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Dwyane Wade is always a step ahead

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The Miami Heat legend engineered the ultimate end to his storied career: retirement on his terms.

Getty Images/SB Nation illustration by Karyim Carrea

Dwyane Wade always seemed like he had things figured out. He was a college hero at Marquette, a precocious rookie, and an NBA star by his second season. As one of the few players of his generation who not only thrived, but peacefully co-existed in the giant shadow of Shaquille O’Neal, Wade had a championship by his third season and a Finals MVP to his name.

After losing in the first round of the 2010 playoffs to the Celtics, D-Wade told reporters that wouldn’t happen again for a long time. The next year, LeBron James and Chris Bosh arrived in Miami. Wade’s Heat went on to win two more titles and appear in four straight Finals. (It was always Wade’s Heat even when it was LeBron’s team.)

There were brief unfulfilling flings in Chicago and Cleveland, but Wade made his way back to Miami, where he’s finishing out his career in style with a farewell tour that’s short on nostalgic schlock and long on genuine appreciation. We should all be so fortunate to script our farewells.

“It just felt right,” Wade said following a morning shootaround in Boston. “It’s a feeling you get. I looked at my overall body of work, my career, where I’m at in my life, my age, everything. It just felt right. It felt like the time for me to step away from the game.”

You can never do a career like Wade’s justice in the span of a thousand words, but here are a few takeaways on a basketball life well lived.

Dwyane Wade is a player from another time.

Back before every perimeter player was classified as a wing, D-Wade personified the cool aesthetic of the the shooting guard. An All-Star by his second season, Wade was an elite scorer who did most of his damage inside the arc and at the free throw line. One of the great shot-blocking guards of all time, he was also a hellacious defender in his prime.

It was on offense where Wade made his name, and he was very much a product of another era. He would set up shop on the block or the high post and take guys off the dribble. Wade never fully embraced the 3-point shot and he wasn’t a great ‘shooter’ in the Ray Allen sense of the phrase, but he was an efficient scorer nevertheless.

Wade had a million subtle moves, but he was absolutely brilliant at gaining the slightest advantage and exploiting it for all it was worth. He was smooth without being flashy. He could out-maneuver you athletically or overwhelm you physically. And he played with an edge.

You don’t see scorers like Wade anymore because that’s simply not how it’s done. Three is more than two and math rules everything. It’s a smarter game in many respects, but it’s not as creative. Like all great players, Wade would have thrived in any era, but he was perfect for his time.

Wade is nowhere near done, yet he’s getting out on his own terms.

Unlike his contemporary and friend Carmelo Anthony, Wade transitioned peacefully to a bench role late in his career and he’s proven this season that he can still play. He’s averaging 14 points, four rebounds, and four assists, a far cry from his 25-5-5 heyday, but he’s still capable of carrying an offense for stretches of the game.

And with the game on the line? Few have ever done it better than D-Wade, as the Warriors found out in late February.

What’s remarkable about Wade’s career is that while the game has evolved, it still hasn’t passed him by even as he’s maintained his old-school style. If he wanted, he could play another year, maybe even two or three like Vince Carter, who’s still going strong in his 40s.

Wade has remained a vital part of his team, but he’s getting out with his health and his reputation intact. Not everyone gets to end their careers like this. In fact, most times the end comes unceremoniously. Take Melo, for example. Wade wasn’t going to let that happen to him.

During Wade’s shootaround media session, I suggested that it’s kind of cool that he gets to call his own shot like this.

“I appreciate that,” he said. “I’m glad that they allowed me to.”

Wade’s a top-5 shooting guard of all time.

There’s Michael Jordan, obviously. Then there’s Kobe Bryant, Clyde Drexler, and maybe Jerry West depending on how you want to classify him. James Harden will be there soon, if he isn’t already. You can throw a few other names into the mix, but none of them are ahead of Wade in the shooting guard hierarchy.

Wade didn’t revolutionize the position or introduce a signature style to the equation. He was a direct descendent of those who came before him and he carried on that lineage. You gave him the ball and got out of his way.

His absolute pinnacle came in the 2006 Finals, when he carried the Heat to an unlikely championship in his third season. After falling behind 2-0 to heavily-favored Dallas in the Finals, Wade averaged 39.3 points and 8.3 rebounds over the final four games.

It was one of the great Finals performances ever and it should have defined his career. The Heat began a slow slide toward obsolescence after that championship, but Wade, again, had things figured out.

The LeBron years solidified his standing.

Almost a half-decade later, it’s still hard to know what to make of the Big Three era in Miami. They won two titles and played for two more, but it still feels incomplete. Certainly that first year should have resulted in a championship, but Dirk Nowitzki got his revenge for 2006. The final year was long and painful, and the Spurs were just better.

Yet for a brief window, the Heat completely redefined the sport. They epitomized positionless basketball and turned going small into a tactical advantage. They were led by LeBron James, who enjoyed the best seasons of his stellar career, but Wade was no supporting star. He was still the franchise player, beloved by his fans in a way few players will ever experience.

My all-time favorite Wade performance was Game 4 of the 2013 Finals against the Spurs. Down 2-1 and on the road and with Wade looking gassed, he delivered a memorable fourth quarter performance that saved Miami’s season. The Heat wound up winning in seven, and while it was LeBron’s moment, it was also D-Wade’s vindication.

Wade was smart enough to attach himself to LeBron, of course, but it can also be said that he and LeBron were the co-pilots of those Miami teams. They played in Wade’s city, for his franchise, and he navigated the tricky fault line better than anyone else who ever played with James. A step ahead, always.

The long goodbye has resonated across the league.

With less than two weeks left in the regular season, the Heat are fighting for their playoff lives. Locked in a four-team race for three playoff spots, Miami went 11-4 in March and Wade delivered a handful of vintage performances. “It’s desperate times right now for this team,” Wade said.

After trailing by 23 early in Boston, the Heat rallied behind Wade and Goran Dragic. Soon the lead was down to single digits, but the Celtics made just a few more plays and the Heat are once again below .500. The good news is that everyone else chasing those final three playoff spots also lost, and so Miami is still hanging on to eighth.

There won’t be many more nights for D-Wade in this kind of environment and he’s trying to enjoy them as best he can. The whole farewell tour has been everything he hoped it would be and even a little bit more. He has his health, he has his respect, and he’s found throughout the NBA an appreciation for the way he played, and the way he conducted his business.

“I definitely have enjoyed it,” he said. “I’ll enjoy it more as I look back on it because I’m in it, so it’s hard to enjoy every second, every moment. But as I look back on it, it’s been an amazing year.”

It’s been more than that. It’s been an amazing career.