It heated up (pun intended) a couple weeks ago when the 7-foot-1 Miami center was benched for the final 15 minutes of a loss to the Nets, who went small. Whiteside publicly complained, and the Heat fined him. Whiteside then said he trusted Miami coach Erick Spoelstra.
The problem reared its head again in a Game 1 loss to the 76ers on Saturday. After starting more-traditional Amir Johnson at center, Philadelphia began the second half with stretch big Ersan Ilyasova at center. Ilyasova and power forward Dario Saric, who turned himself into a quality 3-point shooter, pulled Whiteside to the perimeter – where he was far less effective. The 76ers spread the floor and went on a 13-0 run early in the third quarter. The Heat benched Whiteside for good just four minutes into the second half, and he and Spoelstra exchanged what appeared to be unpleasant words as the center left the court for Kelly Olynyk.
Whiteside, via Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald:
“He just wanted to change it up,” Whiteside said of what was said as he went to the bench. “I trust coach. I trust his decision-making. We didn’t get this one. They shot amazing from the field. We didn’t get this one, but we move to Game 2.”
This echoes what Whiteside eventually said a couple weeks ago. That he didn’t initially publicly criticize the move is progress – especially because he remained benched, even when Philadelphia went back to Johnson.
But this isn’t going away. Teams are increasingly adept at exposing slower big men like Whiteside. Even Ersan Ilyasova ran Whiteside off the floor.
Spoelstra, via Navarro:
“It’s not about him,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra explained of why Whiteside played only 12 minutes and 26 seconds and didn’t play again after Kelly Olynyk replaced him with 7 minutes and 54 seconds remaining in the third quarter. “The whole second half, this series and this game it’s going to go quickly. There’s a lot of subs both ways. There’s not a lot of time based on the flow or the matchups [to make adjustments]. It’s not necessarily an indictment of his first four minutes [of the second half]. But we all have to be collectively better [for Game 2] on Monday.”
The Heat can’t afford to let Whiteside play through what looks like a bad matchup. If he’s neither punishing the 76ers on the glass and inside offensively nor working hard enough to hold his own on the perimeter defensively, Spoelstra will sit him.
Joel Embiid, once he gets healthy, will offer a better matchup for Whiteside. But Embiid can also stretch beyond the arc (though not as well as Ilyasova) and is a huge upgrade defensively. Though he might make it easier on Whiteside, Embiid will make it tougher on the Heat.
That’s ultimately the issue here. There’s too often a divergence between what’s best for Whiteside and what’s best for Miami. Philadelphia can drive a wedge between those sides.
The Heat had many more problems than Whiteside’s defense in their 130-103 loss. But Whiteside’s defense was a problem, and Miami must find a way to address it. So far, the response seems to be benching him.