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The Heat Go All In on Hassan Whiteside

Will Miami’s max-contract gamble pay off?

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Hassan Whiteside was always going to make this quick. Kevin Durant’s gravitational pull will keep teams (and fellow free agents) in orbit until he makes his decision, but Whiteside is untethered: to the pecking order we’ve established for free agents this offseason; to the body of work traditionally necessary for a maximum contract; to the notions of how stardom is born in the NBA.

According to a short announcement made via The Players’ Tribune and Snapchat, Whiteside has agreed to return to the Miami Heat. The deal is reportedly a four-year, $98 million contract. Whiteside will go from making a tick over $980,000 last season to more than $24 million annually over the next four years. It will be the most stunning pay spike in the history of the league.

When the Four Horsemen of the NBA Apocalypse strode into July 2010 to completely desecrate the league’s topography, one rider took the early lead. “I feel great, really, about being a pioneer,” Amar’e Stoudemire said at his introductory presser in New York. “It’s a situation where no one wanted to make that first move, and I felt confident enough to take that first step.” It was a necessary step. From 2005 to 2010, between recovering from microfracture knee surgery and a procedure to repair his partially detached retina, Stoudemire missed a total of 111 games over the course of five seasons. Stoudemire couldn’t wait for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh to make their free-agent decisions; he needed the financial security immediately.

The situation is a little less dire for Whiteside — who, improbably, had risen to become one of the very top free agents in this class — though no less frantic. After playing for eight teams in three countries over the course of four years, and after spending two seasons with the Heat playing for the bare minimum, securing big money as quickly as possible seemed like the only logical move. But now, all the hypotheticals that were posed leading up to free agency — namely, whether Whiteside’s play will be affected by the overwhelming influx of income — have become actual questions that require real answers. There aren’t many precedents for what we’re seeing with Whiteside, though two come to mind: In 2005, Bobby Simmons parlayed one breakout season with the Clippers at $825,000 into a five-year, $47 million deal with the Bucks; in 2012, Jeremy Lin went from making $762,000 to earning a three-year, $25 million contract with the Rockets. But adding up the average yearly salaries of both Simmons and Lin still wouldn’t get you to Whiteside’s monumental figure, and that’s after factoring in inflation. Which is all to say: This is a huge fucking gamble.

Still, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the Heat made Whiteside their top offseason priority. He is one of the most absurd physical specimens the game has seen in a while. Outside of DeAndre Jordan, there might not be another player in the league with a greater catch radius than Whiteside. Though he lacks Jordan’s jetpack explosiveness, Whiteside’s frame, freakish 7-foot-7 wingspan, and fluidity allow him to do what few others in the history of the NBA have been able to do at a high level.

He can catch balls that others can’t. He can alter shots at angles that others can’t reach. And he can seize an entire pocket of real estate down in the paint by simply stretching his arms wide.

(Now, I’d like to take a brief moment of silence out of respect for the Dallas Mavericks, who, for the second year in a row, have lost out on the kind of hyperathletic, rim-running behemoth that they turned into a modern archetype with Tyson Chandler during their 2011 championship run. Thank you. Pray for them.)

Whiteside leverages his physical superiority simply by existing on the floor, but there is more he can do than just stand out there, tall and talented. He has the ability to change how both the Heat and their opponent navigate the court, and as part of Miami’s long-term future, that’s his next step. The comparisons to Jordan are a perfect starting point, and the numbers they put up in their age-26 seasons are remarkably similar, save for usage rate. Having a 7-footer diving toward the rim as a lob threat every single time down the floor is exhausting for defenses, and opens up passageways for perimeter options. Jordan plays the role to perfection, and is frankly more impactful on the offensive end than the defensive end, despite his reputation. Whiteside will need an offensive soulmate similar to what Jordan has in Chris Paul. As far as efficacy in the pick-and-roll, Whiteside was second only to DeAndre among players who served as the roll man on at least 100 possessions last season, scoring an incredible 1.34 points per possession. He spent a lot of time in the pick-and-roll last year in Miami, but to maximize his effectiveness, it’ll have to take up an even greater portion of his diet. Because when left to his own devices, Whiteside will try to score in the post, and he’s awful at it. Among the 47 players who were used in at least 150 post-up possessions last season, Whiteside was one of the five least efficient at scoring, and the third most liable to turn the ball over, largely because he hadn’t realized the merits of passing until the Heat were in the playoffs a few months ago. He’s been playing basketball professionally since 2010.

Whiteside will be treated like a project, and in many ways, this deal feels a lot like Miami signing an overgrown draft prospect. But he’s already 27. His titanesque frame suggests stardom, but he still has fundamental errors in his play that overshadow his net-positive impact on the court. In a league that requires players to be able to defend in multiple ways, Whiteside remains largely one-dimensional. He protects the rim about as well as any one player can, but take one step outside of his domain and Whiteside’s focus isn’t as acute — which would be excusable if he weren’t so physically gifted. If he approached defense when being lured away from the basket the way he approached the remote possibility of blocking a shot, we could have the makings of a true defensive maven (that, or a multifaceted fouling machine). And while his raw rebounding numbers are impressive, he leaves many on the table due to lack of effort; the Heat were a better defensive rebounding team last season when he was off the floor. A lot of these issues are about engagement, and that’s where a large chunk of the concern lies: If he couldn’t home in as a player fighting for a real contract, what is his effort going to look like now that he has one?

Fortunately, Whiteside is sticking with the only system that has ever done right by him. He mentioned in the lead-up to free agency that he was going to approach this process like a businessman, but ultimately loyalty did mean something. Erik Spoelstra knows how to utilize Whiteside’s awesome talent, and for all we know, Spo might be the only one. But Whiteside alone won’t change fortunes for the better; he’ll need more around him to unlock his potential as a situational superstar. Miami’s finances are vulnerable after Whiteside’s max agreement, though, and teams are starting to smell blood: Wade, who had long been considered a shoo-in to return, now looks like an actual player on the market.

In this new economy, offering a maximum contract was the only way to secure a player as physically singular as Whiteside. It was easy to appreciate his breakout past two seasons when there were no stakes. Things are different now. Whiteside’s value finally has been established. But it remains unclear whether he’ll make it all worthwhile.