The fascinating gulf between Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat is filled with possible landmines and conflict that can change relationships, legacies and feelings. On one side, sentiment and family and warmth. On the other side, business and finance and cold. What is best for Wade is not necessarily what is best for the Heat, and that's where these things can get messy and hurtful in the emotion business. Never mind the millions. How insulting is it, after everything Wade has done for Miami, if, say, the Knicks or Pistons publicly value Wade at the end more than the Heat do?
Before heading down this path, though, here are a handful of interesting basketball things you may not have known, according to sources who do know:
• It was LeBron James, not Wade, who first made real the possible paradigm shift with three superstars playing together in Miami. James broached the subject during free agency in 2010 at a secret meeting he called in Cleveland with Chris Bosh and Wade. To that point, Wade had been relaying to Heat management that there was no way James would go for the idea of playing in Miami.
• It was Wade, not James, who by himself kept Udonis Haslem in Miami. Wade went to James with the idea of taking less money to include Haslem. James refused. The Heat couldn't figure out a way to make a competitive offer to Haslem within salary-cap constraints until Wade volunteered to take that salary hit alone. It is why Wade was paid millions less than Bosh and James -- one of the sacrifices Wade would make on behalf of the team that he evidently would now like reimbursed.
• Miami's Big Three would have never gotten together if Pat Riley had originally gotten what he wanted. Riley was busy offering millions in 2009 to Lamar Odom, fresh off a championship in Los Angeles. Odom was having something close to a nervous breakdown trying to decide between the Lakers and Heat, but eventually settled on L.A. before marrying a Kardashian and spiraling into addiction. If Riley had closed the deal with Odom -- and Odom couldn't be reached for days at deciding time -- Miami never would have had the money to pay James, Wade and Bosh.
• Miami's Big Three would have never gotten together if Shawn Marion, of all people, had gotten what he wanted. Marion was so stubborn about wanting a max contract back in 2007 that his insistence helped blow up a three-team deal that could have sent Kevin Garnett from Minnesota to Phoenix. That deal would have prevented Garnett from ever teaming up with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to win a championship in Boston. But Marion wouldn't re-sign with a trading team that wasn't offering the max, so he was instead sent to Miami for a disgruntled Shaquille O'Neal. Miami offered Marion a four-year contract that would have also kept Miami's Big Three from uniting, but not at the max. So Marion asked to be traded ... and had to settle in Dallas for a five-year, $39 million deal that was far less than the max.
The point of all this is that big plans in sports -- the kind Miami is presently trying to make with Wade for 2016 and beyond, the kind Miami needs Wade's help to make and the kind that can ultimately help Wade, too -- can take unexpected detours with good and bad luck, and with greed and ego always playing defense against sacrifice. "Team" is not something you find only on the court with winners these days; it is management and players working together to creatively extract themselves from the salary cap's shackles. Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan and Wade have played at discounts so the team could have more, but Wade is the only one of the three to do that while in his prime.
The player's union, led by a new litigator who enjoys a good fight, wants this to stop immediately. So too does power broker LeBron James. James didn't make much clear at the start of free agency last offseason, but he did make this abundantly so: He was not playing for one penny less than the max. James, now the union's vice president, and Michelle Roberts, now the union's head, don't see why stars should be taking discounts while the Clippers are selling for $2 billion and a new TV contract in 2016 is about to be an oil-well spewing money.
So this gulf between Wade and the Heat isn't just about Wade and the Heat; it is about trying to undo the precedent Wade, James and Bosh set by taking less to play together in Miami (even though, given the lack of state income taxes in Florida, it wasn't actually much of a discount). James and Bosh have gotten their max contracts since. Wade hasn't. And he has never been the highest-paid player on a Heat team, either. Believe it or not, there was one that featured Jermaine O'Neal making $7 million more than Wade.
Riley, the godfather, loves the idea of family, but the mafia is a family, too. Makes sense the Heat wouldn't believe the market will pay Wade what Wade believes the market will pay Wade. He is not as valuable anywhere, in the Heat's mind, as he is in Miami, so Miami wants to work with its favorite son and keep him here -- but not at the crippling expense of all future flexibility.
The Heat seem to want Wade to opt in to his contract for next season at $16 million, then become a free agent and leave their and his future blank-check open. This will give the Heat the flexibility it craves to make a run at a player like Kevin Durant. Pipe dream? Maybe. But that's what Wade himself once told the Heat about his great friend LeBron James being in Miami. Miami wants to have the flexibility that gets Riley in a room with Durant.
The Heat can have room for Wade, Bosh, Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside and Durant, but only if Wade opts in for this year and gives them that flexibility by being a free agent in 2016. This requires Wade to have a lot of trust, obviously, and the leap of faith that the team will take care of him in 2016. It also requires some creativity and relationship-building with Whiteside, who will be tucked away in something called a "cap hold." And it ultimately involves -- and this is a big ask -- Wade being OK with newcomers who haven't done much of anything for the organization, such as Dragic and Whiteside, earning more than he does.
That's how last week became a public mess -- the Heat pushing for Wade to opt in and Wade refusing to give the team an answer about his plans. You don't know the mercenary side of Riley very well if you think he's going to be pressured into paying Wade excessively by public relations. He isn't going to give Wade the end-of-an-era Kobe kiss that was popular in the short term in Los Angeles but crippling in the long term. Riley values Wade, yes, but that 2016 flexibility means more to him than the short-term risk of being temporarily unpopular by alienating the city's most popular athlete. He'll give Wade "fair" value, and maybe a little more than fair value based on past giving, but he'll also remind Wade that injuries have him playing only in two-thirds of the games his salary pays in recent seasons.
Miami has been here before, in a different way, with Alonzo Mourning. After kidney issues cost him multiple seasons, Mourning had small offers to go elsewhere. But he didn't want to leave Miami and asked Miami to merely match. The Heat did not make him an offer and let him leave. He would return a few years later, to win a championship next to Wade, and is now a no-hard-feelings team executive who now understands the business side so well that he did this: Wade's wedding to Gabrielle Union had some awkward moments with LeBron mingling among jilted Heat executives, and one of them was Mourning asking James to please go over and show some gratitude to Heat management. James did so, uncomfortably.
The Heat's argument regarding Wade is simple: Wade is an international superstar who makes more money in endorsements when playing games that matter in the playoffs -- the kind the team didn't have this season. And, like Mourning, there's a paid life after basketball as an ambassador in which money can be made up with an invented lifetime position. "Heat lifer," an expression Wade coined, can echo in employment and eternity after Wade's playing days if he's willing to do what he has always done -- help the team a little more by helping himself a little less.
Sounds nice in theory, yes, but it will have to happen over the objections of his union and his ego, and things can get messy and complicated in the emotion business when a team isn't really working as a team. Feelings get hurt, trust and communication break, pride and public opinion infect, and next thing you know things are so noisy that one side is preaching "principle" and the other is pronouncing it "principal." It has been a very healthy and fruitful relationship. The next step is going to test it.
This story by Dan Le Batard also appears in the Miami Herald.