It wasa fun second half of the season for Hassan Whiteside and the Heat. Even if the year didn’t end with a playoff appearance, Whiteside and his teammates can look back on this season fondly. In the last 50 games, the young center showedwhy Pat Riley was willing to build around him for the future.
Prior to Miami's13-game winning streakin January, the Heat languished and looked like they wouldn’t get close to the playoff chase. After another tough loss and several tense situations, a moment of levity would come to define the 2016-17 Heat season.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra remembers the practice well. It was after a loss against the Bucks on Jan.13, dropping Miami to at 11-30 overall, and the team had four days before its game versus the surging Rockets.
“I was getting after team in film session about defensive rotations, rebounding, hell, everything to be honest,” Spoelstra told Sporting News. “We weren’t very good. Next thing I know Whiteside gets up and says, ‘we’d still beat any team you played on,’ to which I said, ‘barely.’We all laughed.”
Spoelstra played college ball at the University of Portland, and professionally for Tus Herten in the German league. It wasn’t a stretch to sayWhiteside’s joke was accurate, but it was also time to get in gear. At first, the 13-game streak was a novelty for a team that had only won 11games prior. But the Heat kept smiling and laughing, while still winning games.
Whiteside had plenty of experience in finding the laughs in darkness during his days with the Kings. Fans knew the talent was there, but the Kings organization wasn’t sure he’d become anywhere near the double-double machine he is today.
“We had to learn to laugh to keep from crying,” Whiteside said. “When we stayed losing in Sac, it made me stronger. I decided that no matter how bad things looked, I’d always find ways to smile. It may not seem like I smile much on the court, but I laugh all the time off it.”
A quick look at Whiteside’s social media accounts showshim joking with teammates and team officials.
“I love taking people on my journey,” Whiteside said. “I’ve come a long way and have even further to go. I’m so happy to share some smiles with my fans.”
Great team win against a tough Cavs team missing my brothers/teammates Johnson & Johnson..... no shampoo
— Hassan Whiteside (@youngwhiteside) March 7, 2017
Don't think those laughs mean Whiteside isn't serious about his game. Heledthe NBA in rebounding with a 14.1 boards per game andalso pouredin a career-high 17.0points a contest. While his blocks per game dropped from 3.7 in 2015-16to 2.1 per game this season, he still had a major impact on the defensive end, as opposing players shot 2.1 percent worse against him overall and 10.5 percent worse on field goals within six feet of the basket, according to NBA.com's tracking statistics.
“Leading the league in anything is tough,” Whiteside said. “Last year, it was blocks. This year, it’s rebounding. Just having two big things that you want your center to do is pretty special.”
It's easy to forget that Whiteside had only started 75 games combined in his previous four seasons in Sacramento and Miami. He came to the Heat with a reputation as a troubled star. Now he’s a key figure in the Spoelstra'slineup, starting 77 games this season, and he's quickly become afavorite of his teammates.
“Whitey is hilarious,” Heat point guard GoranDragic told Sporting News. “He keeps us loose and makes it light. He’s always got jokes. When a player of his talent level is down to earth, it makes so much easier for the team.”
It works. The Heat wereone of only three teams to win at least 29 games in the second half of the season. Oh, the other two squads? The class of the Western Conference, the Warriors and Spurs. Both of those teams are expected to have deep playoff runs. The Heat will be looking ahead to next season now, but the future is bright with Whiteside at the helm.
“He’s got all the tools to be a perennial All-Star in this league,” longtime Heat forwardUdonis Haslem told Sporting News. “The boy is special, he just has to stay focused and it will be all good.”
Considering that Haslem has played with the likes of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade, we should take him at his word. Whiteside will have several opportunities to prove the veteran right over the next few years — and there will probably be a few jokes along the way.