In late June, 2014, Dwyane Wade, fresh off an NBA Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs, opted out of a contract that was set to pay him $42 million over two years. He would have had the option to opt out in the summer of 2015, as well, before becoming a free agent in 2016.
In mid July, 2014, Dwyane Wade, following a defection of the highest degree from a 4-time MVP, Hall of Fame friend, signed a 2 year contract worth $31.5 million over two years. He will have the option to opt out in the summer of 2015, as well, before becoming a free agent in 2016.
Detached from context, it’s an unprecedented dive. Unprompted pay cuts just don’t happen in the NBA; those who take them are usually rewarded for their troubles with long-term security, or a general improvement in contract terms beyond money per year. Wade has gotten nothing but the mere written formality of a no-trade clause. He has chosen to re-sign the same deal, just less of it.
Surrounding events simplify Wade’s choice – he opted out to help re-shape a contender around LeBron James, then settled for a 2 year re-upping rather than 4 once James left – but complicates the situation. Wade has been reluctantly tangoing with his basketball mortality for years, now, as his knees have deteriorated and LeBron has ascended the inner-Heat power rankings, but admissions of his new status in the league were always more tacit than implicit. He gradually relinquished control of the offense to James and signed up for the San Antonio “old fart” rest plan, but for all intents and purposes, he was still Dwyane Wade of LeBron, Wade and Bosh.
Only this summer did the Big Three truly separate into a multi-class structure. There was a clear two group divide from the offset: whereas LeBron opted out to get a new max contract and control his next destination, Wade and Bosh were expected to take paycuts. The incentive of adding flexibility could not mask the fact that they were asked to do this to keep LeBron; indeed, the last days of the Big Three were rife with imbalance.
But when LeBron announced he’s coming home, a funny thing happened: Wade and Bosh splintered further. A post-LeBron Miami franchise no longer had the leverage to demand a pre-LeBron paycut from Bosh, and they quickly agreed to a 5 year max deal; Wade, not so much. We can only speculate what Wade and Bosh’s contract figures would have been had LeBron stayed, but only one of them is going to be making that money back. Wade fully accepted, if not embraced, the reality of his current NBA standing, and was rewarded with a cold shoulder.
All of which makes Wade’s 2014-15 all the more fascinating. Accepting diminished status relative to LeBron may be hurtful to a proud Hall of Famer’s ego, but it’s also an understandable move. Now, though, with talk of Bosh as the Heat’s new primary offensive option and the Heat’s playoff fortunes in flux, the reality of age cascades upon Wade like troves of discarded “White Hot” t-shirts. How Wade – and perhaps more importantly, his knees – reacts to his new place in the game could be the difference between a graceful and romantic sunset and a bittersweet slamming door.
Wade could walk away from the game with his legacy intact whenever he so pleases, with any criticism of his place in history absolutely asinine. But he’s not all history, not quite yet. The Dwyane who ferociously assaulted the rim and created havoc defensively en route to three titles is gone, and Wade’s next few years may not bear any title-shaped fruit, but there is still much basketball left for him to give. One can only hope that if a 2009 Wade return campaign – the objectively most fun, but also least likely scenario – can’t happen, he can instead smoothly transition into his golden years. There is beauty in the final stages of a warm, flickering fire that come between the burning, roaring cackle and the final coal flaming out. It would be a shame if we can’t enjoy those with Dwyane.