A chaotic Cavs stint didn't shake the LeBron-Wade friendship

Wade reflects on Cavs trade, LeBron's future (1:14)

Jorge Sedano sits down with Dwyane Wade, who explains the positive takeaways of the trade and briefly addresses LeBron James' free agency. (1:14)

Late in the first quarter of a January game that came during a miserable stretch of Cleveland Cavaliers basketball, LeBron James' mastery of the sport created temporary calm amid the Cavs' collapse.

James connected on a pull-up jumper from the left wing in San Antonio, making him just the seventh player in NBA history to surpass the 30,000-point mark in his career.

When the final 1.1 seconds of the period ticked off the clock after James' momentous bucket, he exhaled and walked back toward the Cavs bench. Dwyane Wade was the first person to meet him, offering an extended embrace.

"D-Wade has been my guy since we came into the league," James said after the game. "For him to be here tonight as my teammate reaching that feat, it meant everything to me. He's a guy I'd do anything for. You guys know that. ... It was a special moment."

When the Cavs acquired Wade in late September, there figured to be plenty of special moments for James and Wade. They teamed up on the Miami Heat from 2010 to 2014, wreaking havoc on the league with four straight NBA Finals runs and two championships.

"It's a guy -- come on, man -- this is like one of my best friends," James said the day Cleveland signed Wade. "It's kind of like when you start school and you walk into the classroom and you're not quite sure who your classmates are and when you walk in there and one of your best friends is in there, you're like, 'Oh, yeah, this is going to be fun. It's going to be a good class.' That's the type of feeling I got."

Wade, who forfeited nearly $8 million of his $23.8 million salary for 2017-18 when he negotiated a buyout from the Chicago Bulls, received interest from the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Heat, the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors before selecting Cleveland as his destination.

"Man, for me, I was very appreciative of him choosing us," Cavs general manager Koby Altman told ESPN last week when asked to reflect on Wade's 46 games with the franchise.

For James, teaming up with Wade once again seemed almost destined.

"I always felt like it could happen again before our careers were done," James told ESPN. "Didn't know when. I never put a [timeline on it]. I just felt like it could happen to me. And I didn't know if it was going to be in Cleveland. I didn't know where the hell we were going to be. I just always felt it. When he was able to work out that buyout, man, it was like the intuition became the truth. That's all."

Cleveland was getting a three-time champion, a future first-ballot Basketball Hall of Famer, a shooting guard who could fill some of the scoring void created after the Kyrie Irving trade -- for the low, low price of a veteran's minimum contract worth $2.3 million. For a luxury-tax-laden team like the Cavs, it felt like divine intervention.

But the blessed union took a turn for the worse almost immediately, according to sources.

First, when bringing on Wade meant needing to trade away popular locker room presence Richard Jefferson to create an open roster spot. Then, when Wade balked at Cavs coach Tyronn Lue's plan to bring him off the bench. Wade, insisting he was more comfortable playing the starting role he had filled his entire 15-year NBA career, started the Cavs' first three games and struggled mightily, shooting 7-for-25 from the field.

After a blowout loss to the Orlando Magic in the third game, Wade approached Lue about coming off the bench, as Lue initially suggested. JR Smith, displaced by Wade's addition, went back into the starting unit, but the damage was done: The demotion affected Smith mentally, and his on-court production dipped.

Coming off the bench didn't suit Wade at first, either. After an 0-for-5 shooting night in 15 minutes of a Nov. 11 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, James had to defend his friend from being labeled "washed."

"He'll be fine," James said. "He'll be fine. D-Wade is 36 years old. He'll be fine. He knows how to play this game. He just struggled tonight, but I'm not worried about him. He'll be fine."

Sure enough, he was fine. Wade eventually took to the bench role, becoming the leader of the second unit. James and Wade, who nicknamed themselves "Peanut Butter and Jelly" in a preseason interview with ESPN's Rachel Nichols, took on new monikers: Joe Montana and Steve Young.

"That's what we've got him here for," said James, who made the quarterback comparison. "He's our second-string leader. He makes sure those guys are ready to go."

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Wade got himself going, too. The Cavs went 18-1 during a stretch starting with the November win over the Mavs and ending with a 106-99 win over the Washington Wizards on Dec. 17.

Wade played 17 games in the stretch and averaged 12.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists while shooting 47.2 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range -- a skill he supposedly lacked. The Cavs' net rating with Wade on the court was plus-15.5 during the team's hot streak.

James even endorsed the former NBA Finals MVP for an unlikely piece of hardware: the Sixth Man of the Year trophy.

"He's probably the No. 1 candidate," James said in the middle of the Cavs' tear. "Not even being biased, that's one of my best friends. Just looking at the teams. Eric Gordon has had to start a lot this season because [Chris Paul] was out. [Andre] Iguodala's been out a little bit, you look at Manu [Ginobili], you look at Jamal Crawford ... those are sixth man guys, right? D-Wade would probably be leading that right now, but there's a long way to go."

James was prescient once again. A downturn would follow for the Cavs, leading to Wade's ticket out of Cleveland.

Much has been written about how Isaiah Thomas -- acquired in the Irving deal and sidelined with a hip injury until January -- didn't fit in Cleveland.

But Thomas wasn't the Cavs' lone problem. On previous editions of the Cavs, with James and Irving carrying the load during the regular season, Cleveland could afford to have any number of veteran role players on the roster, knowing they'd be called upon, fully rested, in specific situations in the playoffs.

Except, the way things were going for Cleveland once Thomas made his delayed debut after hip rehab, even the playoffs -- let alone the Finals -- didn't appear to be a lock. The Cavs needed to clear out some parts. They needed to get younger, more versatile, more athletic.

And while there was still a roster spot available for Wade after Altman's franchise-altering deals at February's trade deadline, there weren't a ton of minutes. Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson were in Cleveland, and rookie Cedi Osman had emerged as someone deserving of playing time.

Altman thought back to a conversation he had with Heat general manager Andy Elisburg three or four weeks before the trade deadline, sources said. Elisburg made his way through the Cavs' roster alphabetically, rattling off the names he could see the Heat making an offer for. When he got toward the back end of the Cavs' roster -- W is the fourth-to-last letter, after all -- he said something to the effect of, "Yeah, and you have a 2-guard that we have a little bit of history with." Altman told Elisburg at the time that he was contemplating a major overhaul, which could change Wade's role on the team. Elisburg filed the information away, informing Heat president Pat Riley of the dialogue.

On the morning of the trade deadline, at just past 9, Elisburg heard from Altman again. Would they want Wade back in a Miami uniform? The Heat were in the market for a perimeter player after serious injuries to Dion Waiters and Rodney McGruder. And they were riding a five-game losing streak.

Wade, who seemed like pennies from heaven after landing in Cleveland a few months earlier, was now the lifeline Miami was searching for.

"Spo told the story -- Pat called him in the office because we were getting ready for practice and said, 'OK, we have this deal done and we have this other thing we're working on and we can always get Dwyane back,'" Elisburg told ESPN, referring to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "He said, 'Dwyane who?' Because he hadn't been involved in that earlier discussion. I just told Pat about it. So he wasn't thinking about it. It was like: 'D.' 'What?!' 'Yeah!' 'OK, let's get him back. Yeah, I know what he can do.'"

With the Heat on board, Altman had two people to talk to: first James, then Wade.

Much as Lue approached whether Wade would start to begin the season, Altman wanted to leave it up to Wade: stay in Cleveland with a reduced role or return to the franchise that drafted him and made him the star he is today.

"Absolutely. It should be his decision," James told Altman, according to sources.

Wade understood the direction the Cavs were going and appreciated the option. Miami was an easy choice.

In Wade's 14 games back with the Heat, Miami is 7-7. And Wade has made plays when they matter most. While that fell on others in Cleveland -- Wade averaged 7.9 points on 46.7 percent shooting and 2.3 assists per 36 "clutch time" minutes with the Cavs, defined as the last five minutes of a game in which the point differential is five or less -- he's averaging a whopping 36 points on 50 percent shooting and 5.5 assists per 36 clutch time minutes since returning to the Heat.

He feels wanted, and he is needed.

"I think it was something that just came up and maybe for him to have the chance to get back to where he wanted to be," Cavaliers guard Jose Calderon said. "Because, at the end of the day, we all knew ... that's his house, that's where he family was. So, yeah, I was surprised because of how it happened, but at the end of the day, he's happy. I think he's where he wanted to be. I think mentally it was great for him. And we just wish him the best."

The Heat have repaired Wade's messy divorce from the franchise in 2016, when he bolted after the Bulls offered more money.

"It's been great, but it's been great the whole time we were together," Elisburg said. "It was an incredible, magical time having Dwyane be a part of the Miami Heat. He's been such a huge part of the history here. He's the greatest player in the history of the franchise. Obviously we've had lots of incredible players here who have had incredible seasons, including, obviously, LeBron, who won MVPs here. And Shaq [O'Neal]. And Zo [Alonzo Mourning].

"But if you look at the body of work over the period of time which Dwyane stuck with the franchise, I mean, it's unquestioned he's the greatest player in the history of the franchise. You're just talking about just a special person and player. So, like all things when you're together, you appreciate things and maybe you didn't realize things until you see them more, and I think we both appreciate each other and the fact that we're back together again."

James and Wade will be back on the floor together on Tuesday and will surely share a hug, just as they did in San Antonio, only they won't be wearing matching uniforms this time.

Their situations have changed, but their relationship hasn't.

"I mean, I hated to see him go," James told ESPN, adding that he has been in constant communication with Wade since the NBA draft combine in Chicago back in 2003. "I still do. I still do. So my emotions was mixed because that's my guy and I didn't want him to go, but, I mean, listen, I felt like that's where he belongs. I felt like that's where his heart has always been, even in the one year in Chicago.

"I just felt like that's where he belonged. I mean, you want to be as happy as you can when you're in this profession, and I felt like Miami is the best place that creates happiness for him. So I hated to see him go, I wish he was still here, but I understand. That's why there's no hard feelings."