Dwyane Wade has meant everything to the Miami Heat for the past 13 years, in the both literal and figurative senses—he has played every role asked of him, and he has been at the heart of every one of the franchise's great teams. Right now, though, he's in a new role. Wade is the first-ballot-Hall-of-Fame-sized elephant in the room whenever Pat Riley daydreams about Kevin Durant and Hassan Whiteside co-existing on the same team.
Wade, an unrestricted free agent with a massive $30 million cap hold, finally seems tired of getting low-balled by an organization that's repeatedly asked him to sacrifice money, touches, and minutes in the name of their proud and unquestionably successful culture. That sacrifice has proven to be mutually beneficial, but right now there is a whole banana boat's worth of unquantifiable forces—respect, ego, loyalty, and other slippery human emotions—at play, all of them more important than money (and money always matters). Wade helped deliver three championship rings to this organization and is responsible, arguably even more so than Riley, for transforming them into a longstanding juggernaut. He wants to be recognized for his service, and he has been. Wade wants to be paid his market value, too, and he mostly hasn't. It seems like a fair request.
To be clear, nobody forced Wade to fork over approximately $25 million in salary over the course of his career so that the team could retain, extend, and entice his supporting cast. After the two sides failed to come to a long-term agreement last summer, both parties acquiesced to a one-year, $20 million contract once Wade began negotiations seeking a max deal. A similar resolution is possible over the next week or two. Wade has earned it, although it's a different question whether he's likely to earn it going forward. The complicating factor is that such a deal would, in all likelihood, kill any chance Miami has of contending for a title until Wade retires.
Presuming that Wade's current demands are the same as they were last year, his contract would start around $31 million per year. If Whiteside and Durant also take max contracts—the former player did exactly that on Friday morning; Durant reportedly has yet to meet with the Heat, and is leaning toward staying in Oklahoma City—the math just wouldn't work; he Heat would have $79.8 million committed to three players—none of whom would have Bird Rights. Unfortunately, that would be illegal, at least so long as Chris Bosh (in a flimsy yet hopeful situation), Goran Dragic, and Justise Winslow remained on the team.
Riley could game the system by utilizing pseudo-cap loopholes or maybe even dumping the (otherwise quite reasonable) $50 million left on Dragic's contract. But what's the endgame in that scenario? Wade turns 35 in January and played over 2700 minutes last season, his most since 2013. His playoff usage and assist rates were their highest in six years, and his turnover percentage had never sunk lower than this year. His body could break down at any minute.
When on top of his game, Wade is a locked-in Jason Bourne who need not go the distance. Somehow, after all those drives and all those hard spills, he's the same miraculous acrobatic Mack truck Miami needs him to be. At his worst, though, a familiar one-dimensional brattiness comes out in full force. He loafs on defense, forces erratic and inefficient shots, and ignores the three-point line. He's still great in the ways in which he's great, but he finished 39th among shooting guards in Real Plus-Minus for a reason.
It's complicated, and he's complicated. But the question the Heat face is simple: What is Wade worth, right now?
This week, a report surfaced that Wade will listen to outside offers and consider wearing a new jersey next season. On its face, this is obvious posturing. Per the prudish rules we tend to apply to players—and only players—in the NBA's free agent marketplace, it's also borderline unbecoming. By these standards, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, or Tony Parker would never flirt with another franchise as Wade has with the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, even in an attempt to leverage more money from his incumbent team.
Still, that's what makes all this so interesting. Even though San Antonio already has Danny Green and Dallas already has Wes Matthews, both teams would be much better off with Wade in their rotation. The Spurs are also after Durant, and wouldn't be able to pay Wade any more than Miami can, but Dallas has more than enough space to bring the 13-year veteran aboard on a max deal, if that's something they want to do.
Before we flutter back down to reality, let us first massage our brain tissue with a crisp, odd (and imaginary) highlight reel of Wade and Ginobili driving and kicking and driving and kicking to each other approximately 14 times in the same possession before one of them gets fouled. Or Wade and Nowitzki making high pick-and-rolls feel like the 1000th time you listened to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…—both nostalgic and extremely potent. Fun to think about, anyway.
And while we're at it: Would Wade take less money to round out the Los Angeles Clippers' starting five, in the unlikely event Durant heads west? Or slightly more to play with the Knicks and get that, uh, life experience?
But assuming Wade stays put, which we might as well assume, how does Miami handle this situation without either patronizing him or excusing themselves from championship contention? From a pure basketball perspective, they'd be much, much better off maxing out Whiteside and Durant and letting the best player in franchise history drift towards the sunset. But none of this happens in that all-things-being-equal laboratory environment.
It's all an unimaginable migraine for Riley, who may just throw up his hands and fork over a less-disastrous version of the last contract Kobe Bryant received from the Los Angeles Lakers. That deal didn't work out well for either party, in retrospect, but here as there, there's just too much history and emotion in play to approach this in a sufficiently reasonable way. The basketball questions are complicated enough, in this case, but this isn't really about that, either. This is about business, now, and for the first time in his era-defining generation with the Heat, Wade's confrontation with his team is about the fundamental question of NBA free agency: Who blinks first?
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