LAS VEGAS — In the end, Pat Riley made his choice.
He stood with Erik Spoelstra.
After months, if not years, of seemingly attempting to negotiate a compromise.
In was in the wake of the 2018 playoffs, when Hassan Whiteside’s role had begun to dwindle, that Riley made an armistice a talking point regarding his shot-blocking center.
“The disconnect between he and Spo, that’s going to take a discussion between them and it’s going to take thought on the part of Coach and also Hassan,” Riley said in his season-ending comments. “How will Hassan transform his thinking _ 99% of it _ to get the kind of improvement that Spo wants so he can be effective? How can Spo transform his thinking when it comes to offense and defense or minutes or whatever?”
Then came this past season, which ended with Whiteside in a reserve role, playing behind Bam Adebayo, raising question about whether Whiteside and Adebayo could play alongside going forward in a down-sizing league.
Of that dilemma, Riley said in April of Spoelstra, “I can give him some help on it because I have a background in coaching.”
Riley also has a background in how sometimes separation supersedes mediation.
So now Whiteside is gone to the Portland Trail Blazers, in a deal that provided the added benefit of facilitating the acquisition of Jimmy Butler.
That made it a salary-cap deal.
And arguably a basketball deal, when it came to Whiteside’s post-driven approach and Spoelstra’s pace-and-space on offense and in-your face on defense, after at least giving in when he allowed Whiteside to drop back defending the pick-and-roll.
But it also was personal. Not in a bad way, or an angry way, but in a way where both coach and teammates grew frustrated with the inconsistency _ Whiteside the Heat’s best player on some nights, a complete non-factor on others.
And it wasn’t just Riley, in his role as Heat president, drawn into deeper inspection.
As one Eastern Conference scout noted this past week, it had become apparent that both breaking and breakup points had been reached.
“Getting rid of Whiteside was a long-term goal or even a short-term goal,” the scout said, requesting anonymity while discussing another team’s affairs. “So I think addition by subtraction there, regardless of his talent. And they get a serviceable guy in return in (Meyers) Leonard. And they were going to Adebayo anyway.
“So in terms of chemistry and even in terms of the modern-day NBA, Leonard showed late in the year and then in the playoffs that he’s an improved player who is a stretch five. So that gives them an alternative to Adebayo, who is obviously not a stretch five. So I think both chemistry-wise and even on the court, it’s a plus. When I saw that, I said, ‘They must be so relieved.’ They actually found a taker.”
It was a needed exhale, not because Whiteside was a bad teammate or a bad guy. He was neither. He enjoyed his teammates and relished the South Florida lifestyle. He made sure both of those points were expressed in his farewell Instagram post.
It’s just that too much had changed from when he signed that four-year, $98 million contract in the opening hours of 2016 free agency. The salary became an albatross when it came to expectations. The timing of the move cast further question about the Heat not prioritizing Dwyane Wade. And it well may have been done more with the intention of making the Heat a more attractive option for Kevin Durant when his 2016 free agency was in play.
Yet to cast the parting as some sort of Spoelstra power play also is misguided. Because of the Heat’s salary-cap situation, Whiteside assuredly would have been gone a year from now, anyway. So the Heat simply turned the clock forward, moved into something more comfortable for their coach and erased the tension.