Seven Heat players spoke to the media after the season’s final team meeting Tuesday.
Hassan Whiteside was among the eight who did not.
That was the center’s right; the availability was framed, as always, as optional. Even Wade skipped the session two years back. Perhaps the team preferred this anyway so there wouldn’t be more mixed messages entering a potentially messy offseason, with so many unsettled and unsettling situations — whether the free agent scenarios of Whiteside, Dwyane Wade or Luol Deng, or the health status of Chris Bosh.
But even as Whiteside wasn’t speaking, others were prodded to speak about him.
So they complied, starting with Erik Spoelstra, who said Whiteside “forced me to become a better coach in a lot of different ways, learning how to motivate and inspire him and communicate and connect with somebody who’s a different personality;” to Goran Dragic, who has corrected the duo’s connectivity issues enough to now promise to text “Whitey” 24 hours per day if necessary to convince the latter to come back; to Josh Richardson, who called “H” one of his best friends on the team; to Udonis Haslem, who said he believed “Hassan” could be the “No. 1 big man in the league” with the continued guidance of the Heat veterans.
Yet Haslem was careful not to overstep, adding, “I can’t tell you what’s best for Hassan’s career.”
What’s best for Whiteside, after he spends much of the next six weeks rehabbing his knee and refining his game in the Heat’s practice gym — with Spoelstra already granting that permission — is to re-sign with a team that can offer him the structure that has been absent in other spots, especially if his mission is to make a mockery of anyone who has ever doubted him.
What’s best for the Heat is not to join that group.
The group that underestimates him.
The group that overlooks him as an asset.
That doesn’t mean Miami must immediately offer the maximum — which could be $102 million over four years if the highest salary-cap projections play out. It does however, mean, the Heat needs to get reasonably close, extremely early in the process, while making the case for Whiteside to forgo a little for four reasons.
He is known to enjoy living here; acquaintances say that staying is his first choice. He would keep more of the total (with no state tax) than with many other teams, especially the Lakers. The NBA allows the Heat to give him slightly higher annual raises than anyone else. And, if he truly wants to showcase himself on a championship stage, the Heat would have more flexibility if he doesn’t take every last dollar.
Would this work? No one knows.
Further, it’s understandable that the Heat would be concerned about such a commitment; it’s considerably more difficult to take a tough-love approach with someone who can turn his back to bathe in your cash. It’s also true that Whiteside and Bosh struggled some together, and if Bosh can come back, the Heat might be investing close to $45 million in a clunky combination. But while Bosh is no longer a tradable commodity because of his condition, Whiteside likely would be, especially as the cap rises by more than 15 percent again in 2017.
It’s also understandable — and absolutely expected — that Riley would choose to first chase Kevin Durant, the only player in the 2016 unrestricted free agent class, barring an opt-out by LeBron James, who is clearly more of a franchise-changer than Whiteside; not even Al Horford, Mike Conley, Nic Batum or DeMar DeRozan qualify.
It’s also dangerous, however.
Although it’s generally foolish to question Pat Riley’s power of persuasion — he could sell Smith Corona typewriters to Silicon Valley — this one seems even out of his reach. First, it’s unclear why Durant would leave Oklahoma City, now 1-0 in the Western Conference finals, rather than just sign a one-year deal plus an option, and align his free agency with Russell Westbrook, better than any teammate he could join outside of Golden State or Cleveland.
And why the Heat? Because it’s in the East? Well, that’s still where James resides.
In 2010, when Riley pursued James and Bosh, he had a 28-year-old Wade essentially on board. Wade will be 35 in January, and his relationship with Durant, while improved from when Durant listed Wade outside the top 10 players (causing Wade to write a “note to self”) isn’t at Wade-James chummy levels. In 2010, Riley had a virtually clean cap to add complements; now he has Bosh on the books until at least next February, with the real chance that a comeback becomes another setback.
And while Riley can point to the rings James won in Miami, that might point Durant back home. Durant has always scoffed at being second to James in anything. Second-to-join-Riley-to-end-a-title-drought? Would that hook the former Longhorn?
Plus, even with a shorter moratorium period this July, Durant might take his time. As the Heat waits, Whiteside might wonder, bristle and walk. The Heat better decide whether that’s really what it wants.