What becomes a legend most?
Besides being the tagline of a furrier’s famous series of ads in the 1960s and '70s, that’s a question that looms large over aging NBA stars -- stars of any sort, really, unless they’re lucky or clever enough to time their exits to their greatest career achievements.
Every once in a while, an iconic player makes it won-and-done. Bill Russell, David Robinson, John Elway, Dominik Hasek, Peyton Manning and a handful of others all took their final bows after winning championships, the most storybook way for our most storied athletes to leave the stage.
Most, however, linger for another chapter or three. Titles and rings go to younger rivals, while the star gets to grapple most publicly with advancing years, declining skills and the killer instinct flexed by Father Time.
Kobe Bryant departed like a banana republic jefe overthrown months earlier, waving goodbye for so long and so strenuously that it’s a wonder he didn’t add tennis elbow to his career’s long list of injuries. Tim Duncan faded before our eyes. Kevin Garnett spent half a season in warm-ups and street clothes before slipping off the end of the Timberwolves bench, after a brief Minnesota homecoming that was more feel-good than make-good.
Paul Pierce is going out that way now with the Clippers, as a “Didn’t you used to be…?” name and face for the fans paying big bucks to sit nearly where Pierce does for free. Ray Allen slipped away, unsigned and inactive until retirement merely tapped him on the shoulder. Before them, guys such as Gary Payton, Karl Malone and the great Michael Jordan took their leave wearing colors so incongruous to their great careers as to be instantly purged from the memories of their greatest fans.
Dwyane Wade is on the clock now, stuck between his glory years as the dazzling and heady leader of the Miami Heat and his future status as a Naismith Hall of Famer and arguably the third- or fourth-best shooting guard in NBA history. These are the awkward years, made more so because so much of what’s left for him will be up to him.
"I feel -- for my career, for me -- I needed this. I needed to see what the other side was like, too."
Wade holds a player-option for 2017-18 on his two-year contract with the Chicago Bulls. He can lock in $23.8 million by staying or shop his 35-year-old game and wisdom on the open market in July. Wade’s season-ending elbow injury last week -- sprained, with a small fracture, when he got tangled with Memphis’ Zach Randolph and Chicago’s Cristiano Felicio battling for a rebound -- didn’t alter the offseason deadline for Wade’s decision but it certainly moved up the speculation.
Essentially, the longtime Heat-turned-Bulls star has four options (assuming retirement isn’t yet on his radar). Here they are, with an assessment of the pros and cons in each:
Stay right where he is in Chicago
No one is kidding anyone that Wade signed with Chicago last summer for any reasons beyond money and a comfortable landing spot. His negotiations with the Heat were as much about love as cash, so once Wade felt jilted, he was out. But the Bulls were a reasonable No. 2 choice, given his roots in the area (he grew up in south suburban Robbins) and the Bulls’ need for a marquee name to twin with Jimmy Butler. Playing with and mentoring Butler has been a late-career highlight for Wade, and the numbers he posted this season – 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists per 36 minutes, with a 19.2 player efficiency rating in 57 appearances – were within Chicago’s and most onlookers’ expectations. Also, the $23.8 million he has coming next season would rank as the biggest salary of his career. Willingly subjecting himself to a sizable cut, after so many years accepting less in Miami to accommodate the Heat’s cap constraints, would seem cruelly ironic. Meanwhile, Wade’s impact off the court in Chicago has been considerable; his foundation wasted no time in starting its “Spotlight On” project to work with the city’s disadvantaged youth.
Opt out and go back to south Florida
When Wade’s statue is unveiled, it will be at AmericanAirlines Arena. He ranks arguably as the Miami market’s most successful and beloved athlete already and it would seem fitting for him to transition into retirement -- with some future role for the franchise, perhaps -- as a member of the Heat. Fitting in Wade’s desired career-capping deal last summer was the problem that led to his departure -- Miami offered $40 million over two, $7 million less than Chicago -- but longtime beat writer Ira Winderman of Sun-Sentinel.com estimates that the team could have about $37 million to spend this summer. So a two-year, $32 million deal, for instance, might be enough for Wade to forgo the one-year bonanza with the Bulls. If, of course, the rejuvenated Heat could find the proper role for him and Wade could be happy as a younger squad’s third or fourth option, becoming in time a half-time player or less.
Opt out and join the contending team that wants him most
C’mon, you’re all thinking it, right? Cleveland. Wade going to LeBron James this time, after James went to Wade down by South Beach, would make for a great NBA story. He’d have to take quite a pay cut, of course, given the Cavaliers’ bloated payroll obligations beyond next year’s estimated $102 million cap, but Wade already has earned nearly $160 million in his 14 NBA seasons. Then again, he has said repeatedly this season he’s not interested in “ring chasing,” what with three already in his safety deposit box. Nor should he feel he need to. If retiring after a Finals victory in June 2018 or 2019 might qualify as a grand finale, falling short or getting eliminated earlier could stick a downer on the end of his career (especially if it cost him tens of millions of dollars).
Opt out and sign a fresh deal for the biggest salary offered
This doesn’t have to be as mercenary as it sounds. Sure, the idea of Wade in Orlando or Sacramento simply for the money is distasteful. But Denver dangled $50 million over two years last summer to top both Miami’s and Chicago’s offers to him, and hindsight suggests Wade could have carved out a pivotal role with the promising Nuggets on the floor and off. The key to this option would be for Wade to go where the team’s success is the show, not where fans might be expecting to see a 2009 edition of D-Wade individually.
Which way will Wade go? It’s too soon to know. He said as much in the wake of his right elbow’s diagnosis, responding “too much cart before the horse” when asked if he had played his final game, period, with the Bulls.
Chicago’s season has been a mess, and inevitably so once it rolled out its skewed roster – a little bit of future in some unpolished prospects, a little bit of past with Wade and Rajon Rondo, and the present of an impatient star in Jimmy Butler and an unproven coach in Fred Hoiberg. The results have been predictable: sputtering near or below .500, extreme inconsistency, enough misdirection to keep almost everyone unhappy.
It’s hard to imagine Wade, with the freedom to go, re-upping for more of the same – or worse. It’s equally difficult to think he could use his skills and charisma at this stage the way he did in Miami seven years ago to lure some free-agent friends to Chicago to help.
Wade has kept his cards close, though he did provide reporters with a few glimpses back in January when talking about the decision he’ll eventually face.
“At the end of the year, you sit back and see what the team is, what direction they’re going in,” he said then. “I would be a liar to say that I want to play on a team with all 21-year-olds. You know what I mean? And be a part of the future building. I would be a fool to say that.”
He added: “I’ve enjoyed my time here. It’s been a learning experience, it’s been challenging and it’s been cool all in the same. I feel -- for my career, for me -- I needed this. I needed to see what the other side was like, too.”
And: “You evaluate the year from an organization standpoint, from a player’s standpoint. How you loved it, how you liked it, how you hated it, whatever the case may be. … What do you want to do? How many more years you thinking about playing? What’s the best thing to do? Is it to sign a contract, or is it to opt out and try to get a longer [deal]?”
However Wade’s calculations go, they’ll be about this: aging gracefully in a sports sense, while fueled by the vim and vigor of a young man otherwise. It has to look different from the inside, regardless of we remember or wish to forget from the outside. Tricky stuff.
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