Dwyane Wade is going to wear a Bulls uniform next season, and it will look wrong.
This NBA summer has become about breakups; painful, heartbreaking, inconceivable-four-years-ago breakups. Derrick Rose has left the city that raised him and been sent to New York. Kevin Durant abandoned the town he trumpeted as his kingdom so that he could be One Of Many Warriors. And in the latest instance of the NBA going completely upside down, Wade walked away from the Miami Heat Wednesday night, signing a two-year, $48 million deal with the Bulls, confirmed by Ken Berger of CBS Sports.
He's going home to his native Chicago, after flirting with the Bulls in 2010 before forming the Triad with LeBron James and Chris Bosh, and after flirting with the Bucks, Cavaliers and Nuggets this summer. But Wade's decision has less to do with his Chicago roots as it does with the poisoned branches of his relationship with the Heat.
This was a long time coming, and everyone in Miami tried to telegraph that it was on the horizon. Indications started early last year before free agency that Wade was effectively looking for backpay. Pat Riley had asked him to take less to accomodate the Heat's superstar roster, and to provide the cap space to contend, Wade obliged. With James back in Cleveland and Chris Bosh locked up for the future, Wade wanted to be made whole.
Riley always found some reason not to do so.
He had to pay Bosh to keep him from Houston. He had to pay Goran Dragic after trading assets. This summer was the final nail in the coffin. Hassan Whiteside, the temperamental, volatile phenom who Wade had grown to embrace, got his big payday on the first day of free agency. So yes, when you ask "Did it really come down to just $5.5 million?"
Wade had to draw a line in the sand for what he felt he was worth. There is a great deal of talk about Wade's decline. The plus/minus numbers indicate the Heat were worse by 3.8 net points per 100 possessions with Wade on the floor vs. off last year. The True Shooting numbers indicate that he was 11th out of 12 players with his usage rate last season. His PER, field-goal percentage, points per game, per 36 minutes, per 100 possessions were all the lowest since his rookie season.
But here's the thing.
Wade was still really good.
This isn't Kobe Bryant when he wanted that two-year, $25 million extension. The end is not in sight for Wade. It's expected, to be sure. But folks have been planning the basketball wake for Dwyane Wade for four seasons now and at this point, the beer's gone warm and sandwiches are stale. Wade still averaged 19 points and 4.6 assists per game, and his per-100-possessions numbers were only matched by these six names: Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Blake Griffin.
Oh, and that plus/minus figure? The Heat still outscored opponents by a point with Wade on the floor. They were still better than the opponent.
It would be one thing if Wade were clearly a shell of himself, but that moment hasn't happened yet, and until it does, Wade should be pursuing a deal that is in line with his talent, experience and star power.
The Heat, on the other hand, made the cold hard, rational decision, and it's easy to compliment, or at least respect them for that decision. They didn't want to be paying a soon-to-be-35-year-old Dwyane Wade $24 million per year. Again, the Lakers were dogged for such a position with Kobe Bryant. But if you're not going to spend it on Wade, who are you going to spend it on? Hassan Whiteside? Goran Dragic who has been a disappointment since the big trade that brought him to the team two years ago?
There are flashes with Dragic, but Dragic has almost never been the best player on the floor for Miami.
Riley wasn't keeping that space open for what he has, but for what he plans to have. He has big dreams for acquiring a free agent that will reestablish Miami's future. Except he had those dreams last year with LaMarcus Aldridge. And he had them again this summer with Kevin Durant. He'll try again next summer with Chris Paul or Blake Griffin or Russell Westbrook.
Except all the fortunate turns that Riley has created all spilled out of Wade. He was able to leverage young athletic pieces in Lamar Odom and Caron Butler into Shaquille O'Neal, then parlayed Wade's emergence as a top star in the sport into a pitch for LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Riley is the Godfather, but Wade's been the vehicle of his influence.
And somewhere inside all of this was the idea that the Heat were a superior organization. That they were professional, and took care of their players. That's a big deal in the NBA. Feeling like the organization cares about its players and has their interests at heart. The Heat have danced with this line, at once portraying the team as something of a family, and then making cold-blooded decisions like waiving team-favorite Mike Miller to avoid paying a hefty luxury tax. But to let Wade walk?
Several NBA sources over the past few days expressed skepticism that Wade and Miami would actually split. The other offers were seen as leverage. But the Heat kept pushing and pushing, daring Wade to actually alter his legacy by leaving the only franchise he's ever known.
The Heat are not a team that takes care of its players no matter what, they are a team that takes care of its players so long as their basketball usefulness remains pursuant to a championship.
There's a cruel irony in that the Heat were the ones who helped kick off the 2011 salary cap changes in the CBA that made spending sprees so much more limited in NBA free agency, and yet in the biggest fluke spending summer in NBA history, they didn't have what they felt was the flexibility to afford paying Wade. It wasn't about this year, it was about the future, but it is shocking that in the same summer that the Warriors added Kevin Durant, the Heat felt like they couldn't afford Dwyane Wade.
Wade leaves for Chicago, and in time, these wounds will heal. Riley and Wade will come together again, in this career for Wade or the next. Eventually Wade will take his place as he has throughout his time, following Alonzo Mourning's footsteps into the front office and as an ambassador for the team in the community. But the time it takes to warm that relationship back up will be chilly for sure.
Wade ultimately changed teams for the first time in his career, ending the chance for him to start and finish his career with just one team, for just $5.5 million, according to reports. The Heat let the best player in franchise history and the face of the team for 13 years who won them three titles walk away for just $5.5 million.
There are questions about Wade's fit in Chicago, about how the Heat will adapt and move forward, about the negotiations and relative unrest. But in the end, you get the sense that the same question will haunt both Wade and Riley in the coming weeks, months, and years.
"Was it worth it?"