A Brief History of Miami Heat Centers — Was Hassan Whiteside Doomed to Fail?
The Heat have a tenuous relationship with fielding true centers, and Whiteside is just another drop in the bucket of unfortunate post player experiments.
I am not going to tell you that the Miami Heat won the 2019 NBA Draft. While New Orleans danced to the tune of Zion Williamson’s arrival, Spike Lee applauded the addition of RJ Barrett to New York and hearts melted as Coby White endeared himself to the city of Chicago, Miami was one of many teams silently watching from the shadows.
Selecting Tyler Herro at no. 14 was as safe a lottery pick as you can get. The 2010s tradition of perimeter players who can sprint from corner to corner while nailing and contesting 3s is well established in Herro. He’s a 6-foot-5, Kentucky fried version of Duncan Robinson, whom Miami added to its roster via two-way contract in 2018. In college he shot 36 percent on nearly five 3s per game while nailing 94 percent from the free-throw line.
The Heat also added KZ Okpala to their ranks on draft night, exchanging three future second-round picks with the Indiana Pacers for the forward. A two-year man from Stanford, Okpala is as close of a fit to a future Heat lifer as you can get. In college, Okpala did everything right, from playing honest defense to shooting 37 percent from 3 and earning All-Pac-12 First Team honors. He’s a malleable talent who could quickly slot into Miami’s equally malleable rotation.
As good as these picks were for Miami’s current, salary cap space-less situation, I won’t tell you that they were the best decisions. What I can say for sure is that while the Heat reveled in the opportunity to add players primed for a crash course in Heat Culture, one of Miami’s current talents was looking to undo his four-year stint in South Beach.
On June 21, Hassan Whiteside announced that he would opt into his $27 million player option to rejoin the Miami Heat, though he did so without a trade request. This turn of events is a surprise—Whiteside had regularly expressed his unhappiness with head coach Erik Spoelstra’s usage of him of late, as his minutes per game dropped from 32.6 in 2016-17 to a paltry 23.3 in 2018-19.
At one point, Whiteside was deemed a max contract player, hence the four-year 98$ million deal he inked in the summer of 2016. He was a monstrous low-post force who thrived on finishing Dwyane Wade-assisted lobs and expelling opponent’s shots from the rim. The art of the paint-anchored center was weaker than ever when Whiteside appeared on the scene in 2015. Players like Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins, while sturdily built, had already started to incorporate the long ball and face up play into their repertoire.
Whiteside was a dinosaur by NBA standards and played like one. He was unstoppable in his first season with Miami, recording his first career triple-double, with blocks as he liked to remind everyone he could at the time, in just his 18th game with the Heat. He valiantly challenged centers like Joakim Noah and Andre Drummond, guys who had been well integrated into their respective teams, like he had been studying their games for the last decade.
But two years into his shiny new contract, and Whiteside underwent a tonal shift. He did away with the jovial post-game interviews, and instead focused on calling into question his minutes and usage. After Miami missed the playoffs in 2018, Whiteside voiced his frustrations, claiming that he wasn’t given the chance to continually dominate as he had two years prior.
“Man, it's annoying, you know. Why we matching up?” Whiteside said. We got one of the best centers in the league," Whiteside said. "Why we matching up? A lot of teams don't have a good center."
His lofty view of himself was largely Miami’s doing. When president Pat Riley signed him to a max offer sheet in 2016, he did so while temporarily ending the team’s relationship with Wade, who signed with the Chicago Bulls on a more lucrative $47 million two-year deal than the two-year, $40 million the Heat offered. Miami effectively told Wade that at that point of his career he wasn’t worth more to the team than Whiteside, Dion Waiters and Tyler Johnson, all of whom signed new contracts or extensions the summer Wade walked. Miami’s vote of confidence gave Whiteside superpowers, as he became the de facto leader of a team in need of a super star.
However, as confident as Miami felt about Whiteside in 2016, the team’s history with centers suggests it had an ulterior motive all along. Since 2006, the Riley administration in Miami have, more or less, espoused centers, seeing those players as a means to an end, rather than as high-profile contributors. It’s why Shaquille O’Neal left, why Eddy Curry and Michael Doleac were acquired, and why draft selections like Dexter Pittman and Bol Bol were quickly pushed out of the team’s plans.
Hassan Whiteside’s tenure was doomed to fail. It’s just a wonder it didn’t happen sooner.
When the Miami Heat traded Shaquille O’Neal to the Phoenix Suns in 2008, it came as the Big Fella’s usefulness had run its course. In the lead up to the swap, which brought Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to Florida, O’Neal had a decline in productivity. Shaq’s scoring had dipped to 14 points per game, the lowest of his career, while he committed more fouls than ever at 4.1 a night. This was compounded by bouts with injury and made for a perfect storm to foretell his exit. According to his book Shaq Uncut, Riley used the leverage of his injuries, numbers, and even O’Neal’s divorce filing as the impetus for the trade.
“I had this injury that we couldn't figure out and Pat started telling people that Shaq's faking it, he's getting a divorce, we've got a bad record, so he doesn't feel like playing anymore. When I got to Phoenix, the general manager there, Steve Kerr, told me Riley said I was "faking" the injury. I heard it other places, too.”
And like that, O’Neal’s championship tenure was over. Shaq never really hit his stride after that—he won the 2009 All-Star MVP, which he shared with Kobe Bryant, but failed to capture the spotlight that he had in Los Angeles or his first year in Miami.
For the Heat, Shaq’s departure was the start of a cycle of centers rifling through Riley’s system. Jermaine O’Neal—no relation—became the focal point of Miami’s front line, joining the Heat in Feb. 2009. He played a season more with the Heat, helping them to the 2010 NBA playoffs only to leave that summer as his career transitioned into a noticeable decline.
And while that same summer marks the start of the LeBron James-Chris Bosh-Dwyane Wade era in Miami, the team continued to strikeout with finding the right fit at the five. The 35-year-old Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who followed James from Cleveland, earned the starting spot in 2011 and split minutes with the 35-year-old Erick Dampier in a season that would culminate in a losing NBA Finals effort against the Dallas Mavericks.
A year later, Joel Anthony becomes the go-to center, though Spoelstra’s flirtation with Bosh at center relegated Anthony to just 21 minutes per game. Anthony is an interesting case study in Miami Heat centers in that he almost never was one. The 6-foot-9 shot blocking defender, affectionately called “The Warden,” was barely a basketball player. In 2011, ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh published a telling piece on Anthony’s history with the game.
Anthony didn’t pick up a basketball until age 16. Even then, he learned the game not through rote practice and high school coaching, but through a book. NBA Power Conditioning, which featured the Heat’s Alonzo Mourning on the cover, was Anthony’s insider look into basketball as a craft. It served him well—Spoelstra remembers having to forbid Anthony from practicing in the offseason as he rarely gave his body a day off.
Still, even with his blue-collar work ethic, Anthony was never more than a sideshow defender for the Heat. Though he averaged at least a block for Miami through five seasons, it wasn’t until his fourth season that he made at least 50 percent of his shots from the floor. Even then, he did so on fewer three shots each night.
Anthony’s role dipped even further into obscurity in 2013, when Bosh became the full-time small ball center who helped lead Miami’s Game 6 and 7 comebacks over the San Antonio Spurs to win the franchise’s third titles. 2014 was much the same—barring the championship—as Anthony and his fellow true centers fell further to the back of the depth charts. The Heat even went as far as adding injury-prone Greg Oden to the roster in a move that saw the former no. 1 draft pick as more of a security blanket than a real contributor. This leads the franchise into 2015 and the acquisition of the undrafted Whiteside who was yet another progenitor of Miami’s struggle to employ centers.
If Miami honestly looks to trade Whiteside this year, it will end another Heat center’s tenure in relative disgrace. For as much as Miami prides itself on employing traditional big men, the team has been shifting away from such players for some time now. The new nucleus of Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo are the positionally fluid, multifaceted players Miami has revered for so long. Like Rashard Lewis and Shane Battier before them, and Tyler Herro and KZ Okpala after, Miami’s current core supports the team’s preferred style—position-less ball fueled by a defensive tenacity and offensive shapeshifting.
Since they were drafted, Richardson, Winslow and Adebayo all morphed their games into elite versions of themselves. Richardson learned how to shoot off the catch, Winslow became a point forward and Adebayo figured out how to run the break. Their development is more than the Heat can boast for Whiteside, who, while still capable of post domination, forced the Heat into playing a slower, antiquated pace.
Whether he is traded or not, Whiteside’s Miami Heat tenure will likely end by 2020. If the team thought he were amenable and available at the right price, Miami would surely keep him around in perpetuity, wielding his 7-foot-7 wingspan on an as needed basis. But Whiteside, unlike the Doleacs, and Currys and Anthonys before him knows his worth. He believes himself a contributor capable of impacting the game given a proper chance.
I can’t tell you that the Miami Heat were actively persecuting Whiteside. The team and the player tried to make things work. Whiteside was a surprising talent, who fit the mold for everything Miami looked for in a starting center. Against guys like Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid and Jarrett Allen, Whiteside was thought to give Miami a fighting chance on the low block. Spoelstra and company gave Whiteside every opportunity to thrive. At times he responded with not-so-subtle subtweets and post-game quotes, and other times he gave a ferocious effort which brought question to why he ever struggled in the first place.
But if history tells us anything, Hassan Whiteside was doomed to fail in Miami. And now, it’s just a matter of time before he does.