There were several eye-popping statistics associated with the Charlotte Hornets-Miami Heat playoff series. This one was as telling as any:
In the decisive Game 7, which the Heat won 106-73, the Heat scored 58 points in the lane to the Hornets’ 22.
That was the effect Heat center (and Gastonia native) Hassan Whiteside had on this matchup. He set a Heat franchise record with 24 shots blocked in a single playoff series. He finished the regular season with 269 blocks, an average of 3.7 per game.
No opponent knows better than the Hornets how Whiteside, who is 7-0 and 265 pounds, changes games; he had a 10-block regular-season game against the Hornets and the intimidation factor he created in Game 7 was palpable.
That leads to this question: Would it be feasible for the Hornets to pursue Whiteside when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in July?
Whiteside was chosen early in the second round of the 2010 NBA draft by the Sacramento Kings. He turned pro after a single college season at Marshall in which he averaged 5.4 blocks.
He never established himself with the Kings, playing in 19 games over two seasons. Much of that time he was playing for the Kings’ Development League affiliate in Reno, Nev., (where he was a teammate of Hornets guard Jeremy Lin).
Whiteside spent the next two seasons playing in the D-League and overseas before getting his chance last season with the Heat. By NBA standards he hasn’t made a lot of money – about $1.7 million with the Kings and a little under $2 million for last season and this season with the Heat.
Whiteside is a month away from turning 27, and this summer is his window for a big contract. He’s hitting free-agency at a time when the salary cap is about to spike because of the new national television contracts. This is his shot at generational wealth.
How he’d fit with the Hornets
During a 30-minute interview to wrap up the season, Hornets coach Steve Clifford frequently used the words “rebounding” and “physicality” to describe areas of need.
While the Hornets were among regular-season leaders in defensive rebounding percentage, the Heat dominated the boards in the playoff series by eight rebounds per game. Whiteside averaged 11.4 rebounds in the seven-game series along with 3.4 blocks.
The Hornets haven’t had a rim-protector since they chose not to restrict Bismack Biyombo’s free-agency with a qualifying offer of approximately $4 million two summers ago.
As far as physicality, Clifford says small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s return from shoulder surgery will help. But that’s not the same as having a high-volume rebounder-shotblocker in the middle.
What would have to be overcome
It’s not a foregone conclusion Whiteside will re-sign with the Heat, because his two-year contract does not qualify the Heat for full “Larry Bird rights” (by which the Heat could exceed the salary cap to re-sign him all the way up to a maximum-salary contract).
But there will be plenty of teams with the cap space this summer to make Whiteside fabulously rich. For the Hornets to participate in such a bidding war, they would have to be sure Whiteside would be a great fit here.
That’s not a given. He has a quirky, sometimes volatile personality. In each of the past two seasons he was suspended one game by the NBA for dangerous hits on opponents. After his second suspension, for an elbow to the head of San Antonio Spurs center Boban Marjanovic, Whiteside said, “I know actions like that kill my career. It hurt me a lot.”
Clifford expects a disciplined approach to competition from his players; flagrant fouls are few since Clifford arrived in Charlotte because they hurt the Hornets.
The other issue would be how much the Hornets would pursue another team’s free agent, as opposed to focusing on the five free agents-to-be in their own rotation, including small forward Nic Batum.
The bottom line
Could the Hornets pursue Whiteside? Certainly. Will they? Only if they’re prepared to do without some pieces that helped them win 48 regular-season games.