It is sad and business-cold but now close to inevitable that the career of the greatest player in a franchise’s history — and in this case the most accomplished athlete South Florida sports has ever had — winds down not with amiable acclamation, but in contentious negotiation.
This isn’t a divorce, yet, but it almost reads like one: Dwyane Wade v. Miami Heat.
The first place you want to go is to pick sides, to lay blame, but resist the easy either/or and explore the gray here. There is no villain. It isn’t Wade electing to test NBA free agency come Friday because contract talks to remain in Miami have proved unsatisfactory to him. And it isn’t the club for wanting him to sign for less so it might have the financial freedom to go hard after Kevin Durant and also keep Hassan Whiteside. Both sides are justified in their mind-set and course, and that is what makes middle ground and compromise so hard to envision. It reminds us of the top-10 song from 1967 by Buffalo Springfield with the lyric, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” Only, here, nobody’s wrong if everybody’s right.
Somebody will give in, though, or the once-unthinkable could happen: Wade leaving the Heat after an epic epoch of 13 seasons.
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The issues are money, pride and pragmatics.
Through Wade’s eyes, the view is clear. Unobstructed. He has sacrificed much for his franchise, financially and otherwise, and doesn’t wish to do so yet again. He is 34 but coming off his healthiest season in years. He has adopted a nickname, “Father Prime,” that acknowledges his age but also defies it, and anyone doubting the great shape he is in might check out his unadorned photo spread in ESPN The Magazine’s new “Body” issue. Wade signed a one-year deal for $20 million last summer, and it’s understandable he’d find the suggestion of a massive pay cut to be hurtful, an insult. He doesn’t want his money as a sentimental career-achievement bonus, some golden parachute — he wants what he believes he has earned.
It isn’t exactly right to say Wade, the most beloved player in the club’s 28 seasons, has been underappreciated in his career here, but there are tendrils of truth there. Look at the time line. After his rookie year the club acquired the domineering, larger-than-life Shaquille O’Neal. Two years after Shaq’s run ended here the Heat brought in some guy named LeBron James. After LeBron departed, the mega-contract and No. 1 player mantel went to Chris Bosh. Now, as another free agency period loomed, Wade listened as Heat president Pat Riley called re-signing Whiteside “our No. 1 priority, period,” and alluded to the lure of going after a free agent “whale” such as Durant. Wade has been the constant (the constant you might take for granted), but also oft overshadowed.
“I hope everything is quiet and works out the way I want it to,” Wade said of the summer now heaving down upon us in his postseason synopsis six weeks ago. “But I have no control over that. It’s a lot of moving parts in free agency.”
Through Riley’s eyes, through the Heat’s, the view also is clear. Unobstructed. Riley’s job is to have the vision to see the future, and the one he wants for Miami requires Wade to sign a one-year deal for perhaps $10 million or even less. That, based on all of the Byzantine salary-cap ramifications our eyes would glaze over to detail here, would give the Heat the flexibility to be seriously in play for Durant -- with whom it will have a meeting, one of only six teams on that blessed list -- and also to keep Whiteside. Riley would be negligent if making Wade happy this summer was an emphasis that in any way jeopardized the Heat having a shot at Durant, which (sorry, Hassan) needs to be Miami’s real No. 1 priority, period.
(Quick aside: In a procedural move it was announced Wednesday that LeBron would not exercise his player option with the champion Cavaliers, meaning he too will become a free agent on Friday. But he has stated he has “no intentions” of leaving Cleveland again, so we’ll take him at his word until which time he schedules his first visit with another team. LeBron would join Durant as the only two free agents any team, including Miami, would try to move heaven and earth to have.)
Heat fans surely would forgive Riley sacrificing Wade’s Miami future if it meant getting Durant, but it might take that and nothing less to ease the shock of losing No. 3.
What happens in the next week, whether Wade stays or leaves, might depend on the market, on interest from others. Will any team think Wade, at 34, still is a $20 million-a-year man? Would his pride have him leave Miami for the bottom line even if it were just a few million more? Might he even go to a team less positioned to compete and win? Or might Wade gamble to wait and see whether Durant says no thanks to Miami and then hope the Heat’s offer to him increases?
Plainly the onus in all of this is on Pat Riley, architect and vision man, deal maker and master closer.
It is Riley who must take the Heat’s available spending money and try to fit all he wants most under that umbrella: Hitting a grand slam with Durant, keeping the promise of Whiteside, and doing right by Wade.
Having all three might be impossible.
It’s losing all three that would be Riley’s darkest nightmare.