Originally posted on The Sports Post  |  Last updated 10/17/13
The typical career arc for an NBA legend is pretty standard. They’re never a team leader right from the get go, and if they are, it’s because they’re playing on a team full of Ricky Davises. Generally, rookies start as supporting pieces; by year two or three, the legend has established himself as a rising talent and indispensable part of his team; and then, by around year five or six, the legend has evolved into the kind of guy who can lead a championship team. Without fail, this is how legends are born. LeBron James and Michael Jordan grew up on bad teams, and didn’t get their first ring until the right players were put around them. Guys like Magic, Bird, Duncan and Kobe started out on contenders, but didn’t evolve into the best player on a championship team until later on. This is how the NBA works. You start at the bottom, you pay your dues, and then, if you’re lucky, you get to win a few championships. We have 60 years of evidence to back this up. So, how do we explain Dwyane Wade’s career? Right off the bat, Wade’s path has been untraditional. He spent three years at Marquette, a rarity in the modern NBA by both chronological and geographical standards. He spent more time in school than the four players picked ahead of him in the 2003 NBA Draft (LeBron, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh) combined. Despite all of that, despite leading Marquette to a Final Four and despite showing about as much intangibly as any player could, Wade was overlooked. 2003 was LeBron’s draft; Wade was just living in it. As the world fawned over the greatest singular talent in draft history, Miami swooped in and stole Wade at No. 5. It wouldn’t be the first time LeBron stole Wade’s spotlight, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. And would you believe it? Heat fans screwed up. Pat Riley almost took Chris Kaman, and plenty of Heat fans wanted "The Virgin Caveman" (trademark pending) over a flashy Big East guard. Remember, the 2003-04 Heat were built around the newly signed Lamar Odom—a ball handling forward—and second-year wing Caron Butler. Who sounds like a better fit with that team: Kaman’s defense/rebounding/sex appeal, or a slasher who can’t shoot beyond 18 feet? Exactly. Yet Wade made it work by reinventing himself as a do-it-all point guard. That’s right, point guard. Wade played off the ball in college and did so again in year two, but as a rookie he subjugated his game to include more passing, more rebounding, more defense and less scoring. He also spent more time shooting threes—he hit over 30 percent as a rookie and didn’t again until year six. This was the prototype of Wade, the original model that only got better through R&D. Wade 2.0 was created out of a marvelous stroke of luck. Shaquille O’Neal wanted out of Los Angeles, and Miami was one of the few teams that could accommodate him. Wade was the only piece Miami made unavailable, and eventually the second-year star was thrust into the role as leader of a title contender. Only Magic and Bird can say they’ve done the same, and neither was thrust into it under such unusual circumstances. Wade exploded in his more familiar shooting guard role, yet held on to the qualities that made him so valuable at the point as a rookie. Suddenly he was an unstoppable combination of Allen Iverson and Jason Kidd, able to get to the basket at will while still excelling in every other area but deep shooting. Year Two Wade matches up with nearly every legend from his era—except LeBron. Kobe Bryant was still a year away, Iverson hadn’t found the right team (and never did), Paul Pierce was still playing dueling banjos with Antoine Walker, and Vince Carter was too one-dimensional. Wade didn’t win a title in year two. He did in year three. For the record, I refuse to acknowledge the ’05-’06 Miami Heat as NBA champions. It was the most bizarrely officiated series in NBA history. Wade shot 96 free throws in the series—a record for a six game series. I’ve made way too many jokes about refusing to wear a Mavs jersey at home for fear of being called for a foul on Wade. For all the players who say they really just want to win, Wade is one of the few who really means it. That series was Wade in a nutshell, the ultimate opportunist. Lucky enough to play with Shaq nearly fresh out of the womb, he learned how to ingratiate himself to The Diesel from the get-go and maximized every last bit of talent left in his overweight and underworked body. When Wade figured out the refs would give him anything close, he started attacking the basket like Iverson on crack. Say what you will about the series, but Wade did his job. Yet when the time came for him to be recognized as the series MVP, Shaq had to jump in and hand him the trophy himself. Shaq had to believe that Wade was his baby, that they only won because he had properly nurtured him into stardom. When Wade finally got the chance to be recognized for his own talent, to get what was his—not LeBron’s, not Shaq’s, his—Shaq had to take it away for just a second and remind Wade of how important he was. And Wade was fine with it. After all, no Diesel means no ring. I have a lot of negative things to say about Dwyane Wade, but spotlight hogging isn’t one of them. For all the players who say they really just want to win, Wade is one of the few who really means it. Maybe that’s why he was able to do it so quickly. Either that, or his deal with the devil simply expired. It takes a remarkable physical specimen to sustain the kind of beating an Allen Iverson comparison demands, and as he’s been reminded too many times, Dwyane Wade isn’t one. He missed 62 games over the next two seasons, effectively tearing up his superstar card and leading to an endless slew of “is it time for Miami to trade Wade?” debates. Year Three Wade suddenly looked like the peak, and frankly, by most standards, we should’ve been fine with that. A ring, a Finals MVP trophy, a full season at a 27.6 PER, and permanent status as a Danny Manning-type folk hero is absolutely Hall of Fame worthy. Yet if Wade had suddenly retired after the miserable 15-win ’08 season, Miami probably would’ve been fine with it. Despite the “Miami Wade County” nonsense they spew nowadays, I don’t exactly have to recount how terrible the Heat fan base is. Living in Miami during years one and two of the LeBron era opened my eyes to that pretty clearly. The conversation usually went something like this: Heat “fan” X: “I’ve loved the Heat since way before LeBron came here. I’ve been a diehard all my life.” Me: “Who was their best player before Wade got there?” X: “... I don’t know stuff like that, it’s too long ago.” Me: “You’re a diehard who doesn’t know Alonzo Mourning? You realize there’s a high school named after him seven minutes from here, right?” X: “Trust me, I remember every game from the ’06 title run.” Me: “Who was your starting point guard?” X: “Umm...” Me: “Exactly.” Wade was fashionable for a few years. Miami bored of him rather quickly. What should’ve been the beginning of Wade’s prime became a depressing two-year stretch that ended Pat Riley’s career as a coach and Wade’s brief “I’m just as good as LeBron” argument. Heat fans weren’t interested in embracing a down-on-his-luck Wade that seemed one injury away from obscurity. They were only interested in the 2006 model. What followed might have been the single greatest unintentional "Eff You" season from a star to his own fan base in NBA history. Year Six Wade evolved into the single most accurate Michael Jordan clone we’ve ever seen. Don’t believe me? Check this out: Player A: 30.2 PPG, 7.5 APG, 5.0 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 30.4 PER, 14.7 WS Player B: 30.1 PPG, 6.1 APG, 6.4 RPG, 2.3 SPG, 27.7 PER, 17.7 WS A bit more passing for Player A, a bit more rebounding for Player B, but you get the idea. Both scored 30 points, both played tremendous defense, and both were all-around stars. Player A is Year Six Wade. Player B is Year Eight Jordan. That’s not early ball-hog Jordan or old efficient Jordan, that’s peak of his powers, championship No. 2 Jordan. And Wade’s 2008-09 season matches it. If you’re keeping track, we’ve now seen Wade rise into stardom playing next to a legend, fall back down to Earth, and then rise back up all in the span of six years. The Heat only won 43 games that year, thanks in no small part to Wade’s steaming pile of crap of a team. The help was supposed to come from rookie Michael Beasley, a Lamar Odom clone with less passing and more of a nasty streak. The Heat got him at No. 2 despite entering the lottery with the best chance at the true prize: No. 1 Derrick Rose. Some other gems from that ’09 team: - Yakhouba Diawara started 21 games. Don’t ask. - Joel Anthony managed to play over 1,000 minutes as the team’s defensive anchor. His DRtg was 106. - Udonis Haslem’s 5.7 WS ranked second on the team. That would’ve been fourth on the 2013 Milwaukee Bucks - Michael Beasley smoked approximately 104.9 pounds of weed. Wade needed help, and, ever the opportunist, decided to reach out to a few friends to get it. His friendships with LeBron James and Chris Bosh—cultivated through a shared draft experience, a few runs on the Olympic team, and the new closely knit fraternity of NBA stars—made him perfectly aware that they were going through the same thing he was. Nobody knows exactly what happened in the months leading up to the summer of 2010, but almost everyone in NBA circles believes the entire free agency circus to have been a dog and pony show. All three knew where they were going, but business interests made it far more appealing to drag it out. Wade and Bosh originally planned to make a documentary out of their decisions, and LeBron’s made $3 million for charity and millions more in free publicity. There were also the competitive reasons. It is a widely believed theory that Pat Riley sent Wade into free agency as a means of spying on other teams and figuring out what they had planned. Others saw it as a tactical ploy to prevent their opponents from preparing for them. In any case, Wade chose to join LeBron at his absolute apex. In all of NBA history, this has never happened. Stars have absolutely paired up; that’s actually pretty common. Wilt played with West and Baylor for the Lakers, but didn’t join the team until the end of his career. Oscar Robertson had a brief stint with Kareem, but that was at the end of his run and so early in Kareem’s that he was still going as Lew Alcindor. Magic joined Kareem as a rookie and their primes never matched up; teams like the ‘80s Celtics and ‘90s Bulls grew up together rather than teaming up mid-prime. Wade was already a Hall of Famer by the summer of 2010. He’d been the best player on a championship team and was easily good enough to do it again. He could’ve gone to Chicago or New York and done it. But Wade decided to play with LeBron, and more importantly, convinced him to join his team. We’ve now seen so many different iterations of Wade that defining his legacy seems impossible. To this day nobody has a clue how he did it. The more logical choice would’ve been Chicago, where a Luol Deng trade could’ve made the trio possible on neutral ground with Derrick Rose playing Ringo. There would’ve been no question of deference and a far more unified feeling to the team. Wade would have far more to lose by burning his Miami bridges, and LeBron never leveraged that into the better Chicago opportunity. This is where "Wade the ego" comes in. The likable kid who started out as Shaq’s caddy was suddenly far more serious. Unnecessary hits on opponents became far more common and classless showboating turned plenty of fans off of Wade. Maybe winning that championship so early changed him. Maybe it all went to his head and he started believing that he was as good as LeBron. Maybe that’s why they didn’t play well together at first. Wade had a ring. LeBron didn’t. Wade had spent two years carrying the Washington Generals and being fed a steady diet of, “You’re the real MVP”s and, “Only you could do what you’re doing now”s. He certainly wasn’t going to change for LeBron. That gene in Shaq that forced him to personally hand the Finals MVP trophy to Wade came alive in him. He had to teach LeBron to win. Only after an injury forced LeBron into the leading role did Miami finally get their ring. Big Three-era-Wade has become among the league’s most unlikable stars. He vacillates pretty gracelessly between injured, petty low-level enforcer and expensive prop. Wade made a difference in only one 2013 Finals game: Game 4. That’s where we saw old Wade step up briefly. Owning the baseline, attacking the rim, hovering around on defense ready to pounce on any mistake. Wade is a 10-year NBA veteran. He should be in the tail end of his prime. He should be the best player on a title team right now. Instead, he’s well past his two primes: Two two-year stretches (years two and three and years five and six) in which we saw just how good Wade can be on a day-to-day basis. Now we’re seeing opportunist Wade, the one who knew to jump on the Shaq train early and often. It didn’t happen so quickly with LeBron, but when it did, he held on for dear life. The problem is that we've come to define Wade by LeBron, a totally unfair comparison. Wade is not LeBron, not by talent or accomplishments. That doesn't mean he isn't a legend in his own right, and not by the Scottie Pippen definition, either. We’ve now seen so many different iterations of Wade that defining his legacy seems impossible. We’ve seen the ego and the opportunist; the point guard and the star holding on for dear life; the underdog and the favorite. It’s a legacy unlike anything in NBA history. And that’s what makes it so special. Dwyane Wade’s career has been far more Forrest Gump than The Godfather. We’ll remember it more for the ups and downs, the bizarre turns and memorable events than the actual character himself. His career may not have been as good as LeBron’s, but it was certainly more unique.
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