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Since spending two years out of the NBA from 2012 to 2014, center Hassan Whiteside has been an imposing force in the paint for the Miami Heat. He led the NBA in blocked shots (3.7 per game) during the 2015-16 campaign and led the league in rebounds (14.1) last season. This season, however, Whiteside has seen his minutes drop to 25.7 per game—a steep decline from the 32.6 mark he posted a year ago and his lowest mark since 2014-15, when he started just 32 games on the heels of his hiatus from the NBA. Whiteside hasn't complained about his decrease in playing time, but when asked about it, he made it clear that it has been a frustrating change.
“I’m not going to lie. It’s frustrating,” Whiteside told Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. “It’s nothing I can really do about it. Just keep a positive attitude. Coach is going to try to do what’s best for the team. He just wants to win. If I am playing 10 less minutes than I played last year, there isn’t much I can do about it.”
Whiteside's decreased playing time makes sense when considering the moves that Miami made over the offseason. The team drafted 6-foot-10 Bam Adebayo 14th overall in June and signed seven-footer Kelly Olynyk to a four-year, $50 million deal. Last year, the only members of the Heat who were taller than 6-foot-9 and played more than 22 games were Whiteside and Willie Reed, who was 10th on the team in total minutes and averaged just 5.3 points per game. This year, the Heat have much more talent in the frontcourt with their top three players in Player Efficiency Rating (Whiteside, Adebayo, and Olynyk) all listed at 6-foot-10 or taller.
Whiteside understands that the front office's vision for the team has played a part in his lower minute totals. “[General manager] Pat Riley drafted a center [Bam Adebayo],” Whiteside said. “Kelly Olynyk, they gave him a big contract. That’s what they wanted—they wanted more people in the frontcourt.”
Less time on the court has taken away from a season in which Whiteside is playing perhaps the most efficient basketball of his career. Though his per-game numbers have mostly dropped across the board, Whiteside's per-36-minute averages of 19.9 points, 16.8 rebounds, and 1.2 assists are career highs, and the sometimes-foul-prone big man's 3.2 fouls per 36 minutes are tied for a career low.
There is surely an argument that the Heat should be giving Whiteside more playing time, but given the money they invested in Olynyk and their desire to develop Adebayo, there may not be an obvious way to do so.
Jackson reported that Whiteside has mentioned playing more minutes alongside Adebayo as “one potential solution that appeals to him.” Whether those two players would mesh as a frontcourt pairing, however, is questionable at best. Whiteside and Adebayo have played together for just 62 minutes this season, per nbawowy!, with troublesome results. When the two big men are on the court together, the Heat have an offensive rating of 92.1, down from the 105.4 mark the team has as a whole. The defense improves slightly with Whiteside-Adebayo lineups, with a 103.9 defensive rating as opposed to the team's mark of 106.3, but the drop in offensive efficiency outweighs the defensive improvement.
Perhaps more minutes together could improve the chemistry between the two big men and lead to more efficient play, but their similar playing styles seem to suggest otherwise. Whiteside takes 77 percent of his shots from within 10 feet of the basket, while Adebayo takes a whopping 83.8 percent of his shots from within that range.
In today's NBA, floor spacing is crucial, and it can be tough to keep up offensively with two big men who can't stretch opposing defenses out to the perimeter. Take a look at some of the league's best offenses. For the Houston Rockets, center Clint Capela takes 97.9 percent of his shots from within 10 feet, but power forward Ryan Anderson takes just 17.9 percent of his shots from within that range. In Golden State, Warriors center Zaza Pachulia takes 81.8 percent of his shots from within 10 feet, whereas power forward Draymond Green's mark is 47.3 percent. You'd be hard-pressed to find a potent offense that relies heavily on lineups that employ two big men who don't spread the floor.
Granted, a lineup including both Whiteside and Adebayo has stifling defensive potential—the two centers lead the Heat in defensive rating among players who have played more than 17 games. Perhaps the Heat could buck the current NBA trend with a pair of formidable, defensive-minded centers, but recent history doesn't provide much hope for that.
Giving Whiteside more minutes alongside Olynyk makes much more sense on paper. Olynyk makes 36.8 percent of his three-point shots and takes 42 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Unsurprisingly, Whiteside-Olynyk lineups have been effective offensively over 154 minutes, posting a 105.4 offensive rating—the exact mark the team has as a whole. The dynamic of a Whiteside-Olynyk pairing is somewhat similar to that of the aforementioned Capela-Anderson pairing.
The problem is that the defense goes in the tank when Whiteside and Olynyk play together—lineups with those two players have posted a 113.4 defensive rating. It stands to reason that that number would come down eventually, as Olynyk's defensive rating on the season is 105, and Whiteside is a great defensive player. But as of now, it's not working.
Whiteside is undoubtedly talented enough to be playing more than 25.7 minutes per game, but considering the current makeup of the Heat roster, that relatively low number of minutes may be what's best for the team as a whole for the time being. Hopefully, Whiteside understands this and continues to dominate on a per-minute basis as the 30-26 Heat (eighth place in the Eastern Conference) make a push for the playoffs.