But Hassan Whiteside's value has exponentially exploded since, and his days in the bargain bin will come to a close this coming offseason.
As the league's leading shot-blocker—3.8 per game, the highest such average in more than a decade—and one of only eight centers averaging a double-double, the 26-year-old will be at least a max-contract candidate when he hits the open market this summer.
Heat brass have witnessed his wild rise from NBA vagabond to potential All-Star firsthand, but nobody can be certain what he's worth to the franchise.
Individually Brilliant, But Collectively Underwhelming
So many numbers suggest Whiteside is a top-shelf stud in the making. He's posted a 24.6 player efficiency rating over this season and last. That's the ninth-best mark in the NBA (minimum 20 minutes per contest).
"He is going out to dominate every game," Dwyane Wade said. "He wants to be the best big man on the floor every night. He is putting together a helluva effort to do that."
As exciting as all that sounds, there's one number that may hold more importance to Miami: 3.3. That would be the team's gain in points per 100 possessions when Whiteside doesn't play.
For all of his individual talents, the Heat have a tighter defense, better ball movement and play at a much faster pace without him.
Offensively, his arsenal doesn't include much beyond point-blank finishing. Of his 184 field goals, 128 have come from within three feet (69.6 percent). He lacks reliability at the charity stripe (career 50.8 percent) and has an almost comical aversion to passing (15 assists in 103 career games).
He's slow-footed on the perimeter defensively. Guards flying around screens and floor-spacing bigs target Whiteside when he's on the floor.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has struggled all season to determine the ideal workload for him. The center may have the highest ceiling on the roster—Justise Winslow's development as a shooter could ultimately decide that—but he plays the least of any starter (28.9 minutes per game) and ranks ninth on the club in fourth-quarter minutes (5.3).
Then again, that makes Whiteside's production look even more remarkable. He's had 14 outings with at least 10 points, 10 boards and five blocks since the start of last season. Anthony Davis (12) and Andre Drummond (seven) are the only other players with more than five.
It's incredible to imagine what Whiteside could do in a fully featured role. His per-36-minute marks this year are 15.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 4.7 blocks. No one has ever posted that line over an entire season.
He can make the game easier for his teammates.
He's about as reliable as pick-and-roll screeners come, converting those looks at a rate of 1.23 points per possession (89th percentile). His rim protection can help cover other's mistakes, and he knocks 2.7 percentage points off his own matchup's shooting rate.
If defensive possessions need closing, his 30.3 defensive rebounding percentage (third overall) can do the trick.
"He can dominate a game without scoring," said Chris Bosh.
On the surface, that sounds like someone perhaps worthy of a nine-figure commitment. But these decisions are never made in a vacuum.
Risk vs. Reward
Since the Heat don't have full Bird rights on Whiteside, they'd have to use cap space to re-sign him. There'd be an opportunity cost for every dollar spent on him—perhaps 20 million of them.
If Whiteside cements himself as an elite center, he might be worth it.
But what if that means watching Wade leave behind the only NBA franchise he's ever known? What if it keeps Miami from luring the one prime superstar (cough, Kevin Durant) it may still need to truly contend? What if the league's move to a pace-and-space style greatly diminishes the impact of a player like Whiteside?
Heck, what if this lingering bout of tendinitis in his right knee morphs into a greater health scare?
That's a troubling number of what-ifs for someone who will surely require a staggering financial commitment.
But consider the flip side.
Imagine letting a player sitting 16th in PER walk out the door and getting nothing in return. Now, consider that said player could still be a few seasons shy of reaching his actual prime.
Whiteside is a (very) young 26 by big league standards. He's played fewer career minutes (2,293) than five members of the 2014-15 rookie class. And, for as good as he looked last season, he's constantly shown signs of growth this time around.
"As a professional, learning how to become a winning player, learning how to play on a winning team, he's making important strides," Spoelstra said. "His improvement has been significant. You would hope every young player could go through that."
Every young player also experiences growing pains, but Whiteside remains very much in the maturation process.
Some nights, he'll sound like a leader in training: "It's not about me—as long as we win." On others, he'll come across as overly concerned with individual achievements: "I'm just trying to get my All-Star ratings up."
Ideally, the Heat would have more time to solve this puzzle. If Whiteside were operating on a rookie deal, Miami would have three or four years to pin down the length and value of an appropriate extension.
But this case—like this player—is unique.
No Comfortable Option
In terms of Whiteside's future, Miami finds itself surrounded by eggshells. There are so many different steps it can take, but whichever it chooses will come with a liberal amount of anxiety.
It's hard to imagine him taking another discounted deal. Someone will put forth a contract commensurate to his combination of natural gifts, present production and future potential.
If that someone isn't the Heat, they'll risk seeing a soaring superstar slip out of their grasp. And discovering another sooner than later won't be easy with Miami on the hook for three future first-rounders, according to RealGM.
But if the Heat opt to sign his first colossal paycheck, they can only hope they aren't committing major coin to a situational player. The cost will be far too great for him to continue on as a crunch-time observer.
Miami could try to proactively address the situation by dangling Whiteside on the trade market, perhaps addressing its glaring need for three-point shooting in the process.
But Heat president of basketball operations Pat Riley has already publicly shot down the idea of moving Whiteside, per Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald. Besides, since Whiteside's current salary is so low ($981,348), he'd likely need to be packaged with a separate piece, which could torpedo any hopes the Heat have of contending.
Which of those possibilities feels safe? Or smart? Or, most importantly, correct?
It's a good thing the Heat have until the summer to deliver their final verdict. They'll need at least that long to make sense of all this.
All quotes obtained firsthand. Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and current through games played Jan. 12. Salary information obtained via Basketball Insiders.