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Heat benching Whiteside in big spots shows it may be time to move on

Pat Riley surely didn’t expect to be here so soon.

Barely a season and a half have passed since the Miami Heat made the re-signing of Hassan Whiteside a priority over keeping Dwyane Wade. It was a bold move, based on the belief that Whiteside, a 7-footer with great instincts and skills for shot-blocking and rebounding plus an unexplored potential for scoring, was worth a max contract.

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That’s what a team gives to its franchise player. That’s how you lock up the centerpiece of a new championship blueprint, one that has no room for a creaky icon like Wade, and really no need for him, either.

So here we are, with next Thursday’s NBA trade deadline closing in, and there are rumors and clues to suggest that it may be time to rethink the Heat’s entire philosophy on Whiteside.

The rumors involve Milwaukee reportedly looking for help at center generally and looking at Whiteside specifically.

Before anybody gets too far into working the complex contract math and figuring out who Miami might want in return, better take a look at the standings. The Bucks are one game back of the Heat in the Eastern Conference seedings, with four teams pretty much glued together from No. 4 to No. 7. These aren’t the kind of rivals that go out of their way to help each other.

Still, the trade deadline is all about speculation built on leaks and educated guesses, and if Whiteside’s name pops up once, it is sure to be heard again.

Now on to the clues that no Miami player is untouchable, even the highest-paid player on the team at $98 million over four years.

The first and freshest item on the evidence table is Wednesday’s 91-89 loss at Cleveland. Whiteside didn’t play one second in the fourth quarter of that one.

He wasn’t in foul trouble, and it’s not because the big fella has the same free-throw shooting flaw that kept former Heat giant Shaquille O’Neal on the bench late in tight games. Coach Erik Spoelstra simply chose to have his best offensive team on the floor with a prized opportunity to pass LeBron James and the Cavaliers for the No. 3 seed in the East.

How strange to think that the league’s defending rebound champion, a potentially dominant force with 18 double-doubles in 33 starts, would be removed from the lineup at crunch time in a game as important as Wednesday’s was, symbolically, psychologically and otherwise. It gets even stranger, though.

Eight times in Miami’s last 18 games Whiteside has played zero minutes in the fourth quarter. Kelly Olynyk, a better passer, and Bam Adebayo, a rookie, are the big men getting all the playing time down the stretch lately, and sometimes they are on the court together.

This is more than just matchups when Whiteside is averaging the least playing time of Miami’s starting five at roughly 26 minutes per game. This is a coaching trend, and there are good reasons for it.

The last time Whiteside played the entire fourth quarter was a dismal 89-88 home loss to Sacramento, one of the league’s true bottom-feeders, on Jan. 25. Hassan led the way in the final period with six of Miami’s 16 points, but 16 points of choppy offensive production are not enough to close anybody out.

In the next game Spo didn’t use Whiteside at all in the fourth as Miami beat Charlotte 95-91 and roared back from a sluggish start in the first three quarters.

“It’s whatever Coach Spo wants,” Whiteside said a few weeks back after he sat the bench for the entire fourth quarter of a loss to Chicago. “That’s what Coach Spo wants to do, that’s the lineup he thinks is going to get us the win. I can’t do nothing about it.”

These two have an interesting relationship. Whiteside said he talked with Spoelstra for an hour earlier this week about, among other things, become more of a leader. His response was a 25-point, 14-rebound monster of a performance in a win over Dallas.

Then the Heat went to Cleveland, a game they really needed, and the fourth-quarter freezeout was on again.

Miami is going to make the playoffs no matter what, but Spo is showing with his actions that he trusts other players to come through in the toughest situations rather than the 7-footer that Riley has built his latest championship dream around.

If that doesn’t change, the Heat might as well move Whiteside if they can and move on from Riley’s big-man priorities, the way the rest of the league has. In the postseason, where they are headed, it’s crunch time all the time, and there are no soft opponents suitable for the minimized participation of a max-contract investment.

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