lead to 65-59, but a Brook Lopez 3-pointer and an Antetokounmpo dunk cut the lead to one.

Lopez then recorded one of his six blocks to set up an Antetokounmpo 3-pointer that gave the Bucks their first lead of the night with 7:19 left in the third. The Bucks eventually led by as many as 22.

“This is a great lesson for us,” Bickerstaff said. “We played against an established team who knows where they need to go when they need to take it to another level. That’s what we’re learning. They took the game to playoff-level physicality, and those are things we have to learn how to compete against.”

Watch Bam Adebayo score 38, lift Heat to win over Wizards

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MIAMI — Bam Adebayo scored a season-high 38 points and the Miami Heat beat the Washington Wizards 110-107 Friday night.

Caleb Martin added 20 points and Kyle Lowry finished with 13 points while Tyler Herro had 11 points and 10 assists for the Heat, who won their second straight at home against Washington after their 113-105 victory Wednesday.

Adebayo’s two free throws with 1:37 remaining put Miami ahead 105-104 lead then extended the advantage on a short jumper with 38 seconds left.

“It was one of those things where my teammates gave me the ball and I was taking advantage of the mismatch,” Adebayo said. “They were shots (Washington) let me have.”

Adebayo has scored in double digits in all 18 of his appearances this season. He’s had double-doubles in half of those games; Miami is 6-3 in those contests.

“He had a lot on his shoulders, really the last several games with a lot of different lineups and everything,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You need that stability from your leaders. I think at some point we’ll print up these shirts, `Mr. Reliable,’ and I’ll wear them, probably.”

Lowry also had eight assists, seven rebounds and a four-point play with 3:15 left for a 103-102 lead – the 11th of what would be 13 lead changes on the night.

And it was another close game for the Heat, who are already 4-3 in games decided by three points or less this season.

“That’s what’s happened really for, it seems like several weeks,” Spoelstra said. “It just feels like every single one of these games is going down to the last possession.”

The Wizards cut the deficit on Bradley Beal‘s dunk before Martin made two free throws with 12.5 seconds for the final margin, then hounded Beal defensively on the game’s last possession and forced the Wizards’ All-Star into a miss to end the contest.

“I take pride in trying to make stops,” Martin said. “Those are the types of situations you dream about, game on the line against a guy like Bradley Beal with the ball late shot clock. I just tried to make it as tough as possible.”

Beal and Kyle Kuzma finished with 28 points Kristaps Porzingis added 18 points for the Wizards.

“We did enough throughout the course of the game to put us in position to win,” said Beal, who returned from a one-game absence because of a quadriceps contusion. “We had several leads and ended up giving up those leads late. It was a matter of us getting stops at the defensive ends.”

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler (right knee soreness) missed his fifth straight game because of right knee soreness while shooters Max Strus (right shoulder impingement) and Duncan Robinson (left ankle sprain) also sat out.

The Heat rallied from a 12-point deficit late in the first quarter and cut it to 59-56 at halftime.

“Obviously, we had shots late that were makeable to keep them at bay,” Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. said.

Another Hornets injury: Hayward out indefinitely with fractured shoulder

Philadelphia 76ers v Charlotte Hornets
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The basketball gods have not been kind to the Hornets this season. LaMelo Ball missed the start of the season with a sprained ankle, got back and played just three games before re-injuring it by stepping on a fan’s foot while chasing a loose ball out of bounds. Miles Bridges will not be with the team. Cody Martin had his knee scoped and is out, and Dennis Smith Jr. is out with a sprained ankle — and that’s just the guys out right now.

Now add Gordon Hayward to the list. He is out indefinitely with a fractured shoulder. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news.

Hayward will be evaluated week-to-week his agent, Mark Bartelstein, told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Hayward has a long history of injuries and has battled shoulder issues all season. There had been hope in Charlotte that he could stay healthy long enough to contribute to some wins and build up some potential trade interest (his name came up in Russell Westbrook scenarios, for example). In the 11 games he played, he averaged 16.3 points and shot 38.1% from 3. Of course, a trade was always a longshot because Hayward is owed a fully guaranteed $31.5 million next season, no team was taking that on without sweeteners.

With him injured, a trade is out of the question (other than part of a salary dump).

Kevin Durant says ‘it’s cool to see’ LeBron break all-time scoring record

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LeBron James remains on target to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA all-time scoring record, although with the games he has missed this season the target date now looks more like late February/early March.

Kevin Durant is excited to see it, as he told Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“To be the No. 1 in anything, there’s 8 billion people in the world, we just figured that out last week, so to be the No. 1 of all time at scoring the basketball, I’m sure it’s going to be a range of emotions for him,” Durant said at Friday’s shootaround, in advance of a game against the Indiana Pacers. “But to be in an era where we see this live is pretty cool as well. You probably can’t even describe the emotions and feelings him and his family and his friends are going to go through, but it’s cool to see it up close.”

Durant is currently 18th on that all-time scoring list (having just moved past Kevin Garnett), which is impressive in its own right even if he is not going to catch LeBron. LeBron’s feat has taken all of his 20 NBA seasons, and that is what impressed the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich.

“LeBron is taking care of himself so well that he’s been able to play a bundle of games for a lot of years. And that’s what he takes,” Popovich said before his Spurs took on the Lakers. “But he gets credit for taking care of himself and being able to be out there. The way a lot of players don’t even come close to. His commitment to the game and to what he has to do, has allowed him to be in this position.”

LeBron’s quest continues to generate a lot of buzz around the league. He just hopes it’s not the lone bright highlight out of this Lakers’ season, but his team has a lot of work to climb up to the postseason out of a 5-11 start.