After my initial shock at the news that Dwyane Wade would leave the only pro team he’d ever known to join his hometown Chicago Bulls, I started wondering about how the departure of the greatest player in Miami Heat history happened.
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Either Pat Riley never saw this coming or Pat Riley has been carefully orchestrating this for eons, right?
On one hand, it seems possible that the Heat’s longtime president of basketball operations might have been legitimately surprised that Wade, after 13 years with the organization marked by multiple contract negotiations in which he took below-market deals to help facilitate Miami’s pursuit of championships, would really, actually walk this time. From Ethan J. Skolnick of the Miami Herald:
[…] the relationship [between Wade and the Heat] was already too fractured, for a second consecutive summer, and this time Wade actually had options, something that some inside the Heat organization always — insultingly — doubted.
So no one should be stunned. Not if you understood what’s been bubbling under the shiny surface:
The frustration with always feeling like he was second to someone else, created by overconfidence that, no matter what, he would always come back. The amusement about the perception that it was Pat Riley, not him, who had created the Big 3 bonanza. […] The conclusion Wade came to, ultimately, was that Riley didn’t value him. Not enough. Not like the fans did. Not after all he’d done, all the promises he’d kept, most recently rededicating himself to his training to get through 74 games last season, and getting stronger in the postseason, when he was still the Heat’s best player.
Despite clearly prioritizing the re-signing of Hassan Whiteside and the pursuit of Durant over coming to agreeable terms with the most iconic player ever to wear a Heat uniform, Riley certainly played seemed to indicate he was flabbergasted by Wade’s decision in the text message about Wade’s departure that he sent to the Herald’s Dan LeBatard late Wednesday night:
“SADDDDDDD!!!! SO saddddddd! I will never forget the sixth game in Dallas in 2006. DW rebounded the ball, and threw it to the heavens and the Heat universe was perfect for that moment. Our first world championship. Our universe is not perfect today. It will be fraught with anger, judgment, blame instead of THANK YOU!!! Ten years ago. Ten years older. Ten years wiser. Ten years changed. All of us. Dwyane had a choice, and he made it. He went home. Bad, bad summer for us. But there will be another 10 years, and it will be someone or something else in 2026. Move on with no blood or tears. Just thanks. I truly loved Dwyane, but families grow, change and get on with another life. He will always be a part of us. ALWAYS! And no more bruises and enough fighting. Let’s just fly above it if we can and never forget. I feel his pain and pride for what pushed him over the ledge. Been there. Forever, for always, your coach I will be. FOREVER!”
And yet, could Riley really be so broken up about the departure when the communication he sent to LeBatard was apparently more outreach than he made to Wade?
While you're watching Kelly Ripa, one more nugget: Pat Riley never called Dwyane Wade during the entire process.
— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) July 7, 2016
Then again, might that only tell one side of a much more complicated story?
“The Heat would have you believe that Wade told all of them to go through his agents,” LeBatard said on his ESPN Radio show on Thursday. “No direct contact.”
Whatever the truth about Wade’s ground rules for contact, it’s worth considering that the Heat’s attempt to keep Wade — first with a lowball offer of $10 million per year, then by moving up to approximately $40 million over two years, some $12 million less than the reported offer made by the Denver Nuggets and $7.5 million less than what Wade wound up getting from the Bulls — might have amounted to just enough of an effort to make it look like they wanted to bring him back, and that Riley — ever calculating, ever forward-looking, ever focused on championships over mere contention — wasn’t surprised at all by Wade’s exit, since it’s what he’d been working toward all along.
From Tom Ziller of SB Nation:
[That reading of the situation] would suggest that Riley knew his franchise’s future depended on gathering as much flexibility as possible in for the 2017 offseason, and that locking up the aging Wade would snuff that out. It would suggest that Whiteside is young enough and holds enough potential for improvement that he could absolutely be a part of the next great Miami Heat roster, whereas the slowing, but increasingly-expensive Wade probably couldn’t be without a free-agent coup. A coup impossible with Wade soaking up $25 million of salary space in 2017-18. […]
No number of ds in the word “sad” or exclamation marks can conceal the truth of this reaction: Pat Riley knew this was going to happen. Riley is trying to sell the “we screwed up” angle here in talking about Miami’s “bad, bad summer” and Wade’s “pain and pride.” I’m not buying it. Pat Riley doesn’t get caught flat-footed.
And there are clues here that Riley had already internalized the endgame and prepared for its aftermath. Move on with no blood or tears. Families grow, change and get on with another life. It will be someone or something else in 2026. In the context of a passionate, heat-of-the-moment reaction to the greatest player in franchise history bolting, these sentiments belie surprise.
And from Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post:
Now the Heat can retool. It has a potential impact player at small forward in Justise Winslow, who is coming off an impressive rookie season. They still have Whiteside and [Goran] Dragic. There are questions about [Chris] Bosh’s health, after having each of the past two seasons cut short by blood clots, but if he’s deemed unable to play again – which, given the Heat’s utter silence on the issue, seems to be in play – the Heat will be able to clear Bosh’s contract from their books in February. If the Heat struggles, it could find itself with a top draft pick in an absolutely loaded 2017 draft – just as it did in 2003, when it landed Wade with the No. 5 overall selection.
That would allow Miami to go into free agency next summer with Dragic, Winslow, Whiteside and well north of $50 million in cap space to chase after a loaded free agent class including Stephen Curry, Durant and Russell Westbrook. Riley will once again be able to offer multiple stars the chance to come play for him and the Heat. And Riley has shown he’s able to convince people to come join the Heat when he gets them in a room — none greater than when he convinced LeBron James to leave Cleveland in 2010 to form a “Big Three” with Wade and Bosh by taking his talents to South Beach.
Maybe Riley did line this up just so, riding his franchise cornerstone for as long as he could before going about the cold, unsavory business of pushing him away to make room for whatever comes next. Sometimes, though, getting exactly what you want also means getting something you didn’t bargain for.
Allowing another team to pay Wade nearly $30 million at age 36 will likely prove to be a win on the court and the balance sheet in two years’ time. In the here and now, though, the process of figuring out what the Heat look like without their longtime standard-bearer in the backcourt under the leadership of Whiteside and Dragic could create complications leave Riley feeling blue enough to throw a few extra d’s on the end of another sad text message.
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