Hassan Whiteside had a big game and the Miami Heat won.
That wouldn’t have seemed so conflicting a year ago.
Whiteside is having perhaps the best season of his career now, in his first year with the Portland Trail Blazers. The Heat, at 26-10, are off to their best start since the final season of the LeBron James era in Miami. And on Sunday night, it was Whiteside vs. the Heat for the first time since the trade that sent him to the Trail Blazers this past summer.
Whiteside had 21 points and 18 rebounds. The Heat won anyway, 122-111.
“It’s been surreal,” Whiteside said of his return to Miami. “It feels so different, you know? Even coming into the building a different way. You know, I didn’t know which way to go. I’ve never even been in this away locker room. I didn’t know what it even looked like.”
He got booed early and often by Heat fans, and Whiteside seemed genuinely confused by that postgame. He wasn’t always the most popular Heat player — despite winning the league rebounding title one season in Miami and winning the blocked shots title another year — and was often criticized over a perception that he wasn’t always giving his all.
Last summer, Whiteside shouted “We’ve got shooters” on social media after the trade to Portland. Heat fans perceived that as a shot at their team, and serenaded him with that same chant in the latter moments of Sunday’s win.
“I didn’t really realize they felt it was a diss,” Whiteside said.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he still remembers a 90-minute meeting with Whiteside several years ago inside a lounge at the team’s arena. From that meeting, the Heat decided that Whiteside was worth trying to resurrect after years of him bouncing around internationally and in what’s now called the G League.
“I developed a strong relationship with Hassan because I’ve arguably spent as much time with him as any other player and I love his story,” Spoelstra said. “I really do. I love guys that have to overcome something or people discount them.”
Whiteside hasn’t had to overcome much this season. He’s playing exceptionally well.
The NBA started officially recording blocked shots in 1973 and since then only seven players have finished a full season averaging what Whiteside is averaging now — 15.9 points, 13.9 rebounds, 2.8 blocked shots.
It’s pretty much a who’s-who of big men: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (he did it three times), Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Bill Walton, Dwight Howard, Elvin Hayes and Bob McAdoo.
Whiteside picked a perfect time to be in their company, given that this is a contract year. His $98 million, four-year deal that the Heat gave him with no reservation is about to run out. And he has been markedly better in every category this season.
Points, up. Shooting, up. Free throw shooting, up an astounding 32% — he was one of the NBA’s worst last season at 45% and is up to 77% this season. Blocks, up. Minutes, up.
He says it is a byproduct of more opportunity. Whiteside wanted to play more minutes in Miami. Portland is giving him a workload to his liking.
“I’m just out there longer,” Whiteside said. “I’m just out there playing 30 minutes a game. I never felt like my production changed. You guys know better than me. You all can run the per-36 minutes. You can run it every year for my NBA career and it’s going to pretty much stay around the same.”
He’s right. Starting with the 2014-15 season, Whiteside’s per-36 averages have ranged basically between 18 to 20 points per game, 15 to 18 rebounds per game.
“People here in Miami know what he is capable of doing,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “And he’s been doing that for us.”
Being traded last summer — it was a four-team trade, the principal moves being ones that brought Jimmy Butler from Philadelphia to Miami, Meyers Leonard from Portland to Miami, sent Josh Richardson from Miami to Philadelphia and Whiteside from Miami to Portland — reminded Whiteside of the business side of the game.
So is the noise that’s percolating now. Whiteside is in the final year of his $98 million, four-year deal that he signed with Miami. Expiring contracts, like his, tend to be attractive trade chips. The Blazers are only 15-22 this season and could be looking to deal, and have been one of the teams believed to have interest in Cleveland’s Kevin Love.
Whiteside’s deal would seem to work if Cleveland wanted to move Love to Portland. If Whiteside is hearing any whispers of what may or may not happen, he insists that he’s not being affected.
“All I can control is what I can control,” Whiteside said. “I just play.”