In the next couple of weeks, we'll find out whether LeBron James' decision to join the Miami Heat will allow him to win his first championship and accomplish what he was never able to in Cleveland. We don't know what effect that will ultimately have on his legacy. What we do know is that LeBron's coming to the Heat might have been the best thing to ever happen to the legacy of Dwyane Wade.
Let's take a look at the events of the past two games. When the Heat failed to close out Game 4 against Philadelphia, the overwhelming majority of the blame was placed on LeBron after he had a potential game-tying floater blocked on the Heat's final possession. This was the case even though Wade had missed a pull-up jumper one possession earlier and had two 3s drained right in his face. The outcry was unanimous: Wade should have taken the last shot.
Of course, Wade is 0-5 in last-shot situations this season, but every one of those shots was apparently impressive enough to make LeBron's failed floater particularly egregious.
When the Heat actually managed to win a close one in Game 5, there were some issues with Wade's performance in the waning minutes of the game. After he missed on an out-of-control layup attempt that Chris Bosh rebounded and drew a foul on, Wade received a technical foul for taking issue with the non-call.
Think about that for a second: In a one-possession game, Wade cost his team a point for arguing that he should be shooting free throws instead of his teammate, who happens to be a better free throw shooter.
Later in the game, with the final seconds ticking off the clock and the 76ers declining to foul, Wade punctuated the series with an uncontested dunk that Spencer Hawes would later call "bush league." It was the kind of behavior that becomes an instant controversy with LeBron, but it was a non-issue with Wade, just like the technical foul.
Imagine, just for a second, what the reaction would have been if James had been whistled for the technical, then thrown in that salt-in-the-wound dunk to end the series. While the power of winning as the ultimate deodorant should never be underestimated, I can't imagine that those things would have been complete non-issues if James had done them.
Of course, none of this is particularly surprising. Wade won a title in Miami without LeBron. LeBron didn't win one in Cleveland without Wade, and LeBron came to Wade's team. It doesn't matter that LeBron has gone to the Finals, won two league MVP awards, and won seven playoff series in the time between Wade's last playoff series win and the Heat's win over the 76ers.
Wade is a champion, and LeBron is not.
You don't hear people talk about the skills of a champion or the favorable circumstances of a champion. It's the heart of a champion, and it's something you either have or you don't. That's the saying, anyway.
Wade might have won the championship that eluded LeBron in Cleveland, but how can this be Wade's team when he's been the second-best player on it by nearly every statistical measure? Because, thanks to the Heat's best crunch-time set being the nearly unstoppable Wade-James pick-and-roll and James' struggles in final-possession situations, Wade has been designated as the team's "closer." Never mind that Wade hasn't made a last-second shot this season, LeBron's crunch-time play over the past three regular seasons has been off-the-charts good and Wade hasn't won a playoff series since before Barack Obama's presidential campaign formally began.
When one player is clearly more productive than another -- but the other has won a championship -- it's natural for us to try to rationalize things by assigning intangible qualities. We saw it in baseball when Alex Rodriguez, who is clearly better at baseball than Derek Jeter, joined Jeter's team: Rodriguez can't hit in the clutch, Jeter would never try to hit the ball out of a fielder's glove and that's very important, etcetera.
No matter what LeBron does on the court next to Wade, he might never be able to change the way the two are perceived in terms of their respective intangible qualities.
If the Heat win a title, it will be because LeBron needed Wade. If they lose, James will shield Wade from taking any significant criticism. There's an old saying in sports that players win games and coaches lose them.
On the Heat, things are a bit different: Dwyane Wade wins games, and LeBron James loses them.
We'll see how that dynamic will affect the Heat as they start to face their big tests.