Dwyane Wade is not an idiot.
Actually, one could make the argument that he’s a basketball genius.
In the summer of 2010, he convinced two of the most sought-after free agents in the league, Chris Bosh and Lebron James (who happens to also be the best player on the planet), to join him in Miami and form the NBA’s latest and potentially greatest trio. Wade had already won a title in Miami as the best player on the team, when he almost single-handedly defeated Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks in 2006 (well, that’s not entirely true: Wade got a ton of help from the refs). By the time Bosh and Lebron came to town, Wade was still one of the 10 best basketball players alive by any measure. But his team hadn’t reached the second round of the playoffs since their championship run, and after getting beaten by the Celtics in 5 games earlier that spring, Wade had declared that he was done with early postseason exits. He wasn’t joking. On July 9th, 2010, the day after Lebron announced his decision, the Heat had a welcome party for their newly acquired superstars. During the celebration, Lebron promised the city of Miami multiple titles (“not four, not five, not six, not seven…”). Wade sat there and smiled. His plan had worked, but now NBA fans can only wonder if Wade truly knew what the next two and a half years held in store for himself and for the Miami Heat.
When Lebron chose to play with Wade, most people (fans, experts, and even ex-pros) saw it as the easy way out. Why would a player of Lebron’s caliber join a team that already had an established leader? Lebron was supposed to want to beat Wade, not join him. But some argued that the bitter ending to Lebron’s 2010 campaign heavily influenced his decision to leave the Cavaliers for the Heat. The season prior to his decision Lebron had won his second straight MVP award, and he was poised to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals. But after playing poorly in a decisive Game 5 against the Celtics and then being eliminated two days later, Lebron faced real questions about his ability to lead a team to the title. But now that he and Wade were teammates, how could they possibly mesh together? After all, that’s not how great teams are assembled.
It has been well established throughout NBA history that while every great team has several talented players, there is always one superstar who is the unquestioned leader; the alpha dog. This alpha dog can have a second in command (or several), but not a partner. The most famous NBA championship teams were built this way, each with their own Batman and accompanying Robin (or Robins). Bill Russell (over the course of this 13 year career) had Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, and John Havlicek. Larry Bird had Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, and Dennis Johnson. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had Magic Johnson and James Worthy until 1986, when Magic Johnson took over the role of alpha dog (this is an important distinction: Magic and Kareem were not co-captains of the Lakers’ showtime machine; they mutually decided to hand the team over to Magic together).
The most famous case of an NBA team being built around a superstar with a sidekick was, of course, the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990′s. Their alpha dog was Michael Jordan, who was the greatest player ever to set foot on a basketball court, but who also had the great fortune to play with Scottie Pippen, perhaps the greatest second-in-command in any sport. As the 2011 season began, the primary question concerning the Miami Heat were the roles of Lebron James and Dwyane Wade. Most experts insisted that despite Lebron’s superiority as a player, the Heat were still Wade’s team. Others claimed the opposite; that Lebron would immediately become the alpha dog of the team and Wade would accept the role of playing Pippen to Lebron’s Jordan. When asked about who the team belonged to, Wade and Lebron insisted that it didn’t matter, that they only wanted to win a championship, no matter who played what role. Here’s where Wade’s genius shone through: he convinced the best player alive (who was poised to be his greatest rival) to become his teammate, without ceding control of the team! Not only could Wade prolong his career and win multiple championships, he could do it all on his own terms. The only thing he had left to do was, you know, actually win the championships.
For the entirety of the 2011 season, the Heat stood directly under the NBA spotlight. Every win and loss was analyzed and critiqued and as the playoffs got underway, the pressure was squarely on Miami to silence their critics by winning a title. For the first three rounds, they answered the call, dispatching the 76ers, Celtics, and Bulls in 5 games each. Lebron and Wade, as they had done the whole season, refused to adhere to previous championship standards. Instead of Batman and Robin, they were Batman and Superman, taking turns breaking their opponents’ spirit. After cruising through the Eastern Conference, the Heat were the favorites in the Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, a veteran team led by Dirk Nowitzki who was searching for his first title, as well as a measure of revenge on the Heat for the loss he suffered at their hands in the 2006 Finals. After going up 2-1 in the series, it appeared Miami was going to defy NBA history and win the title with two alpha dogs. But after eleven straight months of more scrutiny and pressure most athletes ever face, Lebron finally cracked. In Games 4, 5, and 6, while Wade maintained his usual high level of play, Lebron shied away from the ball during the fourth quarter, becoming almost invisible on the court. Wade tried to talk his teammate and friend out of his slump (even yelling at him on the court in Game 3), but to no avail. Dirk Nowitzki got his revenge, and the Mavericks won their first title in franchise history.
The Heat heard about their Finals collapse all summer, and from the moment the 2012 season began, they were on a mission for redemption. Miami once again let Lebron and Wade be co-leaders of the team, and their formula succeeded…until Wade injured his ankle in January. From that moment on, Wade ceased to be the player he had been for the previous three seasons. He played hurt, and while he still contributed significantly, the control of the Heat was handed over to Lebron, who grabbed the reigns and took off. After winning his third MVP award in four years, Lebron increased his level of play in the postseason. Wade had no choice but to play the role of Scottie Pippen as he watched Lebron lead the Heat back from deficits against the Pacers (2-1), the Celtics (3-2), and the Thunder (1-0), en route to the NBA Championship. Lebron ascended to a level that Wade had never reached, and became the lone alpha dog in South Beach. The result was his first championship, and Wade’s second, and the celebration ensued.
Now that the Heat have established their alpha dog and won a championship, some assume that they will become the NBA’s next great dynasty and reel off several titles in a row. Through thirty-seven games this season, the Heat boast the best record in the lowly Eastern Conference at 25-12. Lebron is once again playing at an MVP level, and no team in the East appears to be a legitimate threat (that may change when Derrick Rose comes back for the Bulls, but it remains to be seen how effective Rose will be after tearing his ACL in the playoffs last year).
However, the scene in Miami is far from perfect. The Heat are 8-9 on the road, and they have not beaten a team with a winning record since their Christmas Day win over the Thunder. Wade and Chris Bosh were both benched for the entire fourth quarter against the Jazz on Monday, and after the game, Wade was visibly agitated while answering questions, eager to leave the arena. A few weeks ago, Wade was suspended for a game for kicking Bobcats guard Ramone Sessions in the “business area”. It remains to be seen if these issues are temporary, or are potentially season-altering developments. Pat Riley, in his 1988 book “Showtime,” coined a term “the disease of more”, to explain what happens to a team the year after they win a championship. Players demand more shots, playing time, and money. Riley is now the President of the Heat, and while he’ll do his best to quell the fire of egos burning in the Miami locker room, the disease of more may not be the primary problem.
When asked recently if he missed the days when he took 25 shots, always got the ball in crunch time, and was the unquestioned leader of the team, Dwyane Wade didn’t hesitate in his answer. “Every day”, he said. Wade realizes that his days as a top 5 player (or even a top 10 player) are over. But he has been the alpha dog of his team for fifteen years, dating back to his junior year at Harold L. Richards High School in Oak Lawn, Illinois, all the way through his college days at Marquette and his first nine years with the Heat. He’s one of the most pathologically competitive players in the league, and even if deep down he knows that his alpha dog days are over, maybe his ego won’t accept it. Wade celebrated his 31st birthday Thursday night by scoring 27 points against the Lakers. But just as he has been for the last year, Wade was overshadowed by Lebron, who scored 39 and recorded his 20,000th career point and 5,000th career assist (Lebron also became the youngest player in NBA history to reach each of those landmarks).
There’s a chance that Wade will never be fully healthy again for the rest of his career, mandating his continued role as Lebron’s sidekick. But if Wade recovers from his various injuries and returns to his old form, he’ll regain a spot among the NBA’s top 10 players based on skill alone. However, regardless of hishealth, Lebron is in his prime and will be the best player in the NBA for the foreseeable future. So either way, Wade is faced with a choice: he can swallow his pride, accept his role as the Scottie Pippen to Lebron’s Jordan, and continue to win championships. Or, he can try to regain his role as co-alpha dog, submarine the Heat’s title chances, and drive Lebron to free agency at the end of next season. Wade might not be the best player on his team anymore, but Miami cannot win the title without his clutch scoring, basketball IQ, and incredible chemistry with Lebron. Very few superstars have ever successfully made the switch from Batman to Robin. But if Wade really is a basketball genius, then he’ll realize that he’d rather win titles as a sidekick than lose in the first round as an alpha dog. After all, that’s why he recruited Chris Bosh and Lebron to come to Miami in the first place.
In all likelihood, Wade’s basketball intelligence will triumph over his ego, he’ll accept his secondary role, and the Heat will return to the NBA Finals for the third straight year. As for winning once they get there, that’s a different story. The Heat are dead last in the NBA in rebounding, and the four Western Conference contenders (the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, and Grizzlies) all have enough size to give the Heat fits. Lebron will always be the best player on the floor, but in the end, he can’t win it all by himself, and so the fate of the Heat’s title defense will fall on the shoulders of a certain aging superstar. Wade might not be the alpha dog, but he has always, always played better when it matters most. If he can will his 31-year-old body (which is really much older than that considering the punishment he’s taken over the last decade) to play at 75% of what it used to, the Heat will win their second title in a row, and talk of a dynasty will begin in earnest. If not, Miami’s Big 3 era could end after just three seasons, and Wade could see his chances at ever winning another title go up in smoke. Either way, the drama of the 2013 NBA playoffs will be can’t miss television, and whether he’s Batman, Robin, or anywhere in between (Nightwing?), Dwyane Wade will be a part of it.