It’s been 13 years in the making, questionable even at first, and highly unlikely afterward that it ever would occur. Monday when the Bulls open their 2016-17 NBA season with an exhibition game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Dwyane Wade will be wearing a Bulls uniform.
It was a dream and desire the Bulls had in 2003—Chicago native Wade, too, he says—when Wade in his junior year carried Marquette to the NCAA Final Four and then entered the NBA draft. Wade then looked like hope for redemption, and in many respects represents that for this season’s Bulls. For as many possibilities as the Bulls have this season with All Stars Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo and a core of developing players, their level of achievement and success probably rests most on three-time champion and 12-time All-Star Wade.
And not only because of the combination of achievement and celebrity. Wade becomes probably the second most decorated player in franchise history. Even more so for this current team, Wade is almost something of the spiritual and emotional leader. In football terms, Rondo would be the offensive coordinator and Butler the defensive coordinator. Wade would be the Belichick, even as Wade has publicly deferred so called leadership to Butler and Rondo as well. It’s been clear in training camp the Wade effect and impact by the way coach Fred Hoiberg and players have pointed to Wade standing up and demanding responsibility and accountability from teammates, something much debated and unclear among the players the last few seasons.
Though it also doesn’t detract from Hoiberg as head coach. It’s what a confident head coach wants. Wade’s effect is more similar to the way Phil Jackson coached the Bulls, relying on Michael Jordan to police the practices and locker room and then providing his own bonding message and direction. Fred won’t have quite as much incense, though.
The Bulls almost know what they’ll get from Butler and Rondo, Butler likely with 20 points and defense and Rondo with league leading assist numbers and both good rebounders. If Wade can produce like he has in Miami, still averaging 20 points the last few years and healthy last season, the Bulls could be one of the major surprises in the Eastern Conference.
“You’ve got to be smart,” said Wade about playing time after 74 games last season averaging 30.5 minutes. “I think the coaches have done a good job; we work hard, but they tell me to get out at certain times. They came and asked me if I needed time off to let them know. They've done their part, but I want to be out there with my teammates. I do want to get into as good as shape as possible. I don't know if I'll find the right solution; I just don't want any setbacks. It's so many new terminologies and play calls. There will be times I'll be aggressive. There'll be times I'll be a playmaker and defer. The game will tell us what to do. Looking at the offense, it's great we have a movement offense where it's equal opportunity. But then it's times where you can be yourself. There'll be times where I'll be myself, and Rondo and Jimmy. But at the same time making sure it's an equal offense and the ball moving from side to side.”
Everything and everyone sounds good until they start playing the games.
Hoiberg said the Bulls Monday will start slowly, playing starters limited minutes and working up through the later exhibition games.
“They won't play a lot,” Hoiberg Sunday said about the starters. “Some of them will just play in the first half and then we'll give the young guys an opportunity to go out and play in the second half. Our plan with Dwyane is to play him between 10 and 12 minutes, all in the first half. My plan with Jimmy is to play him some in the first half and then most likely sit him in the second. We'll see how it all transpires. We'll see how Rondo and (Robin) Lopez are doing at halftime and we'll make a determination as to whether they play in the second half or we just let the young guys play. That's my big thing with this preseason, to get a feel for these young guys and who's going to deserve to go out and play and be in the rotation. It's a great opportunity for these young guys to show what they can do and fight for those minutes.”
There was a lot of the same talk in 2003 after the Bulls had won 30 games for the first time in five years. The Bulls were in yet another rebuild, and it seemed they’d be able to have a foundation with the Oak Lawn high schooler, Wade. Imagine how the last decade would have been different, though, like much in sports, no one had any idea then that Wade would evolve into one of the elite players in the history of the NBA.
Wade had sat out his first year at Marquette for academic issues. He then averaged a modest 17.6 points as a sophomore and 21.5 as a junior. Going into the NCAA tournament, he wasn’t considered a lottery pick. Then Memphis Grizzlies general manager Jerry West liked Wade and supposedly was telling others he thought he could get Wade. Memphis had the 13th pick.
Wade’s phenomenal play in the NBA quickly erased all questions as a Miami rookie when he was brilliant in making game winning shots and pushing a tough Pacers team to seven games in the conference semifinals. But in college, Wade was viewed as the dreaded “tweener,” too small for shooting guard without a great shot and not a natural point guard. Even Miami Heat officials debated until the day of the draft what position Wade could play in the NBA.
That 2003 draft was shaping up as one of the best ever.
High schooler LeBron James was a star already and certain No. 1. Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the NCAA title and was considered the second best player and perennial NBA All-Star. The Pistons became enamored with international big man Darko Milicic. His selection at No. 2 obviously proved one of the great draft mistakes ever, though at the time most NBA scouts were intrigued by his seven-foot size and offensive skills. The Pistons thought it was worth the risk for a center of the future. The Toronto Raptors were said to be in constant trade talks with the No. 4 pick. There was so much uncertainty in the erratic organization that some were lobbying for Georgetown big man Michael Sweetney. Several teams, including the Heat and Bulls, had trade talks with the Raptors to get the No.4 pick. The Bulls wanted Wade; the Heat wanted Chris Bosh. But the Raptors never did offer the pick and selected Bosh, who was considered the third top prospect after James and Anthony.
Then it wasn’t necessarily Wade, which is why at No. 7 the Bulls believed they had a good chance to get Wade. General manager John Paxson had watched Wade regularly and was won over by his quickness, athletic ability and aggressive, take charge attitude. But the Bulls with little talent could not interest anyone in any of their players to move up in the draft.
Wade’s breakout in the NCAA’s was in the Elite Eight when he had a 29, 11 and 11 triple double to knock out top seeded Kentucky. That was the game Pat Riley, then coaching Miami, famously said he first saw Wade while riding an exercise bicycle in a health club. Riley had ridden the Heat down to 25 wins and was stepping up to general manager the next season. He’d won as a player with Wilt and then as a coach with Kareem, went to New York because of Ewing and then acquired Alonzo Mourning as soon as he went to Miami. He believed center first. That Heat team needed a center or point guard. So Riley was pretty set on seven-footer Chris Kaman from Central Michigan. The Clippers at No. 6 had said they weren’t interested in Wade and he didn’t work out there.
When NBADraft.net published its mock draft close to the draft, the usually reliable site had Kirk Hinrich going fifth to Miami. The Heat also were interested in point guard T.J. Ford, who would go No. 8 to Milwaukee. Agent Arn Tellem, close to Riley, was pushing Ford as the best classic point guard. Miami had Eddie Jones and Caron Butler as their leading scorers, so they really weren’t sure where Wade would play. Wade had a poor workout in Miami, shooting the ball badly. Hinrich had an excellent workout in Miami and the Heat even invited Hinrich back for a second look. He seemed a more pure point guard to them.
Then there was another crucial workout for Miami when, as Riley tells the story, he went to Tim Grover’s gym in Chicago to see Kaman again. Wade was working with Grover at the other end while Riley was waiting. Riley watching Wade’s incredible moves asked who that was. He was told it was Dwyane Wade and Riley paused again.
Meanwhile, the Bulls weren’t sure Wade would be there. With Jay Williams’ career-ending motorcycle injury, they again needed a point guard and were leaning toward Hinrich. The internal debate was among Hinrich, shooter Jarvis Hayes from Georgia and swingman Michael Pietrus from France.
The Heat still wasn’t sure what to do.
A big Miami push actually came from assistant Stan Van Gundy. His coaching father, Bill, had seen Wade against his team and recommended him. Stan was among some on the Miami staff pushing for Wade, though there was a severe split as some on the staff, especially after the poor workout, said Wade’s lack of shooting would be fatal. One of their scouts saw Wade trying to handle the ball and make almost a dozen turnovers in a college game. Wade was selling himself as an NBA point guard in his interviews because he was barely 6-4. Some on the Miami staff were insisting Wade was too big a risk with a center available. Riley was said to be having trouble making a decision. Even up to the day of the draft, Miami insiders say they still were unsure about Riley’s final decision. Riley would later admit he most wanted a big man.
The Bulls were waiting like everyone else for Miami at No. 5.
Riley went with the athlete.
The Clippers selected Kaman No. 6 and the Bulls with their 10 minutes made the final decision for Hinrich, who did go on to rank among the franchise’s top 10 in seasons, games, minutes, points, three pointers, steals, assists and fouls. He remains a free agent now after being traded by the Bulls last season.
Wade Monday begins his 14th season in the NBA with much depending on him after signing a two-year contract with the Bulls. He’s been a welcoming teammate and fierce competitor during the week of training camp.
“The biggest thing that Dwyane and I have to have is constant communication,” said Hoiberg. “Depending on how his body is feeling, we may have to hold him out of a practice. But the big thing is to have him around, communicating, pulling our guys aside, talking to our younger players, making sure they're building the right habits. When he needs to have a little time off, we'll give him that time. But he's been a great example whether he's on the court or off.”
This preseason training camp has been about teamwork and chemistry, finding a starting power forward and backup guards. It’s been about being more aggressive and scrappy, making up for deficiencies last season in steals and offensive rebounding. But this season may most be about Dwyane Wade. Finally.