Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City to join the Golden State Warriors was the most landscape-shifting decision of the offseason, but Dwyane Wade choosing to leave the Miami Heat for a homecoming tour with the Chicago Bulls might have been the single most stunning move of the NBA summer.
For 13 seasons, Wade stood as the standard-bearer in South Beach. He’s the Heat’s all-time leader in a slew of statistical categories, including points, assists, steals, minutes and games played. He’s arguably the greatest pro athlete in Miami sports history; Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino could claim a level of individual success that rivaled Wade’s excellence, but Wade helped bring three NBA championships to Biscayne Bay. And yet, the most decorated Heat player ever walked away, and the team let him, setting the stage for what promises to be an emotional and somewhat awkward return on Thursday night, when Wade’s Bulls enter AmericanAirlines Arena to take on a Miami squad now led by Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow.
After Chicago’s Monday night blowout of the Orlando Magic, Wade told ESPN’s Nick Friedell that he’s focused less on making Miami fans understand his exit than on appreciating all that transpired during his 13 years in a Heat uniform:
“If you’re not in this business, it’s hard to understand,” Wade said Monday, three nights before his first game against the Heat since his departure. “But I don’t even want them to understand — I want them to appreciate what we accomplished together. I want them to cheer for their team that they have, support those players over there that’s giving their all. Support the future of the organization and be thankful that we all was able to experience an unbelievable ride together. That’s all you can do.”
Whether or not Wade wants fans to understand, though, it seems clear that he wants to be understood — which is why he sat down with Vincent Goodwill of Comcast SportsNet Chicago to discuss, at length, why he left Miami:
“I thought it was an opportunity I would be there forever, but s–t happens,” Wade said in an exclusive interview with CSNChicago.com after the Bulls’ 112-80 win over the Orlando Magic on Monday night “And when s–t happens, you gotta be prepared to (move on). I found out very quickly that this is a business.”
Wade had grown intimately familiar with that fact over the years.
First came the physical sacrifices. He spent two remarkable seasons at the peak of his powers carrying an understaffed Heat team with limited reinforcements, as team president Pat Riley chose to keep his powder dry to preserve salary-cap space for the free-agent class of 2010.
Then, when that blockbuster summer arrived, came the financial sacrifices. Wade took less than the top dollar he could have commanded as an All-NBA-caliber free agent in consecutive negotiations in pursuit of team success — first to create enough room to fit LeBron James and Chris Bosh under the salary cap, and then to help keep the Heat competitive after James left and Riley gave Bosh a five-year maximum-salaried contract — before taking a one-year, $20 million deal after months of wrangling over a multi-year pact.
This summer, Riley and the Heat made it clear that despite Wade’s excellent 2015-16 turn, which saw him play more than 70 games for the first time in five years and lead Miami in scoring and assists during the postseason, the team’s priorities lay elsewhere — namely, in retaining emerging two-way interior force Whiteside, which they did, and in trying to land Durant, which they didn’t. That left the 34-year-old Wade feeling like an afterthought addition to the shopping list, which, as you might expect, didn’t sit too well with a proud 12-time All-Star. More from Wade’s chat with Goodwill:
“Definitely,” said Wade when asked if he felt a certain way about where he fit on the pecking order. “The biggest thing, is all about the way you communicate. I understand this business just as good as anybody. But it’s a way, someone like me, a way you communicate what you’re trying to do, and how you’re gonna do it and what it looks like for me.” […]
“That’s it. When you get respect, that’s what you get back,” Wade said. “I’ve given nothing but respect. I feel like a lot of things in this world and this league are mishandled from the notion of communication. That’s it.
“At the end of the day, I talked to those guys and I told them, ‘It’s free agency. I understand y’all have a job to do, and I have a job to do as well.’ I let it be known I was going to be a free agent and I wasn’t waiting by the phone for them to call me.” […]
“And I did my homework because I understand Hassan was a priority, which he should’ve been,” Wade said. “I understood that they were trying to go out and get KD, because that’s something they wanted to do. But I had to look out for myself and put myself in a situation that I wanted to be in, if things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to work out and they didn’t.”
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That, of course, might have been Riley’s plan all along — to shed crocodile tears over a legend’s departure while secretly breathing a sigh of relief over side-stepping the need to pay a new-salary-cap premium for Wade’s past performance, and avoiding a deal that larded up Miami’s cap sheet at the expense of the flexibility to engineer new free-agent coups in the summers of 2017 and 2018.
The circumstances surrounding Bosh’s likely exit from the team (if not necessarily from the league) and potentially from its balance sheet differ drastically, but the endpoint is ultimately the same. Riley’s responsibility first and foremost remains to the Heat organization, and to doing what’s necessary in the short term to create a sustainably competitive on-court product for the long term.
“No apologies, no regrets – except for one – no tears,” Riley said in September, according to Tom D’Angelo of the Palm Beach Post. “Good luck. We move on. Players come and go, but franchises move on.”
The Heat have struggled some in their adjustment to post-Wade life, opening the new campaign 2-4 and carrying the league’s No. 29-ranked offense entering Thursday. The Bulls have been a bit of a rollercoaster ride over the week’s first fortnight, heading into Miami at 4-4, but they do boast a top-five attack led by the scoring of Wade (a shade under 17 points and three assists in 29 minutes per game) and Jimmy Butler (23.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 33 minutes per), solid interior play from the tandem of Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez, and steady playmaking from point guard Rajon Rondo.
Wade, too, has moved on. After drilling four 3-pointers, including the game-winner, to lift Chicago to victory on opening night, he told Shams Charania of The Vertical that he “closed the Miami chapter right there.”
It won’t be over completely, though, until he takes the court on Thursday in front of tens of thousands of fans who once cheered his every move, this time — for the first time — wearing the colors of the enemy. From Goodwill:
“For me, I don’t know how many more years I have left to play this game. It’s about doing what I want to do at this moment. Not saying I didn’t do what I wanted, I always did what I wanted, but it’s continuing to have the ability to do that. And I did. I put myself first for once. I didn’t say, hey, I waited on Miami to come to me. At the end of the day, I could’ve come back to Miami and made great money. The contract they offered me was good. By the time it got to me, my heart was somewhere else.” […]
“That’s why I tell the (Heat) fans, I did everything I could to make sure I stay here. And then it got to a point where, you know what, it was no more I could do. I had to go and do what’s best for myself and my family and my future when it comes to my happiness. I want to feel wanted as well. Who doesn’t (want to feel) appreciated?”
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