It struck us the other night watching Dwyane Wade and LeBron James renew their basketball bromance in their first game as opponents since both left Miami. It hurt a little bit to see. It left us wistful to realize how much we as a community have lost.
To consider what the Heat used to be: the pulsing epicenter of the NBA. And what the Heat has become: just another team scrounging for relevance.
The impact of Wade departing this past summer has been larger than expected. On the team itself. On fans. On a franchise. On South Florida.
LeBron left after the 2014 season, the Big 3 beginning to unravel, but it was going to be all right. We still had D-Wade. Then Chris Bosh began to disappear because of the health issues that have all but ended his career, but it still was going to be OK. We still had No. 3.
Then Wade left — so suddenly, unexpectedly, unfortunately after 13 seasons — and we are still finding out: There is no replacing him. Not by all of the promise of Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson or Tyler Johnson. Not by all of the Hassan Whiteside rebounds and blocks that money can buy.
Wade left, and he left a hole in the franchise, on the court, in the seats at the downtown bayside arena and in a community’s heart.
I’ve been reflecting how different Wade’s leaving has been compared to when the Dolphins nudged Dan Marino into retirement after the 1999 season. Wade, after all, is the only athlete we’ve had who equaled or exceeded what Marino meant.
With Marino, it was time. We knew it, felt it as he walked off the field in Jacksonville a 62-7 playoff loser in his final game, an old man’s gait, knees encased in bulky braces. He had a career-low 67.4 passer rating that year, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns for the first time. He was five years past his last Pro Bowl. He was 38 but seemed older.
The end of the Marino era palpably struck many Dolfans as almost a relief. As if to punctuate that it was for the best, the team went 11-5 in 2000, its best record since ’92.
It wasn’t like that with Wade.
He wasn’t done. The best of his prime was past, but there was zero doubt that, at age 34, he could still help the Heat win now, be relevant now, be a needed bridge as Pat Riley figured out a way into the future.
What has happened proves that.
A quarter of the way into this season, into post-Wade, as Miami hosts the New York Knicks on Tuesday night, the Heat’s 7-13 record is in the bottom fourth, and the 2-7 home record is dead worst. Maybe the Knicks and the vestiges of a once-great rivalry can return some missing electricity to the arena.
Miami’s 97.1-point scoring average is third from the bottom.
Wade’s 19.1 points per game for the Chicago Bulls? It would lead the Heat.
Miami’s home sellout streak continues at 302 games, second longest in the NBA, but empty seats have been an increasingly glaring issue and made a paper tiger of that streak. Actual attendance is down. And ask any season-ticket holder about the resale market.
As recently as last season Miami was still a top-10 draw (ninth) in average road attendance. So far this season, post-Wade, Miami has plummeted to 23rd. Local Heat TV ratings fell 27 percent, to a 5.0 average, the first season after LeBron left. They dipped to 4.5 last season. Early this season, post-Wade, they’d fallen to 3.7.
Coach Erik Spoelstra’s starting lineup has been a revolving potpourri, partly because of injuries, and partly because a franchise is feeling its way, hands outstretched in the dark. Miami has used 12 different combinations of fivesomes on the floor; only four teams have used more.
This does not look like a playoff team. With Wade, it would be.
Riley and the Heat made a cold business decision to let Wade go, to offer a credible contract but too late. They figured a three-year deal might buy one more strong season of Wade but saddle the club with two years of decline. I wonder if that was a miscalculation. I wonder if Riley wonders, too.
The principles say they won’t check the rear-view mirror.
“I don’t think I’m going to look back,” James said of his four Miami seasons, before his Cavaliers faced Wade’s Bulls on Friday night.
“At the end of the day,” Wade said, “we sacrificed points, but what we gained was championships.”
The “Heatles” played in four consecutive NBA Finals and produced two parades, but as former Heat player James Jones noted: “The band is disbanded.”
It is no disrespect meant to the other two to say that this season is reminding us — as if we didn’t know — that only one of the Big 3 meant so much to South Florida that he left a crater and an aching where he stood.