Dwyane Wade v. Pat Riley: No Winners Here
How disrespect of a legend lead to his departure and what it says about the delicate balance between basketball and business.
By: Michael G. Lefkowitz
There comes a point where an organization must cut bait with the past and turn its attention towards the future. The Miami Heat had not yet reached that point with Dwyane Wade, but nevertheless, Wade is on his way to Chicago in the most shocking move of this blockbuster free agency period. The move leaves an entire city, and most of the NBA, stunned. There had always been grumblings of discontent between the Heat and Wade, but the smart money was always on his eventual return. But as the dust clears from the chaos, there are two prevailing schools of thought; neither of which are completely wrong nor completely correct.
For those who support Riley’s decision to end Miami’s relationship with the face of the franchise, the move was justified because Wade’s effectiveness had dropped in recent seasons and Riley was smart to move on before Wade turned into end-stage Kobe Bryant; an aging legend signed to an onerous contract usurping the team’s cap space. And to an extent, this point of view has its merits; Riley is looking out for the future of the Miami Heat, and this move can be seen as a calculated move to avoid the eventual nostalgia stage of Wade’s career. Nostalgia is unavoidable, and is a welcome emotion when someone hangs up their kicks for good, but it doesn’t do a franchise any good when they’re paying a player a near-max contract for nostalgia’s sake. But the manner in which Riley jettisoned Miami’s all-time leader in games, minutes, points, assists, and steals is what many take issue with. But the bottom line is Riley is looking out for the Heat’s future. This is an outcome that Riley surely weighed when he decided not to pick up the phone to talk to Dwyane during this free agency period. In a period of uncertainty for the franchise, Riley picked the future, and cap flexibility, over arguably overpaying Wade to stay afloat in a weak-ish East.
There are certain players that are synonymous with a city or a franchise. The two are inseparable; Dirk and the Mavs, Bird and the Celtics, Reggie and the Pacers, Duncan and the Spurs, Kobe and the Lakers. When you talk to fans of those teams, those lifetime players are held in the highest regard. They are untouchable, and with good reason. For many years, that guy in Miami was Dan Marino, but Dwyane Wade had all but replaced Marino as the most beloved, and most important, athlete in the history of Miami professional sports. The only thing that would strip Wade of this title would be the unthinkable, and that’s exactly what happened. Monetarily speaking, Wade left Miami for about seven million more dollars in Chicago. Unfortunately, Wade walked away from something that is worth far more than that; sports immortality. On the part of the Heat organization, someone has to recognize this. Wade is a smart, aware player, and surely this dawned on him; one has to wonder how deep the level of disrespect has to be to convince him to leave the only franchise he has ever known. For the Heat, you have to go down with the ship, no matter what happens along the way. In the grand scheme, barring something miraculous, people will not talk about the Wade years in Chicago, just as nobody talks about Hakeem on the Raptors, or Ewing on the Sonics, but they happened and that’s what matters. Once you cross that line, you lose your chance at becoming a sports immortal in that city. For an executive that is praised for his foresight, Riley must be questioned for his callous treatment of Wade. Talent like Wade’s does not come around very often, especially talent that had developed and flourished in the same place for 13 years. If Wade were to have finished his career with Miami, he would have joined that list of names that are immortalized in sports history. But clearly Riley had wronged him so irreparably that not even the reward of ultimate legend status was enough to keep him.
This unhappy ending to the Heat-Wade story reveals some ugly truths and differences between basketball, and the business of the basketball. At the highest levels of performance, in any sector, pride and egos are just as valuable as contracts. When two living legends clash, especially those who were supposedly on the same side, the end result can often be ugly. Pat Riley is always in control, and he rules with an iron fist. It’s how he has carved out one of the most successful careers in NBA history; he is cold, calculating, and brilliant, this personality harbors his greatest strengths, and his glaring weaknesses. Dwyane Wade is a generational talent and a fiercely prideful man. He’s a critical reason why the Heat have won 3 titles in the past 11 seasons, more than any other franchise over that time period. Both men have earned the immense amount of respect they rightfully deserve. However, when you break down their relationship, Riley has always had the upper hand, until he didn’t. In the past, Riley had called out Dwyane for being overweight, and Wade responded by losing weight. Riley orchestrated the biggest free agent coup in the history of the league, signing three all-stars in their primes, including LeBron James, the best player in the league since Michael Jordan. But it was Wade who had to make room for the other two. And when LeBron bolted to Cleveland, and Bosh was close to leaving for Houston, Riley once again called on Wade to make the room to max out Bosh. Wade obliged, as he had for years. But this time, when nobody saw it coming, Wade left Riley powerless (or by Riley’s design) and made his statement; ‘I’m worth more than what you’re offering me.’ Let me be clear: Dwyane Wade did not leave Miami because Chicago offered him 47 million instead of 40, he left because Riley had abused his power, and ticked off a man with a similar level of pride. The result of this high-stakes battle of wills left the Heat without the best player in franchise history or certain plan for the future and stripped Wade of the ending his illustrious career surely deserves.
While the short-term impact is clear; Wade plays for the Bulls now and Riley steers the Heat in a new direction; the longer-term impacts are still murky. The Heat organization has long been lauded as first-class. In a league where poorly run teams become a laughing stock and subject to ridicule, the Heat’s reputation has always been sterling. One has to worry if this perception will change now. This divorce was messy and very public. It played out very much unlike how the Heat usually do business. Will this messy ending have any bearing on future dealings in Miami? And for Dwyane, a rare opportunity was lost, but at what cost?
In Miami, and across the league, all of the requisite emotions are on display, some are angry, a lot are shocked, but most are sad. Sad for Dwyane and sad for the Miami Heat; this surely was not how the story was supposed to end. Both Wade and the Heat had valid positions, so neither party should shoulder the blame. Maybe the disagreements were so severe that it was best to move on, but even still, one must ponder what could have been for a sports legend in Miami.
To find answers for these hard questions, we can see Wade and Riley both leading by example; both men turn towards an ambiguous future, both as proud as ever. But one thing is for sure, neither side won here.