Kevin Durant’s move from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Golden State Warriors has shaken up the NBA, but its reign as the most shocking deal of the league’s 2016 free agency period lasted for not even three full days. While Durant’s decision is clearly the biggest event of the league’s offseason, Dwyane Wade’s choice to leave the Miami Heat after 13 seasons and join his hometown Chicago Bulls is easily the least expected news involving one of the best players of his generation. As reported by The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Wednesday night, Wade will sign with the Bulls on a two-year deal for $47.5 million. The contract includes a player option on the second year, so Wade could become a free agent all over again next summer, when the salary cap is expected to rise to roughly $110 million.
The importance of Wade’s move has more to do with his connection to Miami than the impact his decision will have on both team’s win-loss records. Among recent superstars, only Kobe Bryant has had a stronger connection to one franchise than Wade did to Miami, and it looked as if he would finish off his career with the Heat just as Kobe did with the Lakers this spring. However, it appears that a series of slights from Pat Riley and Wade’s belief that he had continually sacrificed for the good of the franchise added up to make him take a slightly superior offer from his hometown Bulls. Michael Lee of The Vertical has detailed the course of events that drove Wade away from the team that drafted him fifth-overall in 2003, and he probably has a decent argument that the franchise didn’t treat him like the icon he is.
The emotional aftermath of this move will be considerable. It’s difficult to imagine Wade fans burning the jersey of the best player in franchise history considering the 34-year-old is well past his prime, but the pain will be felt regardless. While clearly aging and limited, Wade had shown enough flashes of excellence in recent seasons to suggest that he still had plenty to give Miami. His series-winning performances against the Charlotte Hornets this April were well off his former Finals MVP form but still thrilling enough to register as genuine career highlights. They showed that Wade still had more to do, more memories to offer a Heat fan base that has embraced him at every opportunity.
Instead, they’re now left with a roster that makes little sense. They now boast $19 million in cap room with no clearly worthy targets for it, although matching a lucrative offer sheet for guard Tyler Johnson from the Brooklyn Nets could soak up the bulk of it. Whatever happens, the Heat’s previous offseason moves seemed like prelude to bringing back Wade. Hassan Whiteside agreed to a max-level deal to defend and dunk, not serve as a second option on offense, and Luol Deng was allowed to head to the Lakers because the Heat didn’t need him as a versatile wing with Justise Winslow set to develop in his second season. Goran Dragic is now the team’s primary shot creator by some distance, and their ability to compete in the East will depend heavily on Chris Bosh’s ability to return from the blood clot issues that have put his health and career in jeopardy for two years in a row. (Remember that Bosh and the Heat clashed over his potential return during the playoffs, as well.) This team wouldn’t have been a title contender with Wade, but it now looks more like a squad set to finish near the bottom of the lottery, or in a minor playoff spot at best.
Worse yet, the Heat have to find a way to save face after a hit to the franchise’s mystique and image. Pat Riley’s reputation as a front-office maestro should never be questioned after the work he put in to bring Bosh and LeBron James to South Beach in 2010, but the circumstances of Wade’s departure will not help him or the team the next time they meet with a big-name free agent. Riley and owner Micky Arison have benefited from the perception that they cultivate a player-friendly atmosphere where stars are treated well. What happens now that Wade, the greatest Heat player of all, has decided their marriage no longer works for him?
It’s very possible that the short-term pain of this event will lead to a better future for the Heat. If the obvious comparison for Wade’s relationship with the team is Kobe’s with the Lakers, then it’s impossible to avoid noting that the Los Angeles rebuilding process would be farther along if they hadn’t extended Bryant for nearly $50 million over his final two seasons. Riley is an expert opportunist, and bringing back Wade for what he had been rather than what he is would have robbed him of the time required to put together the team’s next winner. Wade can still be very effective, but his lack of a dependable three-point jumper and growing need for in-season rest makes him a low-value play at close to $24 million per season. It feels as if the Heat were caught by surprise, but the figures of this individual decision make sense relative to the cap. Maybe they will luck out in the lottery and end up drafting the franchise’s next superstar in what could be a loaded 2017 draft.
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