With Whiteside’s Future Uncertain, Where Do the Heat Go From Here?
“I really don’t think it’s about loyalty. I think it’s just about [finding] the best situation for myself. I didn’t say [Miami] wasn’t the best situation, but we’re going to see what happens. It’s not like I’m really counting the Heat out or counting on another team. It’s just open.”
That was Hassan Whiteside yesterday, talking about his impending free agency, which officially begins in less than five days.
If you’re a Miami Heat fan, it sounded rather ominous.
Perhaps it should.
Whiteside is perhaps the NBA’s most polarizing figure. He is many different things to many different people.
For many in South Florida, he doesn’t really fit the Heat culture. He can be immature. Temperamental. Inconsistent with his focus and effort. Frustratingly flawed.
On offense, he doesn’t set particularly good screens. He doesn’t pass particularly well. He turns the ball over too much. He doesn’t always make his free throws. And, generally speaking, he’s a massive presence who sucks in defenders and clogs the paint for the likes of Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, making it more difficult for the team’s primary scorers to score.
On defense, he’s not a particularly strong low-post defender. He hesitates to rotate out to the perimeter. He bites on pump fakes. He chases blocks at the expense of fundamental team defense. And, generally speaking, the raw statistics would suggest the Heat is as good or better without him.
The list is long, and troublesome. And it has the Heat organization divided as to whether he is deserving of a maximum contract, which would start next season at $22 million.
But he’s also a game-changing talent. An unstoppable force in the pick-and-roll, and on the glass. Statistically speaking, the best individual defender in the game today. A possible future top 10 overall player in this league. Or better.
Which necessitates that the following questions be asked: Has the Heat handled him properly? Is the team’s approach fundamentally flawed? Is it severely lacking in vision?
What if the Heat were to reverse its thinking? What if rather than trying to fit Whiteside into what the Heat tries to do, the Heat were to instead build an offense and defense around him? What if rather than surrounding him with a bunch of players who play questionable defense and want to score at the rim, the Heat were to instead surround him with a bunch of defensive-oriented shooters who would allow him to operate in space? What kind of stupid numbers could he put up then? How dominant could he be?
Perhaps these are the questions that should’ve been answered this past season. Perhaps Whiteside should’ve played more minutes, as the centerpiece of the Heat offense and defense. Perhaps he should’ve been paired less with Wade and Dragic, and more with Wade or Dragic. Perhaps he should’ve been given every opportunity to develop his potential star talent. But he wasn’t.
Whiteside ultimately averaged fewer than 30 minutes per game. He was never a primary scoring option. He faced double, triple, even quadruple teams virtually every time he touched the ball. He was vilified for defensive breakdowns based on selective logic. He was utilized off the bench for large stretches of the season. And he noticed.
What is he looking for in his future destination? “Fit with the team,” and “how they utilize their offense and defense.”
The Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, and several others, were undoubtedly listening as he said those words yesterday. They’re all gearing up to aggressively pursue him. They’ll all be eager to exploit the uneasy tension that persists in Miami.
Each will undoubtedly promise the larger role and increased playing time that he didn’t get with the Heat this past season. Each will undoubtedly put forth the maximum contract that Pat Riley and the Heat organization appear hesitant to offer. They’ll make it sound compelling.
They’ll do this because they know it’s virtually impossible to acquire a free agent this talented, this cheap. The very nature of NBA rules makes it so.
First-round draft picks are signed to rookie-scale contracts which last four seasons. The best of them are then forced by the rules of restricted free agency to remain with their prior teams for at least one more contract, which tends to last between three and five years. And, thus, by the time they become available on the open market, somewhere between seven and nine years will have passed them by.
Second-round draft picks and undrafted players face similar restrictions. Such players can be made restricted free agents after any or each of their first three seasons in the league. Teams leverage these rules to their maximum benefit, designing contracts that guarantee the possibility of a subsequent deal while still under team control. And, thus, by the time the best of these players become available on the open market, somewhere between seven and eight years may have passed them by.
According to the NBA’s maximum salary rules, players with at least seven years of NBA experience are at least 20 percent more expensive than players have fewer than seven years of experience (e.g., Whiteside).
Whiteside represents the rarest of NBA oddities – a supremely talented player, available on the open market, at a huge discount to any other accessible game-changing free agent talents.
Faced with the possibility of losing him, the Heat organization would therefore be wise to contemplate a few basic questions:
What is this Heat team without Whiteside? What are its pieces? An aging Wade who doesn’t pair well with Dragic? A hobbled Bosh? A bunch of kids who have great potential but are perhaps better utilized surrounded by stars? Is Whiteside the glue that solidifies the team’s hope for the future?
If the Heat doesn’t re-sign Whiteside, then who? Would you rather have, say, Al Horford… at $27 million? Blake Griffin next year… at $31 million (or more)? Or perhaps two players who aren’t going to be difference makers but are going to cost at least 35 percent more than you may be thinking (consistent with the rise in the salary cap)?
Is Whiteside at $22 million a bargain?
Hassan Whiteside needs to be the Heat’s first priority this summer. Not Wade. Not Kevin Durant.
We’d be foolish to think Durant is a likely enough possibility in Miami as to merit redirecting focus from Whiteside, potentially losing both in the process. We’d be foolish to think that Durant would even consider joining a Heat team that doesn’t include Whiteside.
Whiteside is the primary selling point. Not Riley. Not Miami. Not the lack of state income taxes.
So where do the Heat go from here? Here it is, in three primary steps:
Pay Hassan Whiteside his money.
Don’t lose your star talent over a couple million dollars (without a clear vision as to how that money would be re-directed into something better). Negotiate creatively for less, but be willing to pay him more than can any other team.
His maximum salary — $22 million — will be the same no matter where he signs. His max contract length — four years — is also the same no matter where he signs. But the Heat can offer higher annual raises — 7.5 percent, vs. 4.5 percent – than can any other team. That creates a $4 million advantage — a long-term contract that pays out a projected $98.6 million, vs. the $94.6 million other teams can offer. Use it, if necessary.
Use Whiteside to sell Durant.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, the Heat are one of six teams that will get an audience this summer with Durant, who will also meet with the Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Sell Durant on the fact that Whiteside’s dominant interior presence, when coupled with Bosh’s dominant perimeter spacing, represents the ideal frontcourt spacing to complement his game. Sell him that the Heat possesses multiple youthful, defensive-minded wing shooters (e.g., Josh Richardson) to space the floor around him. That he could be the ball dominant superstar who benefits from all that spacing.
Sell Durant on the fact that, while he’d be the team’s primary scoring option, he’d certainly not be the only one. Sell him that a revamped Heat offense could also include several high-efficiency options, including Dragic’s transition scoring, Whiteside pick-and-rolls, and Bosh pick-and-pops. That with so many scoring options that could be generated in completely different ways, it would be a virtual impossibility to shut them all down.
Is it even possible for the Heat to sign Whiteside and Durant at their respective maximums? What would it take for it to be mathematically possible?
There are three likely scenarios (at the currently projected salary cap of $94.4 million, which could increase):
- Dwyane Wade would need to accept a $1.6 million single-season minimum-salary contract this summer, in exchange for a potential overpay contract in the summer of 2017 that could start as high as the $35.4 million projected maximum salary and have a term of up to three years (that’s as much as $114.0 million), which he would continue to receive even if he were to retire in the interim.
- Josh McRoberts and Justise Winslow would need to be traded without the Heat taking back any salary in return, likely in exchange for future valuable draft considerations. (Or, if Whiteside or Durant could take or split a $2.0 million discount from their maxes, and perhaps as little as $1.3 million, as detailed in the footnote below, the Heat could save Winslow).
- Briante Weber would need to be waived and stretched (see the footnote below for how Weber could be saved).
- Goran Dragic would need to be traded.
- Dwyane Wade would need to accept either (i) a contract starting at $8.4 million and paying out a total of up to $27.0 million over three years (or potentially $9.0 million and $29.0 million, respectively, as described in the footnote below) or (ii) the minimum-salary construct described in the first option above. If he were to instead prefer the minimum-salary approach, the Heat would have an additional $8.4 million in cap room to spend on another free agent. (See the footnote below for reasons why this could increase to $9.0 million.)
- Goran Dragic and Josh McRoberts would need to be traded
- Dwyane Wade would need to accept either (i) a contract starting at $13.6 million and paying out a total of up to $43.9 million over three years (or potentially $14.3 million and $46.0 million, respectively, as described in the footnote below) or (ii) the minimum-salary construct described in the first option above. If he were to instead prefer the minimum-salary approach, the Heat would have an additional $13.6 million in cap room to spend on another free agent. (See the footnote below for reasons why this could increase to $14.3 million.)
If Durant chooses to sign elsewhere, preserve remaining cap room for summer 2017.
The list of players who can be unrestricted free agents in 2017 includes: point guards Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry; shooting guard J.J. Redick; small forwards Kevin Durant (if he signs a one-year deal this summer), LeBron James (if he signs another one-year deal this summer), Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gay, Danilo Gallinari and Andre Iguodala; and power forwards Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka, Paul Millsap, Greg Monroe and Taj Gibson; among many others.
The Heat currently has just $51 million in guaranteed salary for that summer (including Winslow, who has a team option which will need to be exercised by Oct. 31), when the salary cap is expected to rise to at least $107 million, and possibly much higher.
The Heat can therefore, as of now, produce as much as $56 million in cap space for the 2017-18 season. And if it were to trade McRoberts that summer, its potential cap space could increase to as much as $62 million.
Even at the max, Whiteside would consume less than $24 million of that, which would leave as much as $38 million available to spend – far more post-Whiteside dollars than the Heat has available this summer, on a far better free agent class.
Even if it means paying Wade all that’s left over after re-signing Whiteside, in exchange for a single-season deal; that’s roughly $20 million.
Even if it means sacrificing Luol Deng and replacing him in the rotation with a heavier concentration of Winslow and Richardson.
Even if it means fielding largely the same team as the Heat did this past season. We still have yet to fully see what this team can do, when fully healthy, with a proper offense and defense geared around Whiteside.
How will things play out?
Only time will tell.
Each of these scenarios were carefully constructed with the idea that Kevin Durant might choose to maximize his earning potential by signing a single-season $26.6 million maximum contract (with a $27.8 million player option for a second-season, as insurance against injury, which he would decline) and follow it up with a second maximum contract the following summer, that is currently projected to start at $35.4 million and pay out as much as $151.0 million over the following four years. In each of these cases, however, if Durant were to choose that approach, the Heat would need to relinquish Tyler Johnson in trade, either by not signing him this summer or by trade next summer (because his salary for next season would consume valuable cap space needed for Durant). That would have implications for all of the numbers presented in this post.
If the Heat were to not sign Tyler Johnson this summer, it would produce a $637K savings in each of the three above approaches. The net effect for each approach would be:
- Scenario 1: Briante Weber would not need to be waived and stretched, or the Heat could apply that $637K in savings to the $2.0 million discount either Whiteside or Durant would need to take to save Winslow)
- Scenario 2: Dwyane Wade’s starting salary could increase to $9.0 million, and his total payout over three years to $29.0 million
- Scenario 3: Dwyane Wade’s starting salary could increase to $14.3 million, and his total payout over three years to $46.0 million
If Wade were to choose to take the larger money in Scenarios 2 and 3, he wouldn’t be able to opt out next season and make even more money as the cap rises. That money would be devoted to Durant. Therefore, he could actually make a higher total payout by taking the minimum salary approach (followed by a massive contract next summer) in all three scenarios. In these scenarios, the Heat could save Tyler Johnson.