When LeBron James walked off the court following Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Boston on May 13, 2010, it was clear that he was desperately in need of a change to ever reach his goal of becoming an NBA Champion. When he walked into Pat Riley‘s office just a few weeks later during a free agency visit, no words needed to be said, as Riley simply showed off his collection of championship rings that he had earned in the league throughout the years.
When you are able to achieve the greatest feat in professional sports as a player, a coach, and as an executive, you have nothing to prove to anyone affiliated with the sport. When James saw the championship jewelry being flashed before his eyes, there was no doubt he was going to join the Miami Heat and contend for championships immediately.
Four years later, LeBron James has seemingly panicked following a loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals last month and jumped ship. It wasn’t that the Heat weren’t championship worthy, it was just the fact that the Spurs were a basketball juggernaut that was not going to be denied the title this season following last season’s heartbreaking defeat.
By delaying his decision more than 11 days into free agency, James has put Pat Riley and the rest of the Miami Heat organization in a terrible spot. Teams around the league have spent the last week and a half signing free agents and making trades while the Miami Heat were frozen with no activity because they had to keep the cap space open for a potential LeBron James/Chris Bosh/Dwyane Wade return.
Had James announced that he was returning to Cleveland within the first few days of free agency, Pat Riley could have worked his magic to rebuild a quality roster for the future. The Heat began free agency with more than $55 million in cap space, the most ever for a team to negotiate with.
For perspective purposes consider this: the Heat could have signed Toronto Raptors PG Kyle Lowry ($12 million per year) and potentially either Luol Deng (FA) or Pau Gasol (FA) for close to the same amount of money LeBron James ($20.7 million) will receive for his max contract this season. Chris Bosh could have returned to the Heat at around $15-18 million per year. When you assume Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem would also return to a team that already has Norris Cole and rookie Shabazz Napier under contract, you suddenly have a dangerous team once again.
The truth is James would have never joined the Miami Heat if it weren’t for Dwyane Wade. It was Wade who first mentioned the idea of a potential Big Three years in advance to LeBron James and Chris Bosh while playing for Team USA. It was Wade, an NBA Champion prior to James coming to town in 2010, who sucked it up and played the role of sidekick to the best player in the game. It was Wade who handed the keys of the franchise to James.
Wade put his heart and soul into the organization each and every night for seven years before the idea of LeBron James in a Miami Heat uniform was ever a reality around the NBA. He single-handedly destroyed an opponent on the biggest stage (2006 NBA Finals Vs. Dallas Mavericks) en route to a championship; something James was never able to do in Cleveland. Wade had nothing to prove to the city, Pat Riley, or the fans that loved him so dearly. Still, Wade wanted to do more.
We live in an era of professional sports where the words “loyalty” and “sacrifice” are mentioned few and far between. Athletes today rarely stay with the same franchise their whole career but when they do, they are absolutely beloved (see Tim Duncan in San Antonio). Athletes who willingly give up millions of guaranteed dollars for the benefit of the team is even more of a rarity in today’s world, but it has happened (see Tim Duncan – notice the trend?).
Dwyane Wade, much like Tim Duncan, is a clear representation of a man who was loyal and sacrificed it all for one reason and one reason only, LeBron James. Wade brought James to Miami to win titles, something they were able to accomplish twice (2012,2013). Although they came up short in 2010 and 2014, the accomplishment of making it to the NBA Finals is nothing to take for granted. Spend a few minutes to look up the last time every franchise appeared in (not even won) an NBA Finals – I think you’ll be surprised at the unrealistic expectations that were placed on the Heat franchise these last four years.
With LeBron James’ decision to return to Cleveland, one can only wonder what Dwyane Wade is feeling right now. Is he appreciative that he was able to win two more championships with the help of James? I’m sure of it. Is he feeling betrayed LeBron has bolted the Miami Heat, the very franchise that he put on the map so many years ago, so James could continue his career without him? This I’m even more sure of.
Say what you want about Dwyane Wade but he is the definition of a class act. He probably won’t make any negative comments to the media regarding James’ decision to leave Miami but deep down, you know he is hurting – how could you not? Chris Bosh, another close friend of Wade’s, openly commented that he would have returned to the team taking a pay cut had James returned to Miami. He wanted to continue being a part of something special – a potential dynasty in Miami for years to come.
Wade is now faced with the toughest decision of his professional career. He has to decide whether or not to stay in Miami, the one city he has called home since being drafted out of Marquette in 2003, or sign with another team with the hopes winning another NBA Championship. With James gone and Bosh likely to follow, the NBA Finals aren’t looking promising at the moment. Should he leave, the Chicago Bulls make for a great fit for two reasons: he was born and raised there and they are a serious threat to win the title next year given the roster.
Whatever the case may be, Dwyane Wade will forever be a Miami Heat legend. I (and assume most Heat fans) would not hold it against Wade if he left to join the Bulls or any other contending team because at the end of the day, he deserves better. For all that he sacrificed both on and off the court, his Hall of Fame career shouldn’t be ending on a rebuilding roster, it should be ending with more championship parades.
People are quick to forget that Dwyane Wade (3) has more championships than LeBron James (2). Given Wade’s competitive nature and his team-first mentality, should he decide to join a team like the Bulls, you can bet that Wade will give it everything he has to stick it to James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Dwyane Wade showed LeBron James what it takes to be a champion, now we get to see if James underestimated the importance of having Wade as a teammate these last four years.
The Boston Celtics Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen openly discussed how things may have been different if they were able to team up in the prime of their careers as opposed to the latter stages of it. The San Antonio Spurs Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have stuck together all these years, through the good and the bad, and just captured yet another NBA Championship. The Miami Heat had the ability to continue contending for championships year after year had each star committed himself but apparently, only two of the three down in Miami were willing to do so.
Since it appears as though LeBron James took four straight trips to the NBA Finals and two championships during his time in Miami for granted, I encourage Heat fans to do the same in the future. I will not be impressed by any triple-doubles or game-winning shots James is a part of until the month of June hits. With this decision to leave the Miami Heat, James has made it clear that he believes the Cleveland Cavaliers will have championship aspirations from day one.
The Cavs are officially in title-or-bust mode. The roster is filled with a bunch of kids who have never even been to the playoffs let alone the NBA Finals. The coach, David Blatt, has never coached in the NBA. There is yet another new general manager in the organization, this time David Griffin. Finally we get to Dan Gilbert, the owner of the franchise and the author of the most controversial letter in sports history where he, among other things, referred to LeBron James as a “coward.”
How James could return to such a situation is beyond me, even if it is “home.” To say that his decision went far beyond the game of basketball (as he so suggested) seems irrational to say the least. LeBron James is fighting for his place amongst the all-time greats in NBA history and is currently in the prime of his career. He doesn’t have time to wait for young players to develop, or for an organization to rotate coaches in and out year after year.
The Miami Heat gave James the best chance to win now because of the roster and the best chance to win in the future because of the stability throughout the organization from top to bottom. I honestly believe that LeBron was clouded in his decision to leave the Miami Heat and his decision was influenced solely on non-basketball related issues.
Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade saved the legacy of LeBron James when his career hit rock bottom in 2010. Decision 1.0 on July 8, 2010 to join the Miami Heat has proven to be the right one after all. Time will tell if decision 2.0 on July 11, 2014 to leave the Miami Heat will result in similar circumstances for LeBron James.