Just how valuable is Hassan Whiteside as an asset in today’s market?
Hassan Whiteside is a max-level player being paid $981,348. To put that into context, Robert Sacre is paid the exact same amount. Luckily for Whiteside, he is an unrestricted free agent this Summer―and he’s going to get straight paid.
The Miami Heat would love to re-sign Whiteside, but they cannot do so without using cap-space because they only own Whiteside’s “Early Bird Rights,” not the full version of the exception (which allows teams to go over the cap when re-signing their own free agents). Thus, the Heat hardly have any advantage over the rest of the league when it comes to recruiting Whiteside this summer. With the trade deadline only six weeks away, the Heat have to make a decision on Whiteside―what they decide to do could set the standard for this situation for years to come.
Every so often, a singular moment in a player’s career goes on to define that scenario moving forward. Once upon a time, the New York Knicks signed 30-year-old Allan Houston to a six-year, $100 million contract. Houston was a good player, maybe even a great player at his peak, but he was suddenly made the NBA’s highest-paid player. The contract was such a disaster for the franchise that the NBA and player’s union inserted into the 2005 CBA what would become known as the “Allan Houston Rule,” a provision that allowed teams in danger of paying the luxury tax to waive a player and avoid the punitive financial punishment.
Now, it is impossible to say whether Hassan Whiteside’s unique situation could spur a change in the CBA to make contracts more team-friendly in regards to re-signing your own free agents, but Whiteside’s success could spur teams to aggressively insist on four-year deals for minimum-level players. More crucial, however, is how this situation could impact how team’s value short-term contracts.
The likes of Tony Ressler (Atlanta), Joshua Harris (Philadelphia), Tom Gores (Detroit), Joe Lacob (Golden State), Leslie Alexander (Houston), Marc Lasry (Milwaukee), Dan Gilbert (Cleveland), and the trio of H. Irving Grousbeck, Wyc Grousbeck and Stephen Pagliuca (Boston) are the small, but growing contingent of NBA owners who have worked in private equity, hedge fund and venture capital firms. It’s only natural that as former players have infiltrated the league’s ownership ranks, the NBA has taken on a new appreciation of how to value their players as assets. It’s why contract lengths have shortened, the value of expiring contracts have plummeted and early-2nd-round picks are now preferred to late-1st-round picks.
So, in this sense, Whiteside’s worth is indelibly tied to his contract. Sure, he’s averaging 15.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 4.7 blocks per-36 minutes, but he’s also an expiring contract. What is he worth to the Boston Celtics if he will only stay for 40 games and then sign with the Los Angeles Lakers? Not much, obviously. Similarly, Miami Heat President Pat Riley has to be asking himself the same quasi-existential questions.
Riley mortgaged two future-1st-round picks for the right to sign 29-year-old Goran Dragic to a 5-year, $80 million contract. Chris Bosh is also on the wrong side of 30 and has a max-contract. Same with Dwyane Wade, except he has an expiring contract. The Heat are in win-now mode, but have no clear path to winning now OR later as long as the Cavaliers are even sorta healthy.
Hell, the Heat’s core six players (Bosh, Wade, Whiteside, Dragic, Luol Deng, Justise Winslow) have only missed a combined twelve games, but according to NBA-Reference’s Simple Rating System (which takes record, point-differential and opponent strength into consideration), the Heat have been the 12th-best team thus far, sandwiched between the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets and comfortably worse than the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics. The Heat aren’t just not close to winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but hardly stand out in an Eastern Conference.
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Which brings us back to Whiteside. He’s good, maybe even great. His hyperbolic athleticism makes him a constant threat above-the-rim and an ace rebounder. Nylon Calculus rates him as the 6th-best rim-protector in the league. The Miami Heat are +4.8 points better when he’s on the court versus when he sits. On the downside, Whiteside turns 27 in June and he’s scarily unsophisticated in how he plays the game. He’s played 2293 total minutes in his career, but has only recorded 15(!) assists. To put that into context, Shaquille O’Neal (who shot FAR more than Whiteside) regularly averaged three assists per-game and has had games when he’s recorded nine assists. It’s ridiculous that an actual NBA player can be so incapable of parlaying their dominance at the rim into the occasional pass to an open shooter!
Besides that, it’s also sort of hilarious that Whiteside can lead the NBA in blocks (and by a comfortable 0.7 per-36 margin over 2nd-placed John Henson, at that), but only be the 6th-best rim-protector. This supports the pervading idea that Whiteside, whilst a unique shot-blocking talent, isn’t so much a smart defender as he is just relying on his athleticism to smack shots into oblivion.
Watch enough of Whiteside, and you’ll see he’s often in a less-than-ideal position to defend the rim. Yet, he’s as fast as Hakeem Olajuwon and as long as David Robinson. It’s just not fair. But if Whiteside intends on playing well into his thirties, he could stand to learn from the likes of Roy Hibbert and Andrew Bogut, players with half the athleticism, but a superior understanding of how footwork, timing and verticality can repel attacks at the rim.
This isn’t meant to discredit Whiteside, but rather just point out a rather obvious red flag. He’ll only be 27 when he signs a new deal this Summer, but centers with limited skill age very quickly. Just look at Dwight Howard (who was far more advanced skill-wise, it must be said.
So what should the Heat do? Do they roll the dice, keep Whiteside past the deadline, and hope LeBron James tears an ACL for the chance to get swept by the Warriors in the Finals? Or does Riley think longterm and cash his proverbial chips in and call it a night? If Riley is convinced he can re-sign Whiteside this Summer (which will be tough when you consider he has to also pay Wade), then keeping him is the way to go, but even then, do you trust Whiteside moving forward? Can he transition the franchise? Are you comfortable tying up ~$80 million in Dragic, Bosh, Wade and Whiteside for the foreseeable future?
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Of course, it’s impossible to speak for Riley. The 70-year-old HOFer isn’t going to be around forever, and that might weigh heavily for him. Is he interested in doing what’s best for the Heat as a franchise, or is he just looking to give himself the best chance to win another title while he can still watch games without falling asleep in his seat?
In this sense, Whiteside’s trade (or lack thereof) is more like Carmelo Anthony‘s trade from the Denver Nuggets to the Knicks than the Houston debacle. Then-GM Masai Ujiri brilliantly extracted the max-value in a difficult situation, setting the standard for getting rid off a disgruntled superstar. Get picks, get young players and don’t rely on the lottery. The Nuggets would go on to enjoy a 57-win season, while Melo never led the Knicks to more than 54 wins.
Yes, it’s a very complex situation.
Of course, even if Riley DOES want to trade Whiteside, who would trade for him? He’s a great player, but how much are teams willing to give away for a pure rental? Could Whiteside put any teams over the top? Sure, but even if teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers (also known as the only teams that can hope to challenge the Warriors) did trade for Whiteside, only the Spurs could create enough cap-space in the Summer to re-sign Whiteside, but they’re already poised to set the record for point-differential, so adding a, shall we say, volatile player like Whiteside could upset the pristine balance they’ve struck.
At the end of the day, Whiteside is worth what the market dictates. If Riley will only give him up for multiple picks (the Heat are incapable of taking back much salary without including Deng, for example), but teams are unwilling to gamble assets for a rental (a rental that can only really put a handful of teams over the top), then it’s almost certain that Whiteside will remain with the Heat past the trade deadline.
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