Hassan Whiteside Saving Heat's Season in Wake of Chris Bosh's Health Scare

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 10, 2016

MIAMI, FL  - MARCH 3: Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat warms up before the game against the Phoenix Suns on March 3, 2016 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

MIAMI Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra trusted his instincts and made the bold decision to bring blossoming big man Hassan Whiteside off the bench.

It could have been disastrous. With unrestricted free agency awaiting the 7-footer at season's end, a perceived demotion might have threatened his future earnings.

And if that's how he saw it, the Heat risked losing the backbone of their fifth-ranked defense and their emergency offensive outlet.

But that never happened. A player whose immaturity once forced him to travel the globe in search of a second NBA chance took the adjustment in stride.

He credits a 90-minute post-All-Star break chat with Spoelstra as key in processing the decision.

"We just talked about what he expects of me for the season, and we had an understanding of each other," Whiteside said. "It was a great talk."

Truth be told, it may have been a season-saving chat—both for Whiteside and the Heat.

Miami needed a lift. It trudged into the NBA's intermission on the heels of consecutive losses, then dealt with the loss of Chris Bosh to blood clots for the second straight season.

The Heat had to find a source of stability, and Whiteside was anything but a logical candidate. He missed the team's first contest after the break while serving a one-game suspension for elbowing San Antonio Spurs center Boban Marjanovic.

But Whiteside used the extended break to mold himself into Miami's missing piece.

Whiteside's post-break production has been absurd.

Just the scoring (18.0 points per game) and rebounding (15.2) alone put him in elite company. Over the last 30 years, only two players have cleared both averages in a single season: Kevin Love (2010-11) and Kevin Willis (1991-92).

Add four blocks a night to the equation—Whiteside is turning back 4.2—and only Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has ever hit all three marks.

That's why the Heat have managed to not just survive but thrive in Bosh's absence.

When healthy, he was their most important player on both sides of the ball. His three-point shooting provided badly needed breathing room for Miami's inside-the-arc attack, and his defensive versatility gave this group a potent weapon to combat post scorers, stretch bigs and anything in between.

But without Bosh, the Heat are somehow playing their best basketball of the season. Their .800 winning percentage since the All-Star break trails only the San Antonio Spurs, and Miami's plus-8.2 net efficiency rating checks in third overall.

Ask those closest to the situation for the key to this turnaround, and they'll point to their stat-sheet-stuffing bench big.

"I think for this team he has been our best player since the All-Star break," Dwyane Wade said of Whiteside. "A lot of credit goes to him for us even being in the position where we have won however many we have won since the break.

"He has been our best player along the way, and obviously everyone has contributed in their own right, but I think consistently he has led us."

Whiteside doesn't look like the same player who entered the All-Star break with trade rumors swirling above his head and a suspension greeting him on the other side.

He's closing holes in his game by focusing on the little things. His energy is consistently high. His once-flat screens are now flattening opponents. Buoyed by a free-throw form that's akin to a catch-and-shoot jumper, his percentage at the stripe is soaring (84.1 over his last eight outings).

So, what's different with Whiteside now? Get comfortable, because the list is lengthy.

"I would say everything," Goran Dragic said. "Attitude. He is listening to the guys. He is more focused. He is more consistent."

More than anything, Whiteside's stats are now supported by substance. The Heat were outscoring opponents by only 0.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor before the break. Over the nine games since, that number has spiked to 4.7.

"Defensively, our numbers go up," Spoelstra said. "Offensively, he's giving us a different dynamic with all the physicality, vertical spacing and offensive rebounding, secondary post-ups. I like the thought process of bringing value and continuing to build trust."

The simple way to process Whiteside's latest emergence—he's getting it. Everything seems to be clicking at once, and the numbers highlight how important that is.

"I've just been trying to dominate, block shots, rebound and dunk on people," Whiteside said. "With Bosh out, my role goes up. I'm getting more involved and playing more."

Whiteside's growth seems sustainable.

As an athletic 7-footer, he's been gifted with the tools needed to live above the rim. As a lob-finisher and offensive rebounder alone, he's a steady source of efficient, reliable scoring.

But the extra layers added to his arsenal make him even more lethal. He can no longer be left alone away from the basket (43.4 percent shooting outside of 10 feet), and teams can't afford to hack him. His suddenly stout screens open up rolling (or popping) lanes for him and driving windows for his teammates.

It's not a stretch to imagine money is some type of motivation with tens of millions likely coming this summer. But Whiteside insists that isn't his focus.

And his team-first approach—both to his new role and his play style—suggests the same.

"He is doing his job for our team," Wade said. "He is protecting the paint on the defensive end of the floor. He is communicating more. … He is in a different mindset right now."

Despite the combustible nature of this situation, that's a good kind of different. While Whiteside has said he doesn't see a bench role as his long-term calling, he has accepted the move in a way that makes Miami among the league's most dangerous teams entering the stretch run.

"I feel comfortable as long as I've got a Heat jersey on," Whiteside said. "Coming off the bench, starting, I just love playing for this team."

All quotes obtained firsthand. Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and current through games played March 8 unless otherwise noted.


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