By Vince Thomas, for NBA.com
Posted Jul 16 2009 6:50AM
What was the story that clubbed us over the head more than any other, on a weekly basis, for the first part of last season? It wasn't Boston's two double-digit winning streaks. Wasn't the impending salary cap doom. Wasn't "Hold up, how did Cleveland get this good?" either. It was the Dwyane Wade Is Back story arch.
They started last summer, while he was leading the Redeem Team in scoring -- not to mention catching oops on the break and slamming 'em down with windmill dunks. Then the season started and D. Wade was dropping 30-and-10s about as often as Greg Oden sat on the bench with four fouls and towel over his head. Yeah, D. Wade was back. But, was he back?
Amid all the stories this summer -- Ron-Ron to La-La; the Hedo U-turn; the Jazz possibly taking out a loan to pay Paul Millsap's salary; Shaq to LeBron; Crawford dunking on LeBron; etc. -- there's the story that D. Wade hasn't truly mattered for three years and none of these signings or trades seem to be helping him rejoin his buddies at the top.
After winning the Finals MVP in 2006, it was D. Wade with the relevancy -- not Kobe or LeBron. D. Wade had Shaq, Riles, the O'Brien trophy, the contending team, the accolades, the T-Mobile commercials -- he was The Man.
Kobe was the league's best player, but balling for a team that started Smush Parker at point guard (and Uncle Fish and Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza nowhere in sight), about a year away from demanding a trade on an amateur video taken in a strip mall parking lot.
LeBron was a year away from the Finals and burdened with the task of being Paul Bunyon every night. D12 and CP3 were still relative babies. When you looked at everything big-picture style, D. Wade was the kat to be in 2006 and for the foreseeable future. For him to be "back" he needs to get back to that place or, at least, somewhere in that vicinity.
The problem is that homeboy and his team sunk so low. Wade followed up the 2006 'ship with the veteran Heat by heading to the IR in February of 2007. Both he and Shaq spent half of that season in designer gear on the bench instead of their jerseys. Miami ended that season getting booted from the Playoffs by the scrappy Young Bulls in the first round. It wasn't a tough series, though -- the defending champs got swept. SWEPT! D. Wade and Shaq were swept ... by the Bulls!
If that was a fall from grace, then the next year was a disappearance.
Wade hobbled up and down the court, playing for the league's most putrid squad. The season ended with Wade injured and the Heat clutching the NBA's worst record. I remember thinking that D. Wade -- the dude that was on top of the league just two years earlier and had a realistic chance to be the best player of his generation -- was, at that moment, the league's most tragic figure. The road back to the top didn't just look arduous, it looked unlikely.
Well, he's on his way now. Nobody played better basketball than D. Wade last year. Not LeBron, not Chris Paul, not Kobe -- not a freakin' soul. But the Miami Heat didn't matter when it mattered most. Wade spent much of last year playing "Dad" to youngsters like Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley, instead of "leader" on a contending team. While Kobe is a champion and D. Wade's '03 cronies 'Bron and 'Melo head into next season on elite squads, D. Wade is coming back to the same Heat.
Barring a blockbuster (and I don't mean a lame-duck contract with A.I.) or a Beasley-breakout (wishful thinking), Miami remains a middling Playoff squad, at best. The Playoffs might even be a stretch with Washington and Toronto in significantly better shape than last year. To make matters worse, the economy is shrinking salary caps, which will restrict 2010 player movement, which would seem to make long shots out of the Lebron-D. Wade or D. Wade-Amar'e or D. Wade-Bosh or D. Wade-SuperstarX type of hook-ups ... on Miami or any other squad.
Riles texted D. Wade at 12:01 a.m. on July 12, offering his Franchise a four-year extension worth about $87M. Unless the economy rebounds like DeJuan Blair -- and soon -- Wade won't get that type of money next summer. So he's left with two uncertain options: get locked in to a six-year relationship with a team (Miami) that doesn't seem ready to compete anytime soon or hit the free agent market next summer for less money and the risk that the team he signs with won't be in any better shape.
Not to get melodramatic, but that would be depressing. Although Wade is by no means old, he is 27 (we forget he was a rare junior when he came out of college) with a history of injuries, carrying a crazy-huge load for his squad while playing with a beautiful recklessness that provides great aesthetics but also a lot of health risks. Wade's next contract (either this extension with the Heat or a six-year deal he signs next summer) is likely his last deal at a truly elite level. This means that there is the possibility that Wade may spend this next contract wasting his prime on a non-contending team. That sucks.
So, yeah, maybe D. Wade is back, but he isn't really "back" back. In 2006, he was on a path to all-time greatness, and in an ideal world, he'll retire and we'll mention him in two-guard strata with MJ, Kobe and Jerry West. Except, the all-time greats are typically elite players that spent most of their careers shining on elite squads. In Wade's case, it is not unrealistic to project that he finishes his prime having only played on a contender for two years ('05 and '06). If he stays with these 44-win squads, he won't even rank ahead of Clyde Drexler. He'll be right there with Reggie Miller, Ray Allen and those dudes. And, although that is great Hall of Fame company, Reggie and Ray weren't 30-and-10'ing us seemingly every time we checked a box score.
Get the man some help while he's still D. Wade, Riles. You owe it to him, league history and us fans.
Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His "From The Floor" column appears weekly on NBA.com. Vince invites you to email him or follow him on Twitter.
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