By Aaron Weiss
The Miami Heat have changed a lot since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined the team in 2010. LeBron left the team to go home, Chris Bosh has been besieged by blood clots, which Pat Riley has used to turn the team’s relationship with Bosh into that ugly marriage where you knew the couple would get a divorce if they could (and, come February 9, 2017, they will. More on this later). And Dwyane Wade, the prodigal son, left the Heat after 13 years due to feeling disrespected by the front office (while he has never been that blunt about it, when taxes play into it he gained next to no money from his Chicago contract versus what Miami offered him, so disrespect seems to be the key factor).
The player who had Riley’s attention while he was disrespecting Dwyane? Hassan Whiteside (and Kevin Durant to an extent, but that’s a story for another day).
Whiteside is a 27 year old, 7’, 265 pound center with surprising quickness and finesse for his size. After being drafted by Sacramento he eventually was dismissed to languish around D-league and international teams due to his questionable mental stability, a rather ironic state of affairs considering Sacramento drafted Hassan the same year they drafted Boogie Cousins.
So, in the middle of the 2014 season, when Miami signed him to a two year contract using the minimum exception, no one batted an eye. When he ended up averaging a double-double in 48 games played, eyes were batted. Furiously.
The beauty of Hassan’s breakout was that he cost less than $1 million a year, meaning that his cost didn’t remotely reflect his value, and the stage was set for a big year. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, Goran Dragic, and Hassan Whiteside. However, Chris succumbed to blood clots for the 2nd year in a row, and the team failed to make it out of the 2nd round of the playoffs.
However, despite the disappointing result, Hassan ranked 8th in the league in double-doubles, 3rd in rebounds per game, 3rd in FG %, 1st in defensive rating, 5th in defensive win shares, and 1st in blocks and blocks per game, notching 92 more blocks that the 2nd best, DeAndre Jordan.
Suffice to say he made a name for himself (he also was named All-Defensive 2nd Team).
With the Heat signing Hassan to a 2-year deal, he had accrued 4 years of NBA experience, meaning that at the end of last season, with his contract expired, he was an unrestricted free agent, as opposed to a restricted free agent, and Pat Riley made sure to spend his time ensnaring Whiteside to sign a max contract through the 2019-2020 season. This would most notably lead to the departure of Wade, not to mention it in part led to Riley passing on resigning Luol Deng or Joe Johnson, two key players in the season prior, and with Chris Bosh failing a physical Riley has officially cut him out of the Heat’s future.
All of that backstory has lead to the 2016-2017 Miami Heat, a team that (sans Bosh) averages 26 years old (which includes the 36 year old lifer Udonis Haslem) that features Whiteside as the next star in Miami, attempting to fill in the shoes of Dwyane Wade with 30 year old Goran Dragic and 20 year old Justise Winslow to support him (note that he will never be Dwyane, but alas that is the role he’s forced to fill).
And in the age of the Golden State Warriors, the age of incredible shooting and small ball teams, Miami’s transition to feature a big man would break the mold of current practice, as they would join the ranks of teams like Boogie Cousins’ Sacramento Kings, Anthony Davis’ New Orleans Pelicans, Karl-Anthony Towns’ Minnesota Timberwolves, and Andre Drummond’s Detroit Pistons.
Those teams and Miami are a combined 9-20 through 5-7 games each. Whiteside’s Miami is 2-3.
Yet despite the rough start, Hassan is the only player in the NBA to score below a double-double in the games he’s played, going 5 for 5 to date. He’s averaging 20 points (28th best) and 14 boards a game (1st overall), plus another 2.6 blocks (3rd overall). He’s currently 7th in defensive rating, 6th in defensive win shares, 7th in PER, and 6th in field goal %. He puts up these numbers despite only playing 31.6 minutes per game, ranking 64th in that category.
And yet Miami has lost to Charlotte, San Antonio, and Toronto (plus they scraped away a victory against the Kings in OT, which is sad enough).
While it is still incredibly early in the season, and the Heat haven’t been entirely healthy (one of last year’s highlight players, now 2nd year player Josh Richardson, just played his first game after coming off of injury, and is still being worked into the lineup), it’s beginning to feel as it Miami cannot truly content with the big man doubling as the main man (not that this is reflective of Hassan, but of all big men).
This isn’t entirely unsurprising. Beyond the fact that big man haven’t ruled the league in awhile, this team hasn’t really added any pieces over the offseason. They brought in Luke Babbitt, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Rodney McGruder, Willie Reed, Derrick Williams, and Dion Waiters. The Heat didn’t have any picks in this year’s draft. The most high profile move they made outside of Hassan was matching the ridiculous 4 year, $50 million offer sheet on RFA Tyler Johnson (side note: screw you Brooklyn). This lack of movement is primarily due to two things. The first was that after the Hassan signing Miami turned their attention to attempting to sign Kevin Durant, followed by painfully breaking up with Dwyane Wade, and the second factor was that with Chris Bosh still being paid max money Miami did not exactly have the resources to sign a major player.
This is where the Chris Bosh divorce critically comes into play. The last time Chris Bosh played a game was February 9, 2016. Miami, enabled by Bosh’s failed physical, will have Bosh stay inactive until February 9, 2017, when they will waive Bosh and apply to have his entirely salary removed from the cap due to a career-ending injury. Once the Heat apply for this waiver Bosh will be examined by an independent doctor, and if Bosh’s blood clots are deemed career-ending Bosh’s entire 5 year max contract will be taken off the books. In this scenario Bosh would still be paid his full $118 million contract, but the annual hit of ~$25 mil each of the following 2 years would not be reflected in the Heat’s cap, meaning that a magic ~$25 million each year would appear out of thin air for Miami. With that money, plus another ~$15 million coming off the books in Derrick Williams, Udonis Haslem, James Johnson and Luke Babbitt, and another ~15 mil coming from an increase in the 2017 cap, Miami should have enough money to bring on two max contract players in addition to Whiteside, without necessarily having to move Miami’s only other high price player, Goran Dragic. In a 2017 FA class that includes Blake Griffin (ETO), Serge Ibaka, Stephen Curry, Jeff Teague, Gordon Hayward (2017 player option), Kyle Lowry (2017 player option), Greg Monroe (2017 player option), Chris Paul (ETO), and others, this ability will prime Miami to create a Finals contender, something I’m sure the 71 year old Pat Riley is looking to create with haste.
However, in the event that Chris Bosh is not deemed to be suffering a career-ending injury by the league’s independent doctor, or if he was cleared to return to play for another team, then his contract would be returned to Miami’s cap, sitting as dead money. If Miami isn’t confident that the injury is career ending, they could instead take the 80% reimbursement on Bosh’s contract that the insurance covers once Bosh misses 41 games, and then they could further apply for a disable player exception, which if approved would grant Miami another $5.6 million. The amount of money Miami would gain from those actions would give them enough to sign one max player in addition to Hassan. But so long as Riley is confident that Bosh’s career is over he will roll the dice on getting Bosh’s contract off the books.
In the interim year, before another superstar is brought into Miami, we’ll get to see Hassan at his fully unleashed best. It is both unlikely that Miami is in a position to make a deep run in the playoffs, and also unlikely Miami makes any major moves to change that fate in any way, so this season will most likely play out as a stat grab for Hassan, which will be incredibly fun to watch. Still, barring a change in what we’ve seen (and again, it’s early), it seems as though Agent Block is just another indicator that big men can only take you so far in this league.