Timeline: A look at how LeBron James and Dwyane Wade's epic NBA careers remain linked
From the 2003 NBA Draft to the Banana Boat to NBA champions, James and Wade have been through a lot
One of the slept-on sad parts of LeBron James playing for the Lakers is that now he and Dwyane Wade only get to face each other twice this season. The Lakers got the better of the Heat last month, but now the Heat will travel to Los Angeles so the two stars can square off one last time Monday night (10:30 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension).
It's a bittersweet ending to playful rivals-turned-teammates-turned-rivals. James and Wade are part of one of the craziest drafts (2003) in NBA history that yielded James, Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh in the top five (sorry, Pistons). While it took James a few years to drag the Cavaliers kicking and screaming to the playoffs, Wade, alongside Shaquille O'Neal, helped turn the Heat into a legit title contender after just a few years in the league -- winning it all in 2006 after falling short the season before.
Here's a look at how we got to where we are with James and Wade, and why their legacies are intrinsically linked.
2001: LeBron is recognized by SLAM Magazine as basketball's best high school player
James made waves for years leading up to him being drafted No. 1 overall in 2003. Arguably one of the things that started generating the hype was SLAM's Ryan Jones saying that he's arguably "the best high school basketball player in America right now." From there, wheels were turning. James and his high school -- St. Vincent-St. Mary's -- became must-see basketball. With that, James was always going to go pro out of high school, and he was seen as a sure thing.
2002: James' high school goes on national tour, plays on ESPN2
It's not often that you see a high school team end up on pay-per-view, but that's exactly what happened with St. Vincent-St. Mary's. They even played a game on ESPN. James and the Fighting Irish went around the country, playing against nationally ranked teams, and with each game the myth of James grew. His hype was at a fever pitch after the season, and the St. Vincent-St. Mary's star was ready for the big time.
March 2003: Marquette goes to Final Four behind Dwyane Wade
While all of this was going on, college basketball was still being played and Wade was building a name for himself. In 2002-03, Wade averaged 21.5 points for the Golden Eagles, and Marquette played in its third Final Four, its first since winning the national title in 1977. While Marquette would get blown out by Kansas, Wade's breakout season put him on everyone's radar, and he won the Conference USA Player of the Year for his efforts.
June 26, 2003: James and Wade selected first and fifth overall in NBA Draft
Elevated by his team's performance, Wade became a top-five pick, whereas there was never any doubt where the Cavaliers would go first overall. Cleveland would select James. Miami took Wade four picks later.
Nov. 12, 2003: Wade, Heat get the better of LeBron's Cavaliers in their first meeting
Wade and James played each other for the first time on struggling teams. The Heat were 0-7 coming in, the Cavaliers were 2-5. James shot 6 of 15 from the floor for 18 points in 42 minutes, also notching seven assists. Wade, meanwhile, scored 14 points on 5-of-17 shooting, with five rebounds and seven assists. All in all, it was a pretty pedestrian game for everyone involved, but both teams had made investments that would very clearly pay off down the road.
2004: Wade, Heat win a playoff series as James wins Rookie of the Year
Both players had successful seasons in their own right. James would win Rookie of the Year after playing 39 games of 40-plus minutes and averaging 20.9 points. The Heat made the playoffs behind Wade and Lamar Odom, with Wade averaging 16.2 points. This would be the only season in which Wade didn't make the All-Star team until 2017. The Heat beat the Hornets in seven games in the first round, but the Pacers would beat them in six to win the conference semifinals. Wade averaged 18 points in the playoffs.
July 14, 2004: Shaquille O'Neal traded to Miami for Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, future first-rounder
Wade was definitely the first of the two stars to get some help. While Caron Butler and Odom had shown flashes of being able to lead a team, the Heat simply couldn't pass up getting Shaq. O'Neal wanted a raise after the Lakers had lost to the Pistons in the NBA Finals, but the Lakers didn't budge. O'Neal brought legitimate star power to the Heat, and it showed. In 2004-05, Wade jumped to 24.1 points per game and became a legitimate star.
February 2005: Wade, James make their first All-Star team, play together for first time
Wade didn't start the 2005 All-Star Game, but LeBron and Shaq did. James played over 30 minutes in the star-studded event, scoring 13 points. Wade played just over 23 minutes off the bench, providing 14 points. The two would go on to play in every All-Star Game together through 2016.
2006 regular season: Wade, James trade wins in ridiculous regular-season duels
On March 12, 2006, Wade and James gave us a glimpse of what this rivalry could be. James and Wade scored 47 and 35 points in an epic battle that ended with the Heat winning 98-92. The bench was being the difference, with the Heat reserves outscoring the Cavs' 38-5. Less than a month later, they played again, with the Cavs getting revenge. James scored 47 while Wade scored 44, and the Cavaliers went on to win 106-99 in a furious comeback.
2006 playoffs: Heat win NBA Finals; Cavs reach postseason for first time with James
Believe it or not, Wade and James never shared a court in the playoffs before James took his talents to South Beach. James averaged a ridiculous 31.4 points on a team whose second option was Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The Cavaliers would lose in the second round to the Pistons in seven games, but James was starting to see team success -- even if he was the one willing it. Wade was a bona fide superstar at this point, and he had claimed command of the Heat. He averaged over 27 points and won the NBA Finals MVP after the Heat beat the Mavericks in six games. Wade averaged 34.7 points in the Finals, along with nearly eight rebounds.
The 2007 postseason was the clearest indication that James needed some help. The Cavaliers were willed to the NBA Finals by James, most notably in a double-overtime thriller against the Pistons in Game 5 of the conference finals. James scored the Cavaliers' final 25 points to take the swing game in a 2-2 series. The loss demoralized Detroit, and the Cavaliers went on to win Game 6, 98-82. The Spurs, however, dismantled the Cavs in the Finals. Daniel Gibson led the Cavaliers in scoring in Game 1 with 16 points, but for the next three games no one on the Cavaliers except James would break 15 points. Against the well-oiled machine that was the Spurs, it wasn't enough, and the Cavaliers came up well short.
Wade averaged a career-high (at the time) 24.4 points, but the Bulls had the Heat's number in the opening series. They followed up their NBA championship with a first-round sweep in what would be O'Neal's last full season with Miami before being traded to the Suns 33 games into the next season.
June 2008: Celtics win NBA Finals behind 'Big 3' of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett
The year 2008 wasn't about James or Wade; it was all about the rise of the superteam era. In the NBA, before 2008, the general philosophy was that you build around one or two superstars, barring some notable exceptions (Magic and Kareem, Kobe and Shaq, Wade and Shaq, etc.) However, the Celtics went out and landed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the offseason via trades. They went on to steamroll the league, finishing 66-16. The playoffs, however, were a far bigger challenge. They needed seven games to beat the Hawks before they encountered the Cavaliers. Enter James.
James was held to just 12 points in Game 1, and it looked like the Celtics would cruise in the series. After that, James averaged 29.2 points in the series, including 45 points in Game 7. He ultimately came up short, and the message was clear: You need help to ultimately win in today's NBA. It took the Celtics 26 postseason games to win the NBA Finals, but the Big 3 was there to stay.
2008-09 season: James and Wade drop 40 apiece in one more epic clash
On March 2, 2009, the Heat and the Cavs locked horns again. James scored 42 points and shot 6 of 7 from beyond the arc, whereas Wade had 41. The Cavaliers would go on to win 107-100 and improve to 47-12 on the season, while the Heat fell to 31-28. The Cavs would lose to the Magic in the conference finals, while the Heat lost in the first round to the Hawks.
2009: James wins first of four MVPs in five seasons
James averaged 28.4 points for the Cavaliers in 2008-09, but he was also building his all-around game. He averaged 7.2 assists for the second consecutive season, and he was coming into his own as a legitimate play-maker. The Lakers went on to win the 2009 NBA title, but James was the NBA's premier superstar.
2010 playoffs: Celtics knock out both Heat, Cavs in back-to-back rounds
Who knows what motivated James and Wade to team up, but this could have been a strong motivator. The Celtics played the Heat in the first round of the 2010 playoffs, winning in five games. They then played the Cavaliers and won in six games, despite more strong performances from Wade and James. Wade averaged over 30 points in his series against the Celtics, and James averaged 26.8. James would win MVP again, while Wade was marooned on a Heat team whose No. 2 option, Jermaine O'Neal, had suddenly become a shell of his former All-Star self.
July 8, 2010: The Decision
Wade and James were stars without support in a league that was demanding depth out of its teams. As such, there was plenty of talk in 2010 regarding where James and the Raptors' Chris Bosh would end up. On July 8, James controversially announced that he was "taking my talents to South Beach" on an ESPN special. Bosh completed a sign-and-trade to the Heat just two days later, and the NBA's premier mega-team was formed.
July 2010: Heat welcome party
This was one of the gaudiest, yet most amazing displays of excess in sports history. Bosh and James donned their new duds for the first time, with James becoming No. 6. In an absolutely wild rally that featured James, Wade and Bosh sitting on stools, James infamously promised "not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven ..." championships. Remember, these guys hadn't played a game for the Heat yet.
October-November 2010: Heat Big 3 get off to a rocky start
After all of the glitz, it wasn't quite what people expected. The Heat were 9-8, and while they didn't look bad, they definitely weren't living up to the billing. Some started to question if these stars could coexist. This would emerge as a theme among James' teams: It took a while before they would coalesce. James was averaging 23.4 points while Wade was at 21.3, but it didn't feel like things were coming together.
December 2010: Heat explode onto the scene, highlighted by iconic play
The Heat went 16-1 in December, but the biggest moment of the streak came on Dec. 6 in an 88-78 win over the Bucks. On a break, Wade dropped a pass off to James, who threw it down for a tomahawk dunk while Wade ran without looking and with outstretched arms. The photo announced the arrival of the Heat's Big 3, and to this day is one of the most iconic photos of that era.
June 2011: Heat implode, get stunned by Mavericks in NBA Finals
The Heat finished 58-24, second in the East, and they breezed through the playoffs with three five-game series. Then, however, they ran into the Mavericks. They jumped out to a 2-1 lead in the series, but the Mavs, led by Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, won three straight games to win the title in six. It was a shockingly disappointing end to the beginning of the Heat superteam, but the groundwork was in place.
2011-12: Heat win NBA Finals behind ridiculous postseason performances from James
These seasons are kind of why James doesn't win the MVP every year -- someone else has to win it. James averaged 27.1 points plus 6.2 assists. Wade, meanwhile, averaged 22.1 points, a drop-off from his 25 points the season before. The team, however, looked like it had come together. The season was shortened to 66 games due to a lockout, but the Heat didn't feel the rust. They started 19-6, the best start in franchise history, and they finished 46-20, second in the East.
In the 2012 playoffs, the rivalry with the Celtics came to a head for James. In Game 6, we got "the stare" -- the moment in which James decided he was going to bury Boston. The Celtics were up 3-2 in the series and had won three straight against the Heat before James looked up with his hands on his knees. James scored 45 points in Game 6 before the Heat won in Game 7, and then went on to beat the Thunder in five games for James' first career NBA championship -- and Wade's second.
February-March 2013: Heat go on historic 27-game win streak
The next season, the Heat met the Spurs in the Finals -- this time with Ray Allen. It was a ridiculous season for the Heat, who put together a 27-game win streak -- at the time the second longest (now third longest) in NBA history. The streak began on Feb. 3, and ended March 27. It took a loss to the Bulls to snap the streak, and left the Heat trailing only the 1971-72 Lakers, who won 33 straight games.
James averaged 27 points during the streak, with Wade at 22.8. James complemented that with eight assists. This was the final form of the Heat, what they were always supposed to be: an unstoppable juggernaut here to dismantle NBA defenses. Wade was inactive for the final two wins of the streak, and after it was snapped James was inactive or didn't play for six of the final 11 games of the season, while Wade missed seven of those games.
2013 NBA Finals: Heat repeat as champs, oust Spurs in seven games
In the playoffs, the Heat had barely escaped the anti-Miami Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, winning in seven games, and it took seven to beat the Spurs. Ray Allen turned out to be the difference, hitting a game-tying 3-pointer in Game 6 that forced a do-or-die Game 7. The Heat would go on to win in seven, and James, Wade and Bosh were back-to-back NBA champions. James averaged 25.3 points while Wade averaged 19.6. Allen had 74 points total, but three of those points were among the biggest in Finals history:
For the season, James averaged 26.8 points and 7.3 assists. His consistent level of play won him his second straight MVP, and the Heat were looking like everything that was promised to them by James, Wade and Bosh.
2014 NBA Finals: Heat lose to Spurs in rematch, fall short of three-peat
The Heat's streak came to an end earlier than expected, and it was proven that James should have stopped his welcome party quote at "not three." Miami lost to the Spurs in five games in the 2014 NBA Finals, as Wade saw a massive drop-off in his production. It was clear that time was catching up to the 32-year-old star, and the Heat weren't able to sustain their furious pace from the previous two seasons. The 2014 NBA Finals were a sort of coming-out-party for series MVP Kawhi Leonard.
July 2014: James goes back to Cleveland
In the 2014 offseason, James announced in a Sports Illustrated piece that he was returning to Cleveland, breaking up Miami's Big 3. Wade and Bosh remained with the Heat, and they missed the playoffs the following season while the Cavs went to the NBA Finals for the first of four consecutive trips.
2015: Banana Boat photo surfaces, talks of another superteam begin
The theoretical Banana Boat team would consist of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul (not to mention Gabrielle Union). A of Wade, James and Paul on vacation together, with Anthony out of frame. All of the players involved have expressed interest to some degree of forming the team, but it ultimately never came to fruition.
2016 NBA Finals: LeBron leads Cavaliers to first championship
James finally broke Cleveland's sports curse by leading the Cavaliers to the NBA championship in 2016. Down 3-1 to the Warriors in the NBA FInals, the Cavaliers stormed back to win the series. James was, as usual, the focal point of the team, averaging 25.3 points, 6.8 assists and 7.4 rebounds at the ripe age of 31. However, just like the Ray Allen shot years before, it took a Kyrie Irving clutch shot to put the Cavs on top:
July 2016: Wade leaves Heat to join Bulls
In the 2016 offseason, Wade left the Heat to join the Bulls in his hometown. Wade still played at a good level, averaging over 18 points, but his days as an every-night superstar were well behind him.
August-September 2017: Irving forces himself out of Cleveland; Wade joins James for one last run
Wade signed with the Cavaliers on Sept. 27, 2017, after reaching a buyout agreement with the Bulls. He would spend just three games in the Cavs' starting lineup before J.R. Smith started in his stead. Wade averaged 23.2 minutes and 11.2 points in 46 games with the Cavaliers, as James continued to carry Cleveland.
Trade deadline 2018: Wade traded back to Miami
Ultimately, Wade needed to be home. He wasn't contributing to the Cavaliers enough to justify his presence there, and the Heat wanted their legacy player back. Wade was part of a huge purge from the Cavaliers at the deadline, getting sent to the Heat for a protected 2024 second-rounder. It was, in essence, for nothing, but the Cavaliers wanted Miami to have its star back. It's easy to think that everything James had done for Cleveland had something to do with it.
2018 offseason: James heads out to Los Angeles as Wade stays in Miami
On July 1, James committed to signing with the Lakers, putting him in the Western Conference for the first time. There was plenty of talk about Wade's future, but in a dramatic announcement, he said he would play one more season. The Lakers beat the Heat in Miami earlier this season, and they face off one more time Monday.
Since rejoining Miami, Wade has been playing for the Heat and selling out every alternate jersey they have of him. James is trying to bring the Lakers a championship surrounded by young talent, but he faces staunch competition in the West. Monday marks the end of one of the best rivals-turned-teammates stories in sports. Wade and James have tons of respect for each other,. So Monday will definitely be an emotional night for both players as Wade's retirement tour continues.
Although the Wade-James-Bosh era burned bright, it was shorter than expected. Back-to-back championships were bookended by Finals losses, but the highs were insane. The 27-game win streak, LeBron's 45-point game vs. Boston, all of the flash in between -- even the superteams that formed after failed to match the hype that this one generated. It was the blueprint, and it wasn't perfect, but James and Wade seemed to share some of their best years in Miami. That's why, despite James' abrupt return to Cleveland, it seemed like a good share of Heat fans were disappointed,(note: A lot of people harbored animosity anyways).
Their careers are symmetrical, in a way. First-time All Stars the same year, Wade wins a championship without James to begin his career, James wins one without Wade toward the end of Wade's, but the two always have the two championships they won together. For all of the drama with the Heat, Wade and James were never at odds. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra might even give Wade some extra minutes Monday, you never know. All we know is that it will be emotional to see these two congratulate each other after the game for the last time.
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