Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Hassan Whiteside feasting as Heat’s new franchise player

5 Comments

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. –  Before declaring for the NBA draft, before falling to the second round as a projected lottery pick, before flaming out with the Kings, before spending years in Lebanon, China and the D-League… Hassan Whiteside was a freshman at Marshall who planned to study nutrition.

That went on the backburner as he went on a basketball odyssey that saw him sink below basketball hell. He was so focused on getting back to the NBA, he couldn’t afford to spend much time on the big picture – literally. The last few years, Whiteside’s salary ranged from modest for an NBA player to modest for an American.

The Heat finally rewarded him with a four-year, $98 million max contract last summer, making Whiteside the first player to go from a minimum salary one year to a max salary the next.

“It changed my life,” Whiteside said.

One of the most immediate improvements: Whiteside hired a full-time chef. His previous chef cooked for him just a couple times a week. Any more would have been an indulgence when his compensation hadn’t yet set himself up for retirement. Now, Whiteside is eating better.

“He ain’t made a bad dish yet,” Whiteside said. “He’s pretty amazing.”

It’s all so amazing.

Three years ago, the Heat’s best players were LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Whiteside was out of the league.

Now, Whiteside has become Miami’s cornerstone.

Whiteside knew his contract – which will make him the Heat’s highest-paid player once they waive Bosh –  would mean Miami’s record would reflect more directly on him than ever. The Heat are 5-12, a stark drop from 48-34 and a playoff-series win last season.

The departures of Wade, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson obviously factor. So does a weak supporting cast left in the wake. But franchise players rarely get the benefit of the doubt.

The mission for Whiteside now shouldn’t be leading Miami to the playoffs, a mostly unrealistic goal. The focus should be on establishing himself as a reliable co-star for free agents next summer, when the Heat could have substantial cap room sans Bosh.

Whiteside is producing an All-Star-caliber season, averaging 17.3 points and an NBA-best 15.1 rebounds per game – marks only Kevin Love has hit over a full season in the last 25 years. Most of the players to do it prior are in the Hall of Fame.

After striving so hard just to return to the NBA, how his Whiteside handling this boost in prominence?

“I always had that belief in myself,” Whiteside said. “I looked at the guys on TV. I feel like I can compete with anybody or play better than anyone. It’s not really arrogance or anything. It’s just having that confidence in yourself, because that’s kind of what you needed when you get cut as many times as I did.”

Those days of fighting for roster spots are gone. Now, it’s about growing as a player, exchanging eye-catching stats for meaningful production when there’s a difference.

Last season, Whiteside blocked 3.7 shots per game and allowed opponents to shoot 46.5% at the rim while he was defending it. This season, he’s averaging 2.5 blocks per game and allowing opponents to shoot 41.5% at the rim while he’s defending it.

“I love that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Whiteside’s physical profile – 7-foot with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and elite hops – always gave him potential to be an elite shot-blocker and rebounder. Refining his skills was the next step, one Spoelstra harped on.

On the other hand, it was never clear Whiteside could lead an NBA team in scoring – but that’s what he’s doing right now.

“Quite frankly, we need it,” Spoelstra said.

Whiteside’s shooting efficiency has predictably dropped as he has taken a larger load. Previously, he shot only when he had an excellent chance of scoring. Now, he’s taking all those shots plus ones with lower odds.

Still, those additional looks are still frequently more efficient than other shots Miami can produce. Feeding Whiteside is often the best answer, especially considering his assist rate has improved (though from a comically low point).

After so much handwringing about Whiteside’s maturity, every aspect of his game has improved since signing long-term. He has invested in himself – from a chef to thinking the game better – and it’s paying off.

“He seems to be growing every week, and I can’t wait to see his growth as this season goes on,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t know where he’ll be in the spring the way he’s improving right now.”

Report: Jimmy Butler wanted Timberwolves to add four years, $155 million to his contract this summer

AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King
Leave a comment

Jimmy Butler rejected the largest-possible extension the capped-out Timberwolves could offer him this summer – a four-year deal worth $100,514,631 ($25,128,658 average annual salary).

After all, his projected max in free agency this summer is about $190 million over five years (about $38 million annually) if he re-signs or about $141 million over four years (about $35 million annually) if he leaves.

But Minnesota’s extension offer wasn’t technically the largest possible this summer. Theoretically, the Timberwolves could have cleared cap space to renegotiate his salary upward then offered a richer extension based on his new salary.

And apparently that’s what Butler wanted – and didn’t get – before requesting a trade.

Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic:

Butler was hoping for a renegotiation and extension of his contract this summer, one that would have raised his salary for 2018-19 to $30 million and added another four years and $145 million on to that.

The Timberwolves could have trimmed their roster to only their starters – Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns. That would have meant using sweeteners to unload Gorgui Dieng‘s negative value contract, dumping recent first-round picks Justin Patton, Tyus Jones and Josh Okogie and not using the mid-level exception on Anthony Tolliver. Only players who signed for the minimum could have still wound up on the roster.

Minnesota still wouldn’t have had enough cap space to renegotiate Butler’s salary up to $30 million.

Perhaps, Butler wanted the Timberwolves to take more drastic measures like trading Wiggins for little to no returning salary. But they clearly weren’t going to do that, and they’d long gone down the opposite road of adding salary. They weren’t coming close to clearing the $10 million of cap space necessary to raise Butler’s salary that much.

This is all raises questions about timing. Nearly every report on Butler’s wishes has gone out of its way to say contract concerns – not problems with Wiggins and Towns – were the primary driver of the trade request. But if that were the case, why now? Butler had to know for months he wasn’t getting his desired extension.

While his brother spars online with Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins takes up fight with Stephen Jackson

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
2 Comments

Jimmy Butler lit a fuse by requesting a trade from the Timberwolves.

Then, Andrew Wiggins‘ brother, Butler, Stephen Jackson and Wiggins himself all fanned the flames of the resulting fire.

Butler reportedly had problems with Andrew Wiggins last season, specifically Wiggins’ work ethic and defensive approach. Want corroborating evidence the Minnesota teammates aren’t simpatico? Wiggins’ brother, Nick Wiggins, tweeted (and deleted) “Hallelujah” to news of Butler’s trade request:

Butler – probably not coincidentally while working out – responded via Instagram:

Butler:

Hallelujah, keep that same energy

Then the retired Jackson acted out an elaborate scene in which Andrew – played by Jackson – copped to having no heart:

The real Andrew Wiggins didn’t like that and posted on Instagram:

Jackson responded:

If he didn’t like Butler giving him grief, Wiggins darned sure isn’t ready for heat from Jackson.

Mark Cuban explains some, though not all, of his role in Mavericks’ hostile work environment (video)

AP Photo/Ron Jenkins
6 Comments

As a result of the investigation into his team’s hostile work environment, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban will donate $10 million “organizations that are committed to supporting the leadership and development of women in the sports industry and combating domestic violence.” The Mavericks will also report to the NBA on structural changes to their organization.

And Cuban showed accountability by granting an interview to Rachel Nichols of ESPN:

I appreciate Cuban sitting for this interview with Nichols, who grilled him. I appreciate him apologizing to the actual victims. I appreciate him taking responsibility for the wrongdoing that happened beneath him. I appreciate him explaining what he did wrong and what he learned. I appreciate him, along with Mavericks CEO Cynthia Marshall, explaining the changes they’re making to rectify the situation.

But, though he explained his logic and subsequent lesson from handling Earl Sneed’s domestic violence, Cuban gave no real answer to how he let former CEO Terdema Ussery – found to be an serial sexual harasser – remain in power for 15 years. Taking Cuban at his word – that he was blind to the sexual harassment prevalent in the Mavericks business office – means shattering his image as a great businessman. The sharp and in-charge owner Cuban presented himself as would never grant Ussery such unchecked power for so long. “If I was in our business office five times in 15 years, that was a lot,” Cuban told Nichols. “I mean, it’s embarrassing to say.”

And that’s the benign explanation. Embarrassing is nothing compared to the alternative – that Cuban was as involved as he portrayed, which would mean he knew about Ussery’s misconduct and excused it. The choices are that Cuban’s first-rate businessman image was fraudulent or that he’s directly complicit in Ussery’s sexual harassment.

More than anything, hopefully Cuban has truly learned how not to repeat his prior errors.

Report: Clippers emerging as frontrunner to sign Kawhi Leonard

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
5 Comments

Does Kawhi Leonard prefer the Clippers or Lakers in 2019 free agency? Reports have been mixed, though credible journalists have increasingly favored the Clippers since LeBron James signed with the Lakers. Yet, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN held out on the Lakers being Leonard’s top choice.

Now – with Jimmy Butler reportedly preferring a trade to the Clippers – Wojnarowski appears to be coming around on the Clippers.

Wojnarowski:

The Clippers have two max contract slots available in July, and are emerging as a front-runner for Toronto’s All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard when he becomes a free agent in July, league sources said.

Leonard and Butler would form a tantalizing tandem.

Butler reportedly wants to showcase himself in a big city while Leonard seemingly wants both to be in Los Angeles but remain out of the spotlight. Together, maybe they could both get what they want.

Though Butler’s demanding style has worn on teammates in Minnesota, nobody has ever accused Leonard of lacking work ethic or competitiveness. I bet Butler would respect Leonard.

They’re both elite defensively and at least very good offensively. There could be issues with how often each likes to isolate, but get all that talent to L.A. then figure out the rest later.

The question for the Clippers: Do they trade for Butler now or wait to try signing both stars in free agency next summer? The latter option carries more upside, allowing the Clippers to preserve assets. But it also risks Minnesota trading Butler and his Bird Rights to another team and him re-signing there.

The Clippers have several veterans – Tobias Harris, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari – who might appeal to Tom Thibodeau, who seemingly wants to win now. L.A. could also offer 2018 lottery picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Alexander. However, the Clippers can’t convey a first-round pick until 2021 at the earliest.

I don’t know whether they’ll trade for Butler, but if the Clippers do, I know we’ll crank up the Leonard-Clippers speculation even higher. There’s value in putting that in Leonard’s mind while the Raptors are trying to woo him first-hand over the next year.