Hassan Whiteside's Next Contract Looms as Big Challenge for Miami Heat to Solve

Luke Petkac@@LukePetkacFeatured ColumnistApril 24, 2015

Whiteside has a ton of potential on both ends.
Whiteside has a ton of potential on both ends.Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

The Miami Heat's goal this offseason is to re-sign Goran Dragic to a max-level contract.

Dragic is set to command something like a five-year, $109 million deal, per the Miami Herald's Joseph Goodman. And team president Pat Riley appears confident that he'll re-sign. He recently said, via the Sun Sentinel's Ira Winderman, "If he doesn't sign, my a-- is going to be in that [media] seat next year and I'll be writing about it."

Dragic is a great player, and Miami would be thrilled to have him aboard for the next five years. He's a solid complement to Dwyane Wade and could take over as the Heat's lead ball-handler as Wade ages.

Retaining Dragic does, however, come with one giant string attached: It could make re-signing Hassan Whiteside into a headache.

Whiteside is slated to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2015-16 season, and he's going to get a massive pay raise. If he matches his production from this year, he'll be getting a max contract from someone. Miami would obviously love to land him, but doing so would be a financial strain.

As it stands, the Heat have just four players on the books for 2016-17, per HoopsHypeChris Bosh, Josh McRoberts, Shabazz Napier and James Ennis (they're unlikely to decline the team options of the latter two players).

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

If they re-sign Dragic to the max (starting at $19 million a year, with a 7.5 percent annual raise, per Basketball Insiders' Nate Duncan), they'll be committing nearly $50 million to him, Bosh and McRoberts alone. That's before adding either Whiteside or Wade, whose contract also expires next season.

That's a ton of money to tie up in just a handful of players, even with the salary cap set to make a prolific jump. Here are the projected cap numbers for the next few years, via DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony.

Assuming Whiteside gets the max, he'll be making something like $21.5 million, or slightly under 25 percent of the team's total cap, per Larry Coon's CBA FAQ. Wade's salary is still an unknown, but for the sake of argument, let's assume he takes a discount similar to that of Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan. Miami's financial situation starts to look something like this.

Miami Heat Projected Salaries (2016-17)
Chris Bosh$23.7 million
Hassan Whiteside$21.5 million
Goran Dragic$20.4 million
Dwyane Wade$10 million
Josh McRoberts$5.8 million
Shabazz Napier$1.4 million
James Ennis$980,000
Total$83.8 million
Courtesy of HoopsHype

This is merely a rough sketch, which ignores any other players Miami may sign this summer. These numbers aren't exact, and there are assumptions being made about both Wade and Whiteside's contracts. But even as a baseline, this is scary stuff.

The Heat don't have a lot of options if they choose to go this route. They'd have some wiggle room to work with between exceptions and their remaining cap room. They could also open up a little more space by dealing McRoberts—who's somewhat superfluous with Bosh—elsewhere.

Either way though, Miami will need to go bargain hunting. It'll have to let Luol Deng go (either this summer or next) and mostly hope to find quality players who slip through the cracks. The Heat will likely have serious trouble fielding a deep team in 2016-17.

They could find depth in the summer of 2017, when the cap is set to jump yet again, but even that comes with a problem—Wade's age. Wade's 33 years old now. In 2017-18, he'll be 36, and it's hard to say how much he'll have left in the tank at that point. To be a real contender, the Heat would be banking heavily on Dragic excelling as a lead ball-handler and Whiteside making the leap to superstar status.

Miami's window of opportunity with this specific core—Dragic, Wade, Whiteside and Bosh—simply isn't very big. Should they choose to re-sign their center, they're likely going to struggle fielding deep teams and could always be an injury away from disaster.

But even with all of the complications that keeping Whiteside may bring, if he can maintain (or improve upon) his production from this season, the Heat really can't entertain any thoughts of letting him walk.

He's too valuable of a player to let go.

Whiteside averaged 17.8 points, 15.2 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per 36 minutes this season. The only other centers in history to come close to those numbers are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. Obviously, he's not at that level in terms of actual impact, but it says a lot about his overall productivity.

He still has a ways to go defensively. He picks up a lot of cheap fouls, and his positioning is far from perfect. He can also chase blocks to the detriment of his team. Though he posted a massive (9.2 percent) block rate, opponents shot 46.5 percent at the rim against him, a decent mark.

Still, Whiteside's raw ability on the defensive end is undeniable. He's a superb athlete and is so lengthy that he can contest or block shots that few else in the league can.

On offense, he's already a DeAndre Jordan-like garbage man, scoring on pick-and-rolls and putbacks. He was the league's third-best offensive rebounder this season (scooping up 15.6 percent of available offensive boards) and one of its best roll men. He averaged 1.41 points per possession in the pick-and-roll, putting him in the NBA's 97th percentile.

Whiteside is a crazy finisher at the rim, hitting 76 percent of his shots right around the basket. He can dunk just about anything, and when he gets the ball in close, it's essentially game over for opposing defenses.

However, what really makes him unique is his surprisingly refined back-to-the-basket game. He shot an even 51 percent on the low block this season, and nearly a quarter of his offense came from there. Most of his baskets were standard fare—jump hooks or runners—but he flashed some genuinely impressive footwork on occasion.

Courtesy of Instagiffer

Pat Riley recently stated that he wants to see Whiteside as a more focal part of the offense, saying, per the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson:

I don’t think there’s any doubt Erik is going to really look at what he can do for this player besides just have him as a 7-foot, pick and roll, dunk player. He can be a formidable presence and a formidable option in the offense. [Spoelstra is] already excited about incorporating whatever he does in the pace game to not pass him by three or four times.

Whiteside will have to grow as a passer for his post game to be a real weapon. He totaled just six assists all season. Even for a true center, that's pathetic. Even so, it's hard not to be excited about a guy who can score in as many ways as he can.

Re-signing Whiteside will be a challenge and could put the Heat under a lot of financial strain. But if he's able to build upon this year's campaign, that may not matter. A two-way big is the hardest type of player to find, and Whiteside has a shot at being elite at both ends.

That type of talent is hard to pass up, almost no matter what the cost.

All statistics accurate as of 4/23/15 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com/Stats unless stated otherwise.