All good things must come to an end, it’s just a matter of how the end comes.
In the case of the Miami Heat and now former franchise guard Dwyane Wade the end came in an ugly fashion.
In a stunner that might even overshadow Kevin Durant’s choice to sign with the Golden State Warriors, Wade has decided to leave the only franchise he’s played for to sign a two-year $47.5 million contract with his hometown Chicago Bulls. In doing so he closes arguably the best run for an athlete in the history of South Florida sports.
To find the roots that led to this split one may have to look to the summer of 2011 when the NBA Players Union and team owners were embroiled in a bitter lockout. The owners wanted to prevent players from having the power that Heat president Pat Riley capitalized on to pull the biggest free agency coups in getting forwards LeBron James and Chris Bosh to come to Miami and join Wade a year earlier. One of the measures put in the collective bargaining agreement that ended the lockout structured to prevent another ‘super team’ from forming via player power is harsh luxury taxes for teams that were over the salary cap for long periods.
Fast forward four years and the Heat get blindsided by James’ decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers after he, Wade, and Bosh opted out of their contracts. Riley, having to salvage an offseason where he expected to lock up the Miami ‘Big 3’ for five more years, found himself giving Bosh a five-year $118 million extension to keep him away from the Houston Rockets. When it came to Wade, Riley gave him a two-year $31.1 million deal with an opt out clause after one year.
Two years later and we got the events of Wednesday night.
In a world where instant news and social media demand a blame game neither Wade or the Heat are without it but both sides also have arguments with merit.
With Wade it was a matter of feeling like he was respected and a priority to the Heat. In his 13-year Miami tenure he was never the highest paid player on the Heat roster. He left money on the table in 2010 to accommodate James and Bosh. He did the same again in 2014 for Riley to give Bosh his deal. He was asked to the same in 2015 for the Heat to be able to give guard Goran Dragic his extension and for the team to get out paying luxury taxes. This summer he was asked to wait for Riley to get a meeting with Durant and to lock up center Hassan Whiteside.
At some point for a player who has achieved so much for a franchise like Wade has with the Heat being asked to be the only player sacrificing financially for a team must feel like a constant slap in the face.
With the Heat it was a matter of flexibility. Riley has always been able to look beyond the horizon for the next big catch. He saw what Wade, James, and Bosh were planning in 2007 and prepared accordingly. After James left in 2014 he began preparing for the free agency periods of this year and 2017 when the NBA salary cap rising greatly and another crop of top tier players being available. He has been able to keep the Heat competitive during that time and a player in the market. That requires flexibility to succeed and Riley wanted to maintain that flexibility and not have the same conundrum the Los Angeles Lakers put themselves in during the last years of now retired guard Kobe Bryant‘s career.
It was reasonable for Wade to want to recoup some of the money he willfully sacrificed when he opted out in 2014 but the manner in which he did rubbed Riley the wrong way. In 2015 he saw Wade publicly demand more money with limited cap space available. This year he saw Wade do the same knowing that cap space, even rising as dramatically as it has, had to be used to retain Whiteside and to get a meeting with Durant. Wade was essentially asking the Heat to use all of their remaining cap space and to then have half the remaining roster spots be filled with players on minimum salaries, a hard feat considering the free agent contracts agreed to since July 1.
To further add fuel to the fire both times Riley saw Wade’s camp feed the media information, true or not, that painted the team as lowballing their best player. For a man like Riley, who is as old school as they come, to be accused of lowballing a player like Wade when he was trying to accommodate him and have team business aired out like dirty laundry, it had to feel an affront.
These factors all played into what has officially become a bitter divorce where both sides, stubbornly holding their ground, simply pushed each other away.
There is a silver lining for both sides.
For Wade he gets something he long coveted as he is now the highest paid player on the Bulls roster. For the Heat they now have almost $20 million in cap space available.
There is also another positive that can be seen for Heat fans.
Riley has done this before with another franchise player, Alonzo Mourning, in 2003. While Mourning’s kidney disease played a factor in the decision both sides also broke up on bitter terms. That split made Miami build if only for a short time around a young core of second year forwards Caron and Rasual Butler and would be joined by a rookie guard from Marquette University named Dwyane Wade. That young guard ultimately won three championships while becoming the franchise’s greatest player.
A similar scenario is playing now as the Heat as the team once again has found a young core to build around with second year forward Justise Winslow, second year guards Josh Richardson and Briante Weber, along with third year guard Tyler Johnson, who signed an offer sheet from the Brooklyn Nets this summer that will likely be matched now. The biggest part of that core is Whiteside, who will only be 30 when his new contract is over. Then there is the Heat’s D-League team, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, which has become the place for Miami to find diamonds in the rough like Whiteside, Johnson, and Weber.
While this may seem like a permanent end for Riley and Wade it may not be. Riley and Mourning’s story had a reunion ending just a few years later. Mourning is now part of the Heat front office with the possibility of he along with team CEO Nick Arison succeeding Riley in the cards. Wade could just as easily find his way back to Miami to finish his career with a stake in ownership likely waiting for him upon retirement.