Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with narrative, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? A narrative post. Let’s discuss Dwyane Wade.
There are many complimentary things you can say about Dwyane Wade. You can say that he’s one of the best players of his era — I have trouble thinking of more than three wings in that frame that were outright better than he was. (To wit: Kobe, LeBron, and (with some caveats) Manu. And yes, most people will disagree about Manu, but perhaps not when you hear the caveats. That’s a subject for another day.) You can say he’s one of the fastest players ever to play the game — few can match Wade’s raw speed. You can say that he’s taken his lumps — it’s not often that stars are forced to languish on teams as dismal as Wade’s post-Shaq teams, the ones that came about while Riley was putting into motion the various machinations that led to the Heat’s current star-studded era. And you can say that, by all accounts, Wade is a good father and a good man. He has style. He has grit. He’s Dwyane Wade.
And yet, in Wade’s story, there’s one thing lacking: the element of surprise.
• • •
Tell me, when was the last time Dwyane Wade truly surprised you, in the broadest sense of the word? The seed of this concept was planted back in 2006, when FreeDarko’s Dr. Lawyer IndianChief wrote perhaps the best Dwyane Wade piece I’ve ever read. In it, the good doctor outlined what Wade had accomplished up to that point. He’d become the second member of the ballyhooed class of 2003 to win an NBA title (behind only Darko Milicic), and the first to win it while playing greater than 20 total minutes in the playoffs (the total number of minutes Darko played in that playoff run — no, not per-game, TOTAL). Wade’s star had gone supernova — his grit and hustle skidded his way across the hardwood and into our hearts. But yet, there was a pang of nostalgia and distrust, at least for me and Dr. IndianChief.
You see, for me at least, nothing about Wade’s magical 2006 run brought the same joy of his 2004 team. The 2004 Heat struck me as the far more interesting unit — replete with his motley Miami-bred crew of Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Wade’s youngest developing form, there were absolutely no expectations on Wade’s first Miami team. It was simply a team with three positionless young stars chipping in their varied skillsets and trying to master their craft. They made the second round of the playoffs, and came within a single poor possession away from forcing a winner-take-all game seven against Reggie Miller’s last great Pacer team. That was a team that made no real logistic sense whatsoever. It could’ve been terrible. And yet, it was a ridiculously fun defensive team, and one of the more entertaining cohesive units of the last decade. One of Stan Van Gundy’s greatest coaching accomplishments, and above all, a team that embodied surprise. It was spectacular.
And what then? Well, Pat Riley acquired Shaquille O’Neal, and suddenly, fate just aligned for Wade. He was on a title contender, and suddenly, his team was expected to be good. And don’t mistake this as criticism — Wade delivered. It was simply different. The doctor discusses this better than I could in his piece, but for those first few years with Shaq, Wade simply didn’t shock anymore. He dazzled, certainly, with his crossover and his dunks and his blazing speed. His abilities were great, his skills unparalleled, his style immaculate. But he suffered almost from a surplus of greatness. Dwyane Wade was named Finals MVP before he could legally rent a car, and somehow, no aspect of his run surprised me. Not the effortlessly dominant performances chained one after another on the dismal march to the promised land, not the contention, not the sudden outbreak of zebra flu in the finals. Nothing.
The Wade/Shaq Heat wasn’t a team that shocked and awed, it was simply a good team doing the things a good team does, and most importantly, living up to expectations. And that’s the key. Even a dynasty like the Spurs involved some level of exceeding expectations — the surfiet of titles was never quite expected for a motley crew of Duncan/Parker/Ginobili, especially not in a Western Conference featuring teams like the Nowitzki Mavericks, the Kobe Lakers, or the Nash Suns. There was never any thought that the Spurs had put together two of the greatest players at their positions of their generations, never quite the overwhelming media hype for Duncan and his brood that Wade/Shaq’s pairing attracted. For Wade, he paired a repertoire of next-level Jordan moves with the then-formidable husk that was once Shaquille O’Neal — one of the greatest big men ever. The question was never “can they win a title”, the question was when. And when they fulfilled dismal destiny and seemed to relinquish Dirk of what seemed to be his grandest shot, there was some element of yawn-worthy precognition attached to it. Because like it or not, we saw it coming.
• • •
While the doctor’s piece stopped there, the narrative kept rumbling onward. There was little to surprise about any of Wade’s teams since. The 2007 Heat were flawed, and as Shaq collapsed to injury, they did too. Wade’s injury robbed him of culpability for the shockingly bad 2008 spell, and the 2009 team was about as interesting in the broader sense as that Heat-Hawks yawner (which is, to me, one of the all-time worst-to-watch series that the playoffs have ever produced, and WITHOUT QUESTION the worst seven-game series). The 2010 Heat were as anyone expected from a team as focused on cultivating its cap space as Riley was — a bit loveable, a bit doomed, and a bit drab. And then, of course, a repeat of his early career — all at once, Wade gathered together two all-generation talents and cast his lot again as the presumptive favorite. In the 2011 Finals the Heat lost, but Wade’s play was exquisite and in no way was the loss his fault. And then, in 2012? The Miami Death Machine rolls forward, the Heat win, and there’s no particular joy for Wade alone. Joy for LeBron, at the culmination of his dreams deferred, sure. Joy for Bosh, his Gordito-fueled celebratory finger guns blazing, sure. But Wade? He won a second ring. He wasn’t the best player on the team, nor was he the worst. A team prohibitively favored to win the title before the season won it. Saw it coming. Chalk rules everything around me. Et cetera.
Thus, Dwyane Wade. The unlimited potential seen of him in his early years never quite came to pass — he never really developed a respectable three point shot, nor did he develop a consistently dominant jumpshot. The Wade that dominated next to Shaq is essentially the exact same player that dominated next to LeBron in 2011. The only wrinkle, now? Actual, tangible wrinkles. That is to say, Wade’s getting old. He’s passed the magical barrier separating a player’s 20s from their 30s, and while too much is made about the decline of a player the second they hit 30, there are quite a few warning signs for Wade. His game is defined on athleticism and injury-risking hustle plays, neither of which hold up well with age. His defense — once all-world — has fallen off a tad, and looks to fall off more as his mobility and speed get compromised. At this point, the surprise is simply gone. If Wade falls off, that’s age. If Wade stays good, that’s Wade. He’s in something of a catch-22, as he has been since his magical rookie season. Nothing he does, positive or negative, will really push the needle. And as thus, boredom sets in. The light droning of forecasts met and predictions made truth.
This isn’t to detract from Wade’s accomplishments or his career. As a whole, Wade will be remembered well. Sooner or later the in-moment parade of expectations fulfilled will fade and the facts will remain. Dwyane Wade is one of the 25-something best players ever. He’s a singular talent, and while his game has always had limitations, the things he excels at have always completely overwhelmed the limitations. Wade did not allow his lack of a shot to keep him from becoming one of the best of all time. He didn’t lose sight of what made him whole, nor did he let his fame allow him to degenerate into a poor father or a poor role model. Wade is an upstanding man, an incredible player, and we’re all blessed to have watched him master his craft. And yet, there’s something so intensely expected about the whole thing. Some nagging sense that a little bit of shock and awe would’ve seasoned his legacy nicely. Some surprise. Some hardship overcome, some team that nobody expected that came back to do the incredible. It bugs me, when I think of Wade, and I readily admit that it makes it harder for me to appreciate him.
• • •
Sitting in my study, I recline back in my chair and open one of my favorite Youtube videos. “Oh, hi Dwyane.” It’s Wade’s wonderful Chicago game winner. You know the one. I follow it closely, on repeat, and begin to imagine small niches to the moment — the sound of the ball cracking on the hardwood as it’s stolen, the whip of John Salmons’ neck as he turns backwards and realizes what’s happening, the echoing roar of the crowd as they realize the same. Dribble, fake, shoot, swish. The crowd falls to disrepair and the game is won. Wade’s unbridled emotion carries it for me — the scream, the protestations, the arrogance. In any other setting, it’s droll and overdone. In this? It’s perfect. Simply perfect. And then I ponder, and consider. I re-learn an important lesson.
Yes, in a broad sense, the moment is nothing — it’s a meaningless winner in a retrospectively dismal season for the Heat. But it’s also everything. It rises above concepts like surprise, glory, and the binary cruelty of a win and a loss. And in those moments, whether the broader narrative disappoints you or not, nothing can take from you the pain and joy of the singular moment — the surprise that a simple Springfield peach-basket has evolved into such gripping drama overrides any broader concerns about a legacy or a narrative. And Wade screams, and pounds, and breaks his way into your heart. No, his career won’t shock you. But he can give you that singular moment of beauty, if you let him.
And that, right there? That’s Wade’s gift. That’s the surprise.
• • •
For more player capsules, check out more of the project on Gothic Ginobili. We’re past 50, now, and today’s slate is a good one. I’ll be back at Hardwood Paroxysm sometime in the next few weeks, most likely. Perhaps even next week! See you then.