Dwyane Wade is one of the greatest players of his generation, the greatest Miami Heatian ever and a sure-thing, no-questions-asked Hall of Famer. He's also 34 years old.
Wade has always been extra crafty on both ends, but what made him a star fresh out of Marquette was his incredible athleticism. That athleticism is waning. It's not gone, but it's leaking out into history and not coming back. Father Time is undefeated. Wade is fighting valiantly, but he's much closer to the end of his illustrious career than the beginning.
He was not a priority for the Miami Heat this offseason. That much is obvious: the Heat went hard to keep Hassan Whiteside in the wee hours of July 1. Whiteside is essentially a 27-year-old with 1.5 good NBA seasons under his belt. The Heat then spent the opening weekend of free agency chasing Kevin Durant.
Dwyane Wade was not a priority. This argument is strengthened if you believe those reports that Heat puppetmaster Pat Riley lowballed Wade with a $10 million annual offer. (Yes, $10 million a year in a league where Timofey Mozgov makes $16 million and Solomon Hill makes $12 million.)
There are two ways to look at Pat Riley's decision to put Wade on a back burner this summer. The worm everyone seems to be eating in the immediate aftermath says that Riley tried to call Wade's bluff and never expected the superstar to leave for Chicago, Milwaukee or wherever. That after dress rehearsals in 2010, 2014 and 2015, in which Wade stayed in Miami at discount rates, Riley stopped believing Wade was prepared to ever actually leave the city that adored him and adorned him with superstardom and three titles. This reading of the situation shows Riley to be just a bit bumbling and Wade to be the hero fed up with being taken for granted.
An alternate reading would suggest that by failing to prioritize his pricey 34-year-old star, Riley knew exactly what he was doing.
It 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.
Do we have any clues as to which reading is more accurate? Wade's decision to leave could really point to either. The issue here is the Heat's motivations for putting Wade on the back burner this summer. Pat Riley texted a statement of sorts to Dan Le Batard (who understands the mechanics of this ego stew better than anyone). Here it is.
"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!"
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.
Here's one more clue from a different source.
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
Funny way to act for a franchise who boasts of its loyalty. This was Pat Riley's endgame all along: string Wade along until he leaves.
Why? That's easy to answer. You saw the Lakers over the past three seasons, right? There's no upside in hosting an extended retirement party in which your fading star also demands to make the highest salary and maintain a huge role. Wade isn't Kobe, but he's not Tim Duncan, either. Duncan took repeated paycuts and a permanent backseat. Kobe did the opposite: raises and as prominent a role as possible. Wade is happy to defer to Goran Dragic for stretches and never asked for $30 million, but he's not going along with getting benched regularly and making $10 million. Obviously.
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That's only part of the answer. The rest of it is this: 2017.
Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Gordon Hayward, Serge Ibaka -- all of those guys are likely to be unrestricted free agents in 2017. Curry is unlikely to leave Golden State, and CP3 doesn't exactly fit Miami's situation given the commitment to Dragic and age concerns. But Westbrook, Griffin, Hayward: these are huge targets for Riley. And with Wade heading to Chicago, Miami could in theory add two of them ... if Chris Bosh is forced to medically retire, which may be where the Heat are pushing this complicated, sad story.
Imagine adding Griffin and Hayward to a roster with Justise Winslow, Whiteside and Dragic. Or Westbrook and Griffin, trading Dragic and adding J.J. Redick in free agency. Every plot like this in the NBA is a dice roll, but Pat Riley tends to do pretty well at the craps table.
Look at 2015-16 as the new 2009-10 for Miami: a season of waiting. Miami wasn't in position to give Durant a better situation than the Warriors or Thunder could, not with Wade uncommitted and, again, 34 years old. But with Wade gone and the cap space there, the free agents of 2017 could see Miami as an alluring option.
This could all be for naught if the Heat decide to match the Nets' Tyler Johnson offer sheet (four years, $50 million) or ink a high-dollar free agent still on the table to a multi-year deal. We'll see. But with the single exception of LeBron's flight in 2014, Pat Riley have never been known as a man who is caught off guard. For 29 NBA teams, you'd agree that in this situation the GM's bluff got called.
Not the Miami Heat. Not Pat Riley. There's always something up his sleeve.
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Miami Heat free agency, 2010 vs. 2016
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