When Dwyane Wade’s career epitaph is written, the chapter titled “sacrifice” could be the biggest of any superstar of his caliber in NBA history.
Wade is making modifications and sacrifices to his game to accommodate Jimmy Butler, but at age 34 it’s a much easier sell to defer to a player like Butler than his most notable stepback move: Allowing former teammate LeBron James to shine even more during their time in Miami.
The partnership formed by the two was based on the friendship forged by the 2003 draftees, and by the time Wade, James and Chris Bosh made the controversial decision to play together in 2010 free agency, Wade was already a champion.
He was also coming off two of the best seasons by a shooting guard not named Michael Jordan, welcoming a two-time MVP in James to his city and his team.
A whirling dervish after a couple injury-riddled seasons, Wade was rejuvenated after the 2008 Olympics and averaged 28.4 points, 7.0 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.2 blocks over the next two seasons.
The only problem was the Heat, in anticipation of the celebrated 2010 free-agent class, stripped down the operation to bare bones and Wade couldn’t will the Heat out of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
James had stellar seasons of his own, winning back-to-back MVP’s but couldn’t get his Cleveland Cavaliers to the Finals after pushing them to top seeds in the East both years.
“I led the league in scoring (2008-09) and nobody was knocking down my door for anything. It was just like, ‘Oh, good year.’ And then we went into the summer,” said Wade after Thursday's practice, on the eve of the first Bulls-Cavs matchup this season, Friday at the United Center. “And it was like, ‘I don’t get no trophy presentation, no car, no nothing?’ For me, and I think the same thing happened with LeBron as well, it came a point for both of us where it was like the goal is to play team basketball and to win at a high level.”
The story about their rocky first season together is well-known, as is Wade’s subsequent sacrifice to step back and allow James to take the wheel, with the Heat winning back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.
But had James showed up in the last four games of the 2011 NBA Finals, where the Heat lost a 2-1 lead to the Dallas Mavericks to fall in six games, Wade not only would’ve been MVP of that Finals series, but what need would there have been for him to take a supporting role?
After all, it was James who choked away fourth quarters in that Finals, while Wade was stellar with 26.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists to go along with averaging nearly two steals and two blocks.
Wade was 29, as in the same age Jordan was when leading the Bulls to their first three-peat, the prime age when players are maximizing their individual gifts, not suppressing them for a newcomer.
There were plenty of reasonable arguments to be made that it was James who should’ve been deferring to Wade during that time, and a championship would’ve proven that theory.
Still in the conversation for the belt-less title of “best player,” Wade finished seventh in MVP voting in 2010-11 while James finished third.
“Once you get over that, people writing and saying you’re arguably the best player in the game, what does that do for you? How many years can you go into the summer early and say, ‘Oh, he’s one of the best players in the game’ if your goal is to win,” Wade said.
In hindsight it makes sense, and Wade almost seems clairvoyant in sliding over before his body started to show slippage in their last two years in Miami.
But with players being wired to say “nobody’s better than me and I have the receipts to prove it,” it was a massive sacrifice by Wade even with the perspective.
“That first year we both had great individual years. We went to the Finals. (But) we lost,” said Wade matter-of-factly. “And I felt some hesitation as well on his part about playing. I took it upon myself to take that hesitation away from him, to allow him to be what he was and what he is - the best player in the game - and not think too much about stepping on my toes.
“We were stuck together. There was no point in us coming together and doing these things if we’re not going to reach that ultimate goal. I didn’t like that feeling after the first loss in the championship against Dallas. I didn’t like it. And I wanted to change it. And I felt that was the best way I could help.”
Some players sacrifice because they have to, with there being such a great gap in talent between one star and the other that it would almost seem counterproductive for one to try to take a more aggressive tone.
Historically, there have been instances of stars switching teams and accepting lesser roles or even transitions of roles from teammates to accommodate age or ascension or general decline.
Kobe Bryant was arguably every bit of Shaquille O’Neal’s equal during the Lakers’ last two championships in their run (2001-2002), so one could understand the power struggle that took place.
Magic Johnson willingly deferred to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar until the Lakers were bounced in the 1986 Western Conference Finals in five games by the Houston Rockets and the Lakers were in desperate need of a personality transplant to thrive in the latter part of the decade.
Johnson took over while the aging Abdul-Jabbar, nearing 40 years old, took a step back. The Lakers wound up producing the best season of the “Showtime” era in 1986-87, with Johnson winning the first of his three regular-season MVP’s and the Lakers repeated in 1988.
Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar’s partnership extended the Lakers’ decade-long run while O’Neal and Bryant’s tug-of-war led to their demise after 2004.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook couldn’t find that balance during their time together in Oklahoma City, so it wasn’t a foregone conclusion Wade, James and Bosh were going to figure it out.
One of the few players whose acknowledgement of a contemporary’s greatness doesn’t obscure his own, Wade’s pride in his own game and security in his place in history and the present was a big reason why the Heat managed to win.
It’s also why Wade has little issue being big brother to Butler in Chicago.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” said Wade of James. “There are not many players I’ve been with my own eyes that, no matter what team he goes on, they’re a great team. He has that ability to put his stamp on the game. That’s why he is who he is. He’s arguably one of the top three to five players to ever play the game.”
The fact the two were friends certainly aided matters, leading to an understanding and communication between the two without the uncomfortable moments that can often derail promising partnerships.
Those who were around both said Wade’s leadership rubbed off on James, who was described as immature by some during his time in Cleveland. Wade being older and more savvy was just as critical as James’ otherworldly play.
“The one thing from the standpoint of my leadership and my calmness and my ability to prepare, I think all those things rubbed off on him as well,” Wade said. “Just like the things he did rubbed off on me. That’s a sign of people who respect each other, two great players. The same thing here with Jimmy. I’m trying to rub off on Jimmy. But at the same time, Jimmy is rubbing off on me, too.”