#HeGone: The Aftermath

HE GONE. 

If you are reading this, you’ve probably heard the news. Dwyane Wade, after 13 seasons as the franchise cornerstone of the Miami HEAT, has, after what appears to be an impasse between he and management over a few million dollars, has decided to pack his bags and leave the only franchise he has ever known. Dwyane Wade is returning to his home state of Illinois to play for the Chicago Bulls. No, this is not a prank, drill, or joke. This is really happening. As it turns out, #HeGone should have been used not for LeBron, but for Dwyane. We are all still reeling from this story.

It is likely that for the rest of time, even after Dwyane’s number hangs in the rafters alongside the likes of Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O’Neal, and Udonis Haslem (inevitable), both his and Pat Riley’s camps will stick to their beliefs regarding this process. That is what happens when you have two incredible forces–a superstar’s ego and an NBA legend’s resolve–coming together like this. Sometimes, it leads to championships; other times, it ends in bitter divorces like we’ve seen here.

But before we figure out where the Miami HEAT go from here, we must first understand what happened. Let me try to condense it as much possible. Dwyane Wade believed that, after never being the highest-paid player on the roster throughout his career, it was finally his time to receive what he believed was his just due. While I have no problem believing Pat Riley and the team believed the same, the current market, combined with the team’s ongoing desire to improve, made that difficult, if not impossible.

Why difficult? It just didn’t make sense. It wouldn’t have made sense to repeat recent NBA history by investing an exorbitant amount of money in an aging superstar on the verge of an enormous free agent period. The facts are simple: A team with an aging Dwyane Wade and little support [due to limited funds] will struggle mightily. The days of Wade singlehandedly carrying a team to the postseason are long gone. Losing will not sell tickets in Miami after a while. Any doubters of this reality need only watch Los Angeles Lakers games for the past two or three seasons.

The idea of Dwyane Wade not being paid enough needs to be addressed, though. Far too often, we follow the daily lives of our favorite athletes and often forget that they have the privilege of flourishing in a market that allows them to command untold millions of dollars for their services. Given the entertainment value that is placed on the players’ heads now reaching the billions, there’s no question that the sports free market allows them that privilege. But at the end of the day, we are not these players. $5 million to us will change our lives forever.

In the grand scheme of things, it is easy for us to look at a difference of $5 million and scoff at the players, saying it is nothing. Truthfully, it is. Yes, it’s a lot of money, but with more than $20 million already agreed upon, what more are you looking for? But that is neither here nor there at this point, because the matter of payment is the issue. Let’s take a walk down memory lane in order to sort out this claim of underpayment and how legitimate or intentional it really is. God bless Basketball-Reference.

The Rundown

2003: Dwyane Wade, drafted 5th by the Miami HEAT, signs his rookie-scale contract, starting at $2.6 million a year with modest raises until 2007. He joins a team headed by Eddie Jones, Brian Grant, Lamar Odom, and Caron Butler. He is the 4th-highest paid player on the team, ahead of second-year player Caron Butler (a lower-salaried player due to being drafted 10th in 2002). Eddie Jones ($12.3 million) and Brian Grant ($12.1 million) lead the team in salary. In his first season, Wade and the HEAT finish 42-40, earn the 4th seed (and home court advantage), and push the Indiana Pacers to six games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals before falling 4-2. No rookie makes the most money on a competitive team. There was nothing sinister here.

2004: Pat Riley, realizing the opportunity to acquire a whale in the offseason following Wade’s first season, engineers a league-shifting trade to bring All-Star center Shaquille O’Neal to Miami. In this deal, Riley sends Brian Grant, Caron Butler, and Lamar Odom to Los Angeles for the three-time champion and former League MVP. All of a sudden, the HEAT are championship contenders, and just Wade’s second season. With the shift in players and the natural progression of his rookie-scale deal, Wade’s salary bumps up to $2.8 million and lands him third behind Eddie Jones ($13.4 million) and Shaq ($27.7 million). No real surprise there; Riley acquired Jones in a sign-and-trade with Charlotte back in 2000, set to expire in 2007.

2005: Not satisfied with Miami’s heartbreaking finish to an otherwise-stellar 59-23 regular season campaign at the hands of the then-defending champion Detroit Pistons, Riley orchestrates a second mega-deal that summer, shipping out Eddie Jones, Rasual Butler, Albert Miralles, Qyntel Woods, and a 2006 second round draft pick in exchange for Jason Williams, James Posey, and former Boston Celtic Antoine Walker. It would be the largest trade in NBA history, bringing in more veterans and scoring help for Wade and Shaq. Wade’s salary ticks up once more to $3.03 million, but he becomes the sixth-highest salaried player on the roster, behind a newly re-signed Shaq (who would accept a pay cut at $20 million to bring in Walker), Williams ($7.2 million), Walker ($6.8 million, Posey ($5.9 million), and fellow class of 2003 arrival Udonis Haslem ($5 million). Because Haslem was undrafted and signed afterwards, he did not have the luxury of the same financial security as Wade did being drafted in the lottery. He was then re-signed for five years, turning down more lucrative offers and reportedly leaving at least $10 million on the table. Haslem was then quoted as having said that “everybody makes a pretty decent check playing this game — but everybody doesn’t win a championship.” How ironic, but let’s move on. The HEAT would win the championship the following June, the team’s first in franchise history.

2007: It all falls down. After a lackluster title defense in 2006-07, Riley would eventually blow up the roster, shipping out virtually everyone–Shaquille O’Neal, Antoine Walker, James Posey, etc. This season would effectively be rock bottom as the team would finish with a 15-67 record. However, the HEAT would waste no time in locking in Wade shortly after that championship run, signing the All-Star guard to a three-year extension set to expire in 2010. Taking effect beginning in 2007, Wade’s salary would bump up to $13.04 million. Yet, still, he would not be the highest-paid player. Riley would ship Shaq to Phoenix in exchange for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks. At that time, Marion, already an established veteran and described by Riley as the ideal running mate for Wade in the years to come, would be on the fifth year of a max deal signed in 2003. Once again, in trying to retool the team around Wade, it was a matter of developing a supporting cast around a very good player, not a matter of perceived value. Players making more money were simply brought in to improve the roster.

2008/2009: The same thing would happen during the 2008-09 season, when Riley, working to build a better team around Wade once more, would trade Marion to the Toronto Raptors for Jermaine O’Neal, solidifying the front court and stabilizing the HEAT’s starting five. O’Neal was still on an enormous seven-year max contract signed with the Indiana Pacers back in 2003. This season, he was set to make $21.3 million (and $23 million the next year), considerably more than Wade’s $14.4 million that year. Nevertheless, Wade had his best all-around season and the comeback HEAT finished 43-39, good enough for a playoff berth and a competitive seven-game series vs. the Atlanta Hawks.

2010-2014: You remember this year and era. This was The Decision. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh all became unrestricted free agents this offseason and decided to sign with the HEAT to win that elusive title. Each of them willingly took pay cuts in order to leave enough room for Riley to bring back Udonis Haslem, sign Mike Miller, and fill out the roster with veterans. Though the difference was relatively minor, Wade was third in salary on the roster with $14.2 million (to make room for Haslem), while Bosh and James each earned $14.5 million, each under the full max they could have commanded elsewhere. Again, this was Wade’s doing. How did it turn out? Four consecutive Eastern Conference titles and two consecutive NBA Championships. And then LeBron left.

2014: Wade, Bosh, and James all opt-out of their contracts in order to re-sign and create flexibility for more players, much like they did in 2010. Except LeBron, instead of coming back, decides to re-sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers, announcing so on July 11. Later that day, Bosh is re-signed to a six year maximum contract in an effort to salvage the franchise. His salary starts at $20.6 million. Wade re-signs four days later to a one-year, $15 million contract. LeBron’s abrupt departure throws the HEAT out of sorts, and they finish 37-45, missing the 2015 NBA Playoffs. Wade is the second-highest paid player on the team. Despite a close relationship with James, Wade still willingly opts out of a contract paying him (at the time) around $18 million. He knows of LeBron’s intention to return to Cleveland, but does nothing to recruit him to stay. This is confusing.

2015: After opting out of his initial deal signed in 2010 to sign for less, Wade has a contentious summer battle with Riley and HEAT management, even threatening to leave, before settling on a one-year, $20 million contract. That season, Wade experiences a bit of a resurgence with solid play, a relatively healthy regular season run, and some stellar playoff performances. The HEAT finish one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals, bringing us to the summer of 2016. Wade signs with the Chicago Bulls. Two years, $47 million.

The Aftermath

So what did we learn here? Was this really a matter of the team under-appreciating Dwyane Wade? In my opinion, on the contrary. What history shows us here is a matter of timing and initiative taken by Pat Riley and HEAT management to provide Wade with the best possible opportunity to win games throughout his career. This wasn’t a matter of spite or disrespect. It was a matter of roster restructuring. Below is how Wade’s career under Riley’s orchestration looked.

2004 – Eastern Semifinals (Game 6)
2005 – Eastern Conference Finals (Game 7)
2006 – NBA Champion
2007 – Injured
2008 – Injured
2009 – First Round (Game 7)
2010 – First Round (Game 5)
2011 – NBA Finals (Game 6)
2012 – NBA Champion
2013 – NBA Champion
2014 – NBA Finals (Game 5)
2015 – Lottery
2016 – Eastern Semifinals (Game 7)

Between 2004 and 2016, Wade won three NBA titles, went to the NBA Finals five times, and made the playoffs all but once. We won’t count Wade’s injury-riddled 2007 and 2008 seasons, so Wade essentially only missed the postseason once and was in the NBA Finals nearly 40% of the time he played in Miami. And all while being paid about $160 million not counting endorsements and other business ventures.

Compare this to Kobe Bryant’s career. I won’t go into too much detail, but once Kobe received his max deal in 2004, his team was mediocre for another four years (wasting his prime) before acquiring All-Star forward-center Pau Gasol and breaking through to the NBA Finals in 2008. He would win back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010, but after another hefty extension followed by another, combined with failed trades and injuries, Kobe’s final days in Los Angeles were marred by lottery teams once again.

Legacy

Dwyane Wade’s Miami HEAT career has cemented his status as the greatest athlete in South Florida sports history. There is no question about that. I will never deny or question that, even with recent events. To do so would reflect a lack of objectivity on my part and a demonstration of pettiness that I personally consider to be beneath me and true citizens of HEAT Nation. These have been some of the best years of my sports life, with amazing memories between 2006-2014.

But all things must come to an end. Personally, I have always trusted Pat Riley and this organization. I will continue to trust this organization. This was a bad breakup between the HEAT and Dwyane Wade, but after all of the conjecture and speculation in the media, I just wanted any kind of resolution. Like any fan of the HEAT, I wanted him here forever, but even I drew a line in the sand.

Tomorrow

The future is now. I am excited to see how the likes of Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, and Josh Richardson are able to develop with a much bigger role now than in seasons past. Goran Dragic and Chris Bosh (if healthy) are still here. This is definitely a team that can still compete in the Eastern Conference. Right now, HEAT Nation is hurt, understandably so, but not broken.

You cannot replace a player like Dwyane Tyrone Wade. He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But you can rebuild this HEAT roster into a contender as long as you have Pat Riley running the show. Allow him time to work his magic. He has had to deal with losing Hall of Fame-caliber talents before, and he has never allowed this team to stay down for too long since his arrival in 1995. Enough has been written about his greatness.

Check the record. In the meantime, I am perfectly fine with Bosh being the bridge to the next era of championship success in Miami. There is always that bridge that keeps the culture going. I would still like Haslem to stick around. He is as much of a HEAT anchor as anyone has ever been, and his number will hang in the rafters with the others. It’s highly possible he will come back.

At first, it might hurt to see him in a Bulls uniform next season, but what’s done is done. Dwyane Wade is a grown man that made a decision. HEAT Nation must move on. Dwyane Wade is nearly 35 years old, and we could not allow this franchise to be handcuffed the way Kobe did the Lakers. That defies reason and logic. We covered this already, but it needed to be reiterated. We must move forward in a responsible and thoughtful manner. I will miss Dwyane Wade, but no one man is greater than the franchise.

The objective of the Miami HEAT is to get better every year. To win championships. To promote a culture of family, sacrifice, professionalism, and excellence. Even with Wade back next season, there would have been a significant step taken backwards. Miami may have successfully re-signed Whiteside, but it lost two important pieces in free agency this offseason with no money to replace them. Joe Johnson and Luol Deng are elsewhere now.

I am happy for Dwyane. He was able to secure the extra $5-10 million he felt he desperately needed despite being injury prone and nearly 35 years old. By all means, keep getting those checks. But that money didn’t come from a team on the verge of a title or serious contention, and with good reason. He wanted the extra money, and that’s what he received. I know that sounds bitter, but it’s the truth. Wade is turning 35 in January and has a history of injuries (last season notwithstanding).

But as I stated a while ago when LeBron left town, players may come and go, but the trophies and memories remain in Miami forever. We now have some cap space to work with both this year and next. Has this affair hurt Miami’s standing with future free agents? I doubt it. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. This is still a world-class championship organization.

I’ve said this before, and I will say it again: Miami’s future is bright, no matter what happens this summer. We have the blueprint and the means. All that’s left now is to go out there, compete, and support those men wearing the red, white, and black. HEAT Nation will move on from this, and titles are coming again soon.

You can bet on it.

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