After an inhuman triple-double – 14 points, 13 rebounds, 12 blocks – in just 25 minutes, Erik Spoelstra didn’t have a choice: Hassan Whiteside would be his starting center moving forward. The seven-footer, who was labeled “arrogant,” “immature” and “in need of hand-holding,” led the Heat in scoring the next three games. Against Dallas, he had 14 rebounds in the first quarter (more than any player in the NBA has averaged in a game since Dwight Howard pulled down 14.5 for the Magic in 2011-12) matched up against of the league’s elite centers. The game may as well have fulfilled every tenant required of a passing-the-torch narrative: Chandler, a 32-year-old rebounding magpie and formed defensive player of the year winner, giving the 25-year-old Whiteside the top secret Big Man Documents, which are only unveiled to those few who transcend the position.
Five games below .500, Spoelstra’s unit is far from the driver’s seat it comfortably occupied at this point the last three seasons. It has fewer players named LeBron James, a less-than-burgeoning offense and a wilting bench presence. Yet the Heat remain in the Eastern Conference playoff picture as the seventh seed. And they still have reasons to believe, to aspire, despite losing Dwayne Wade indefinitely due to a hamstring injury. Yet they are favored in the next two games against Detroit and Minnesota – both on the road.
Much of this is because of the surreptitious arrival of Hassan Whiteside.
He was held on the bench for substantial minutes against Dallas, finishing with 16 points and 24 rebounds in just 28 minutes. After the game, Spoelstra said he removed his budding center because of “fatigue,” to which Whiteside offered no comment. He has played more than 20 minutes eight times this season. The Heat, who are 12-19 since December and a wretched 7-17 against teams with winning records, cannot afford to play Whiteside low minutes – meaning that either the approach to his conditioning needs to change or the training wheels need to come off. However, given that countless organizations have recently felt the cataclysm of losing a deft center – Golden State losing Bogut, Houston losing Howard, Chicago losing Noah – Spoelstra is clearly not in plush territory. Media members have hounded him and the country is seemingly washed away in the Whiteside renaissance.
Though this is his third season in the league (wait, what?), ostensibly the first two didn’t lead anyone to believe there would be a meteoric rise in his game.
Whiteside ranks No. 2 in the entire league in Player Efficiency Rating, trailing just Anthony Davis. The Heat are downright oppressive with their center on the court: Miami holds opponents to a three percent lower effective field goal percentage and a poorer offensive rating, while it jumps in offensive rating and generates a five percent higher rebounding percentage.
Miami’s rebounding averages sit in the corner of the league’s basement for the third consecutive season; they have one of the worst rebounding differentials, which are only further amplified by playing at the slowest pace of any team in the league. With a cavalcade of an offensive scheme, missed shots, naturally, aren’t gobbled up by the flour-spacing power forwards, like Chris Bosh and (before he tore the meniscus in his right knee) Josh McRoberts, that the Heat love to employ. Whiteside is a mountain in the interior, carries an irascible temperament and has no problem battling in the low post. With him being able to limit the minutes of aging center Chris Andersen – who is currently generating his worst PER in seven years, lower figures on the glass and is uncomfortably wobbling on leaden legs – the Heat can simultaneously develop the young and rest the old, accelerate the potential and lessen the burden.
Opponents score an average of 95.9 points against the Heat – the fewest of any team in the league. It’s no surprise that Whiteside, who has a seven-foot-seven wingspan, helps the team plug what were gaping holes in the paint. If his blocks per game averages were eligible for the NBA leaderboard, he’d rank third (2.38); opponents shoot a measly 41.3 percent at the rim against him (for context: Roy Hibbert, Andrew Bogut and Dwight Howard all yield higher percentages). He also has one of the highest contested rebound percentages of any player in the league — particularly significant on a team whose second-best contested rebounder is the 34-year-old mummy of Udonis Haslem. If the tomb doesn’t need to be opened, leave it be.
Hassan Whiteside is a bright spot in the somewhat muddied future of the Miami Heat organization; someone who can keep the team in the rebounding battle, linchpin the defense and fuse with Chris Bosh to form one of the more dexterous front courts in the NBA. With Whiteside, the Heat offense swells — creating a half-court attack that is efficient and sustainable. With a gut-wrenching playoff picture in the East, if there is merit to the Hassan Whiteside minute restriction theory, the margins need to be carefully removed because Miami’s center is ready to help bring the team to the postseason.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Vice, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. He’s currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter (@JPlanos).