It's hard to remember now through the oppressive haze of his more recent characterization as a meaner, edgier iteration of Scottie Pippen to LeBron James' Michael Jordan, but Dwyane Wade was once the trendy player to love from that ridiculous 2003 draft class. LeBron was the anointed one, and Carmelo was the virtuoso, but even before the Finals win, Wade was the underground favorite, the dark horse, who, after singlehandedly and single-mindedly decimating the Dallas Mavericks interior defense in the 2006 Finals, unexpectedly rose to become the ascendant heir in the line of shooting guard superstars. Wade, unlike his counterparts in that fabled draft class, played the same position as Jordan and Kobe and did it with both the same relentless drive to win and the same philosophical approach for doing it.
Like young Jordan and prime Kobe, Wade played with a self-imposed obligation to score. He carried it like a burden. During a time before LeBron warped our understanding of dominance into something more nebulous, Wade played like we expected the greatest player in the NBA to play. Just as Kobe and Jordan had done before him, he scored and scored and scored, not because he was a gunner, or because he ascribed to some moral code of Hero Ball, but because scoring frequently and efficiently was the most critical component of winning.
Hero Ball as a basketball blogging meme may have been born as a natural response to offenses that functioned like Kobe's Lakers or Wade's Heat, but the criticism was leveled at teams where that didn't work. Hero Ball was and remains a derisive label for cheap imitations of an ability Wade wielded with force. For Wade, taking his defender one-on-one for a pull-up 12-footer off the glass or for an acrobatic and-1 in the lane, was not the exorcism of some tormenting demon of expectation like it was for Kobe.
It was more pragmatic—a simple conclusion he reached, gradually through his basketball career, that he best served his team's aims as the punishing scorer. It was his cross to bear, gifted with his combination of athleticism and touch and will, and he bore it as an accepted matter of fact. Wade would pick himself up off the floor after a hard foul and he'd do it resolutely and methodically, but also without any grace. After all, who had time for grace—he had a job to do.
That all changed after the 2011 NBA Finals, when Wade tried in vain to carry an outmatched and outcoached Heat team against the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat remade their system, realizing as a unit that the way to use LeBron was not as a change of pace to Wade, but as the centerpiece for a radical offensive philosophy. To his credit, Wade altered his game to better complement LeBron's and the Heat went on to win two championships. But here we are, only a year removed from one of those Finals victories, and Dwyane Wade is, for the first time in his career, an obstruction to his team's prospects to win.
Because of cap restrictions, the Heat can only allow for so much money to go to Wade who is no longer an equal parts contributor to the Heat's success. LeBron is LeBron, and Bosh is still a max-contract worthy player, but Wade, who has been the face and pillar of the Miami Heat for as long as he's been in its uniform, is suddenly the third wheel—a relative leech on the greatness of his teammates. It's hard to imagine what that does to a person, even a person as apparently practical as Wade.
His identity on the court, though adaptable, was always founded on the principle that he contributed exactly what his team needed in order to win, but as Tom Ziller pointed out at SBNation, Wade's best possible contribution now might not be a mere shift of role but a dramatic stepping back in importance.
This is of course a premature eulogy. Only weeks ago, Wade was burying the Indiana Pacers under his typical barrage of midrange jumpers and well-executed post moves. His disappearing act in the Finals was jarringly complete, sure, but it's obvious he still has relevant NBA moments left in him. Still, even the maelstrom of media analysis surrounding LeBron's decision to stay or leave, the Heat has relegated Wade to the end of the Heat's to-do list. Bosh is being heavily courted by the Rockets and LeBron has the entire league waiting with bated breath, while Wade sits quietly beside the frenzy.
It's easy to dismiss this all as a byproduct of his choice to join up with James and Bosh in the first place, but Wade was acting then only as he ever has: With that unyielding commitment to the logistical demands of winning. Only weeks ago, when he chose to opt out at the end of June, he faced those same logistics and did exactly what they asked of him. So it is a little sad that even after all these years of doing what was necessary and being that player that winning had required of him, he now might finish out his career on a team with Josh McRoberts, creaky late-stage Danny Granger—a team incapable of doing the only thing he ever wanted to do.
But the real tragedy here is a more familiar one: There's a group of players who are making decisions about what it will take to win and Wade, for the first time in his career, is not one of them.