Bulls

Dwyane Wade's sacrifice for LeBron James as historically surprising as it was successful

Dwyane Wade's sacrifice for LeBron James as historically surprising as it was successful

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.”

How Jabari Parker impacts Bulls’ salary cap in 2019

How Jabari Parker impacts Bulls’ salary cap in 2019

The Bulls ‘rebuild’ seems to be just a one-year experiment after the team signed Chicago native Jabari Parker to a two-year, $40-million dollar deal on Saturday. Although on first look Parker’s contract would seem to restrict what they can do in free agency next summer, the reality is that the 2nd year team option gives the Bulls plenty of flexibility with—or without- Parker next year.  

If the Bulls pick up the option on Parker, they will still be able to sign a max free agent next July if they make the right moves between now and July 1, 2019.

The NBA projects the 2019-20 cap will rise to $109 million, up from $101.9 million for the upcoming season. The league bases a ‘max’ salary on years of service. A 10-year vet like Kevin Durant is eligible for more ($38.2 million) than his teammate Klay Thompson ($32.7 million), an 8-year vet. If the Bulls keep Parker, they’ll enter free agency with approximately $15.4 million next summer—far short of the cap space needed for a player like Durant or Thompson, but that number is misleading. The $15.4 million also includes cap holds (salary slots assigned to a player based on several factors including previous year’s salary). The cap hold is designed to prevent teams from completely circumventing the soft cap model the league uses. The cap holds for Bobby Portis ($7.5 million) and Cameron Payne ($9.8 million) are just theoretical if the Bulls don’t sign either to a contract extension before the October 31, 2018 deadline. 

Let’s say the Bulls are in line to sign a star free agent like Thompson; all they would need to do is rescind any qualifying offer to Payne or Portis, and then renounce them as free agents. This would effectively take the cap holds off the Bulls’ cap sheet and give them approximately $32.7 million in cap space. Coincidently (or perhaps it’s no coincidence), that’s the exact salary a 7-9 year free agent like Thompson would command.

In order to create enough space for Durant and his increased ‘max’ slot, they would need to waive and stretch a player like Cristiano Felicio or incentivize a trade involving a player by attaching another asset in the deal, like a future 1st round pick.

If the Bulls decline the team option on Parker, then they will enter free agency with anywhere between $35 million and $53 million. 

Gar Forman finally comes through on promise

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USA TODAY

Gar Forman finally comes through on promise

"We felt we needed to start getting younger and more athletic..."

It was 2016 when Bulls general manager Gar Forman made this statement, drawing ire from many Bulls fans for what felt like—at the time—a disingenuous statement. A swap of Derrick Rose for Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant making you younger and athletic? No one was buying it.

But fast forward to July, 2018, and it is clear that at the very least, Forman has finally made good on his promise. The signing of Jabari Parker has been met with mostly positivity, as a short-term commitment to a former No. 2 overall pick is something that is difficult to hate. But when you factor in the rest of the pieces currently on the roster, it is OK for Bulls fans to be downright giddy over the future.

Lauri Markkanen is 21 years old, Wendell Carter Jr. is 19, Zach LaVine is 23, Jabari Parker is 23 and Kris Dunn is the elder statesmen of the group at 24 years old. If these five become the starting group moving forward, as expected, it would represent one of the youngest starting groups in the league with an average age of 22. 

And athleticism can be checked off the list as well. We know Markkanen has hopsLaVine showed off the explosiveness he was known for last season and Dunn had some dunks last year that legitimately gave fans a Rose flashback

Markkanen and Carter Jr. have both flashed the ability to switch onto guards for a limited amount of time and guard in space, a huge component of any defense that wants to switch a lot. And it also is the type of athleticism that is much more important at their position.

At this stage, Parker represents the biggest question mark athletically speaking. Despite his young age, the two ACL injuries make you wonder if there is any room for him to improve his agility. But at the least, Parker can drive to the basket and finish over the top with authority, even if his defense doesn't catch up.

So, Bulls fans are starting to become intrigued with this roster.

Fred Hoiberg wants his teams to play an up-tempo game, and last season was the first year during Hoiberg's Bulls tenure where the team actually ranked in the top 10 in pace. So if you have followed the Bulls carefully since Thibodeau's departure, you see a front-office that supports their new head coach, yet wasted a couple years to commit fully to his vision, and to a direction for the franchise.

But the point is Forman finally chose a direction.

The Bulls have a young core, and financial flexibility moving forward. And for all the jokes the "GarPax" regime have endured over the years, they have put the team in a position to have sustained success if they hit on all the young players they have acquired. 

And if they are wrong in their assessment of their young talent? 

The Bulls would be able to let Parker go, now that we know the second year of his contract is a team option. LaVine's offensive skill set will allow him to still have trade value years from now, as his contract won't look nearly as bad over time. 

And if the Bulls flurry of moves make the team significantly worse in a year where many expect them to take a step forward, all it would mean is being equipped with a high lottery pick in what is shaping up to be a top-heavy 2019 NBA Draft.

So Gar Forman wanted the team to get younger and more athletic, and though it took longer than it should've, the front-office made good on their promise. That is something that Bulls fans can believe in.