The Heat guaranteed Whiteside a fortune, and he’s now starting to realize that the team’s fortunes — with Dwyane Wade now in Chicago and questions surrounding Chris Bosh’ health — are on his copious shoulders. It’s a challenge he says that he’ll embrace, insisting he’s still fueled by so many teams passing on him.
"Each month he’s been with us, he’s gotten better," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "And I think that’s a great statement to make. For two straight years, he’s gotten better. Seems like each week, each game that he’s played, he’s understanding his role. He’s playing with a great motor right now."
He’s also coming off a season the likes of which no NBA center had managed in nearly a quarter-century.
Whiteside averaged 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and a league-best-by-far 3.7 blocks per game last season. The last player to finish a season averaging so much in each of those three categories was Hakeem Olajuwon, in 1993-94.
In a league where only nine players — DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis, Pau Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, Julius Randle and Whiteside — averaged a points-rebounds double-double last season, a truly elite big man is a rarity these days.
"He is going to be an essential part of what we do," Heat president Pat Riley said.
He was one of seven "big men" to get deals this summer averaging $16 million or more in free agency. Whiteside, Drummond, Howard, Al Horford and Joakim Noah got deals that will pay them a combined $682 million over the coming seasons. Timofey Mozgov and Ian Mahinmi each got $64 million over the next four years — and they have career averages of 6.9 and 5.1 points, respectively.
In Atlanta’s case, for example, giving Howard $70.5 million over three years came down to dollars and sense.
"I still think that players like Dwight," Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said, "have a huge impact on what you do."
Whiteside insists that he isn’t just a back-to-the-basket player. He’s lobbying each day to have freedom to bring the ball up after rebounds, is working on improving his outside game, even tried to put on a 3-point shooting display for Spoelstra after one recent practice.
But he knows the Heat need him to dominate around the rim, on both ends.
And that’s where he thinks he can separate himself from any center out there.
"I can score and I can defend," Whiteside said. "You’ve got guys at the (center) position that can score but they can’t guard a shoebox. And you’ve got guys who are really great defenders but they couldn’t score on a shoebox. I just want to be balanced."
Whiteside’s meteoric rise is a story almost like none other in the NBA. The Heat signed him as a free agent a month into the 2014-15 season, doing so in part out of desperation and in part because he captured their attention by dominating a game against the team’s NBA Development League affiliate in Sioux Falls. Not even two years later, he’s got a max deal.
His game, he said, doesn’t mimic one past player. He’s taking pieces from several.
"I wanted to take Hakeem’s shot-blocking abilities," Whiteside said. "I wanted to take Kevin Garnett’s face-up jumper. I wanted to take Tim Duncan’s bank shot. I wanted to take Kobe Bryant’s work ethic. And Shaq’s aggressiveness."
Whiteside was the featured guest at a Heat promotional event for fans on Sunday, one of those meet-and-greet appearances where some autographs get signed and selfies get taken. Whiteside was pulling up to the arena and slowed down when he saw about 200 people lined up on a sidewalk, wondering why they were all there.
It took him a moment to realize that the fans — many of whom wore Whiteside jerseys, and one who wrote Whiteside’s name and No. 21 on his biceps and wanted to flex for the Heat center — were there for him.
Only 23 months after he first hit Miami, the Heat will go as he goes now.
"It takes a little getting used to," Whiteside said. "But I know what the challenge is, and I’m ready."