Whiteside is set to make his playoff debut, and the postseason will serve as his final – and maybe most important – audition entering free agency. If all goes well, Whiteside, who was playing in Lebanon just two years ago, could become the first player in NBA history to go from a minimum salary one year to a maximum salary the next year.
“You ever woke up on Christmas Day, and you know you’re going to get a gift?” Whiteside said. “I’m that excited.”
But the playoffs, which the Heat open against the Hornets, won’t necessarily be a coronation for Whiteside. The center – who averaged 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and an NBA-high 3.7 blocks per game – developed into a beast during the regular season. But the postseason, facing the same opponent over and over, becomes more about exposing weaknesses – and Whiteside has shown a few of those.
NBA teams have become increasingly good at scheming big men like the 7-foot Whiteside off the floor. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra recalled a December loss to the Wizards, who played so small in the fourth quarter, 6-foot-7 Jared Dudley served as de facto center. Whiteside didn’t play in the final period, which the Heat lost by eight. Spoelstra called it a “painful” experience.
But Whiteside remained confident and talked to his coach.
“I told him, ‘Let me show you I can’t guard smalls,'” Whiteside said. “‘Don’t just assume because I’m 7 feet, 260. Let me show you.”
Whiteside has, improving his ability cover on the perimeter as the season has progressed. But it’s still an area ripe for attempting to expose him, especially considering how well Whiteside plays in traditional matchups.
He has a message for the Hornets or any other foe considering small ball against him.
“You go small if you want,” Whiteside said. “You going to see what’s going to happen.
“They’re going to pay for it.”
Whiteside compares it to high school or college, when he had a massive height advantage. He’ll crash the offensive glass and finish at the rim.
That won’t be Whiteside’s only challenge, though. His man-to-man post defense can be spotty, as he leaps to contest far too many fakes. Al Jefferson will test him there.
Really, this is a great opportunity for Whiteside. I think he’s a fantastic player, but every major question about him – his mental discipline, his emotional maturity – will get pushed in the playoffs.
He’ll have several veteran teammates at his side, including Dwyane Wade, who knows what it takes for a young player to thrive in the playoff pressure cooker.
“When the moments get loud, let guys coach you a little bit,” Wade said. “And he does that. He’ll be fine. It’s basketball. It’s just at higher level. You’ve got to minimize the mistakes, but you’ve also got to let your guys kind of bring you back when you kind of lose it a little bit.”
Whiteside has plenty to lose this postseason, but oh so much to gain.