Then, his buddy and four-time league MVP essentially gave up on him to return to Cleveland as a free agent. And soon after that, Wade balked after opting out of the remaining $42 million on his previous contract to sign a deal for nearly $10 million less.
No doubt, the losses certainly piled up on Wade during the most humbling and tumultuous offseason of his career. But now, Wade tends to focus more on what he’s regained as the Heat enter their first season in five years without LeBron James as the franchise anchor.
It starts with a newfound perspective.
It happened to be the day the Heat were holding workouts for their NBA Development League team prospects, a group ranging from local rec league ringers to former Division 1 college rotation players.
Wade didn’t really know any of those battling just to get invited back the next day for the remote chance to start a career somewhere. But it was a reminder of Wade’s own identity.
“I sneak up here every now and then to let people know I’m still around,” said Wade, 32. “That’s just it. I’m motivated by the game of basketball, being able to come out here and still play it. This is a lot of people’s dream. All you have to do is come in and see these guys trying out for the D-League team and look around and say, ‘OK. I’m in a special place.’”
Sobering moments like those have motivated Wade and the Heat, who open the season Wednesday night at home against the Washington Wizards. There’s no longer the luxury of LeBron’s greatness to carry the largest share of the load. The path that led Miami to two championships and the last four NBA Finals is now paved with potential potholes throughout a reloaded Eastern Conference.
And the combination of high roster turnover and far lower expectations has rendered the Heat as anonymous as many of the players pushing through drills during that D-League workout. At one point during the height of LeBron’s four seasons with the Heat, there were as many as 90 media members who crammed into a gym just to watch Miami’s training camp workouts.
By contrast, at one point during this preseason, the horde consisted of two local newspaper reporters. Although change has been difficult throughout this process for the Heat, Wade refuses to allow this team to focus on what they were the past four years or to look too far ahead into this season.
“It’s going to be like that [all season],” Wade said. “We don’t have the team right now where we can look forward. We have to focus on every day. It’s the only way we’re going to be successful, whether we win six or seven in a row or lose six in a row. Come in and focus on getting better. We don’t have the team where we have that confidence where we can look forward. We have to build that in ourselves.”
And that’s going to require Wade to first rebuild from within.
Although Chris Bosh is expected to become the primary option in the offense after re-signing on a maximum contract worth nearly $120 million over five seasons, the Heat’s prospects in the post-LeBron era largely rest on Wade’s health and productivity.
Many aspects of Wade’s role on the team have changed from the previous four seasons, when LeBron averaged 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists to lead the team in multiple statistical categories. However, many of the questions Wade faced in recent injury-riddled years persist.
That’s what makes both Wade and the Heat difficult to gauge this season.
Wade shot a career-high 54.5 percent from the field and averaged 19 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds in 54 games last season. But he also missed 28 games, mostly to manage knee issues, before enduring a turbulent postseason. After increasing his productivity in each of the first three rounds of the playoffs, Wade essentially flatlined during Miami’s five-game series loss to the Spurs in the Finals.
Wade refused to say whether his health was a factor in the Finals, when he shot just 43.8 percent and averaged 15.2 points and nearly four turnovers a game. A sluggish start to the preseason only raised more concerns about Wade, but he dismissed his sporadic play over the first four exhibition games as a case of coach Erik Spoelstra tweaking the offense and focusing on getting offseason acquisitions such as Luol Deng, Danny Granger and Shawne Williams more comfortable in the system.
Some encouraging signs came over the final week of the preseason, when Wade scored 26 points with six assists in 29 minutes during an Oct. 21 win against Houston. Over the final two exhibition games, Wade averaged 21 points and shot 18-for-26 from the field.
Questions about his health this week were cut off abruptly and answered succinctly.
“It won’t be a problem at all,” Wade said. “My impact will be what my impact is going to be. I’ve put the work in and you go on the court and try to put forth your best effort. And that’s all you can do.”
Wade said the Heat’s new offense is unlike any system he’s played in during his previous 11 seasons in Miami and is predicated more on ball-movement, attacking from the wings and exploiting mismatches at any position on the court. It has called for Wade to shift from strong-side decoy to facilitator to clear-out option from one possession to the next.
It’s an intricate scheme change from the past few seasons when LeBron was heavily relied upon to dominate the offense through either scoring or setting up the Heat’s bevvy of spot-up shooters. But marksmen such as Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Shane Battier and James Jones are now replaced by rookies Shabazz Napier and James Ennis on the perimeter along with versatile veterans in Deng, Williams, Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts, who sat out the preseason to recover from toe surgery.
Wade’s attitude in camp was a key factor in helping the Heat get through a challenging transition.
“I think it’s been invigorating, a new challenge,” Spoelstra said of Wade. “Having a new team, new players, a new role; he’s really stepped up from a leadership standpoint. I’ve really enjoyed watching him step into this role, being more vocal, showing players what we stand for, what our culture is, what our philosophy is, and backing it up with his actions. He had a very good training camp. He came in with a mindset to lead with his voice as well as with his work ethic, and he’s been doing it every day since.”
Heat forward Udonis Haslem, the only other holdover with Wade from the Heat’s first championship team in 2006, said the tone was set from the opening day of camp a month ago when every player passed the team’s conditioning test on the first day of practice.
“I’m not sure if that was the case the last few years,” Haslem said, coyly. “All the things we’ve been working on behind the scenes, we’ve had more than enough time behind the scenes to kind of put things in place and get a feel for different things. I don’t know if the identity has changed.”
But Haslem is certain about what’s been clearly restored.
“It’s his team again,” he said, referring to Wade. “Not to say it wasn’t, but you know, he’s been here. He’s the guy. He’s got the most championships, besides myself. Guys are looking to him and myself because we understand the Heat culture and embody what it’s all about. We’ve been here from the start, and hopefully we’ll be here until it’s finished. Everybody understands that.”
This is not an unfamiliar predicament for Wade, who embarked on a similar journey entering the 2008-09 season after the departure of another larger-than-life teammate.
Only then, Wade was a 26-year-old superstar in his prime, battling back from two major surgeries, regrouping from Shaquille O’Neal’s recent trade to Phoenix and regrouping from a 15-67 season that matched the worst finish in franchise history.
Wade won the league scoring title that next season and finished third in MVP voting.
No one expects that version of Wade to show up again this season.
So how does Wade at this stage of his career go about picking up himself and his franchise again? The pride is there. So is the passion. But why should anyone other than diehard Heat fans believe the necessary production will be there as well?
Just file those questions right along with all of the others facing the Heat these days.
“Obviously, it’s a little different when you talk about how you’re older now than you were then,” Wade said. “But we haven’t gotten into the throes of the season yet, so I can’t really say. But we’ll see when the wins and losses start piling up, how great it really is. But it feels renewed.”
Change -- sprinkled with a three championship runs -- has been the only constant in Wade’s career.
After riding a four-year wave of success and stability on several fronts, Wade has had to adjust to another shakeup. The same offseason highlighted by his marriage to actress Gabrielle Union also featured a costly and dramatic low point: his breakup as teammates with LeBron.
Diving into a new challenge has served as a coping mechanism.
“I don’t really know if it’s a secret to it. That’s life,” Wade said. “Life never stays the same. If it does, it gets too boring. You would call it Groundhog Day. You have to make the adjustment or you’ll get left behind. That’s all I’ve been able to do when change comes, whether it’s on the court or off the court. I’m not saying that I always do it right. But you just try to make it the best way you know how.”
Filling the four-time league MVP’s vocal leadership void is proving to be just as difficult for the Heat player who now commands the primary role in the offense as well as the team’s biggest contract.
Heat center Chris Bosh said Monday that in addition to adjusting aspects of his game entering the season, he’s also had to tweak major parts of his personality to effectively smooth the franchise’s transition into life after LeBron. Stepping up his production likely won’t be a problem for Bosh.
But speaking up more along the way? Well, that’s another ordeal altogether.
“It’s a challenge. I can’t duplicate what he did,” Bosh said of rallying the Heat around his voice the way LeBron has the past four seasons. “He’s a great leader. Guys followed him easily. And I’m trying to put my own spin on it and bring my own personality to it. That’s been a difficult journey for me, but I’m learning every day. I’m trying to make sure I personally talk to guys all the time and just take pointers from other people and see how I can bring all that to the table.”
Bosh quickly moved to the forefront of the Heat’s rebuilding process. Just hours after LeBron announced in July he was heading back to Cleveland in free agency, Bosh agreed to a five-year contract worth nearly $120 million to remain in Miami as the Heat’s building block for the present and future.
The Heat also brought back Dwyane Wade on a two-year, $33 million deal. Bosh and Wade each had a strong voice in how the Heat operated on and off the court in recent seasons. But even they fell in line beyond LeBron, who guided Miami to two championships in four consecutive trips to the Finals.
Along the way, there were plenty of moments when LeBron drew attention for the way he communicated with his teammates -- from yelling at point guard Mario Chalmers during games to leading teammates through a viral Harlem Shake video in the locker room.
While James’ style is louder and more demanding, Bosh is more laid-back and cerebral in his leadership approach. Still, there were moments when Bosh didn’t hesitate to be brutally honest and aggressively communicate with teammates in the past. It just wasn’t always a comfortable process.
“Naturally, no,” Bosh said after Monday’s practice as the Heat prepared for Wednesday’s season opener against the Washington Wizards. “It’s easier for me [to lead by example]. I like spending time by myself. [I have to] force myself to talk every day. It’s not easy. It’s something I will always work on. My wife pushes me every day to work on that stuff, so there’s no hiding for me. I might as well just get it over with and talk and be social. I’m comfortable doing it.”
It wasn’t just LeBron who left the Heat’s leadership circle. Miami’s overhaul also included the departures of veterans in Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis and James Jones. That has left Bosh and Wade to pick up the slack along with other long-term roster holdovers in Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers.
Bosh insists he’s not nervous or overwhelmed with the transition.
“I don’t do anxiety much anymore,” he said. “I just make sure I do enough to carry the responsibility.”
It’s a heavier load on multiple fronts.
But it’s less about what Bosh says, and more about what the Heat show as a collective unit.
“It doesn’t matter what we say ... in other people’s perception, we’ll be an underdog,” Bosh said of expectations facing the post-LeBron Heat in the East pecking order. “But for us, we’re trying to be an elite team. It’s going to take work. On paper, [other teams are] ahead. Chemistry-wise, I think Chicago is ahead. Talent-wise, Cleveland is ahead. But, you know, we have what it takes here. We have a chance.”
MIAMI-- For the past four seasons, so much was consistent about the Miami Heat.
Four seasons of championship expectations. Four seasons of coach Erik Spoelstra’s catch phrases repeated time and again. Four seasons of questioning Chris Bosh's role. Nearly four seasons of Dwyane Wade's health being examined. Four seasons of being everyone's favorite enemy. And, most notably, four seasons of LeBron James in his absolute prime.
So much of that changed between July 11, when James announced he was signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Friday, when the retooled Heat held media day on the eve of their first practice.
The expectations have fallen from championship or bust to essentially being projected as just another playoff team. Bosh has suddenly gone from an All-Star-caliber role player to quite possibly the top option in a revamped Heat offense.
Wade's health concerns are still there, as evidenced by the first question to him being, "How’s your knee?" But no longer is he viewed as a fragile piece of crystal that must be kept in prime condition until the postseason. Wade has returned to being an absolutely vital piece, one that won't be afforded nearly as many days off, if he can avoid it.
That much change could be jarring, especially for a core group of players and a franchise that have become quite used to winning at the highest level.
But Wade said the past 2½ months have been plenty of time to adjust to the idea of, once again, playing without James.
"I think everyone in the organization had enough time to get used to the idea that it's going to be a different team," Wade said. "We can't replace LeBron. We're a different team. Everyone's opportunities will be different. Everyone's responsibilities will be different."
The only problem for Wade is, he's not sure exactly how his responsibilities will change.
Other than the uncertainty of his troublesome knees, Wade also faces the question of just how close he can get to his form of four or five seasons ago.
Without knowing that, he can't honestly answer how his role will change this season.
"I'm not sure," Wade said. "Obviously, I'll have the ball in my hands a little bit more. I've always been a playmaker for this team, and I'll continue to be that. I've always been somebody who scored the ball at a high rate, and I will always try to do that.
"I'm not coming in thinking I have to do anything that LeBron did, or that I have to do anything that I did before the Big Three. I'm coming in with a new mind, with a new thought of, 'What’s going to be my role on this team?'"
Among Wade's offseason highlights was, of course, marrying Gabrielle Union, and among the lowlights was a 30-day paleo diet stint that left him moody but also noticeably leaner.
"It was bad," Wade said of the mood swings. "I had to tell my wife, 'Excuse me if I'm not the guy that you're used to.'
"There were some days where I just couldn't take it, but I stuck with it for 30 days, and from there it just becomes part of your lifestyle."
Wade wouldn't divulge his current weight, but he did indicate it was somewhere between 212, his weight as a rookie, and 225, his playing weight last season.
"My goal this year is to be available as much as possible," he said.
The other remaining member of the former Big Three has more detailed goals.
Bosh never expected to return to a primary scoring role. He assumed that James would stay in Miami for the long haul, leaving Bosh as an outside-shooting big who watched James and Wade dominate the post.
Now, armed with a healthy, new $118 million contract, Bosh is downright giddy about the opportunity to show off a refined, well-rounded game that will allow the Heat to remain among the best teams in the league.
"I've had to play a role the past four years, but moving forward, I can show the city and the organization what value I can bring, how much I can turn up the intensity, how much I can put more weight on my shoulders and really hold that load and bring more wins to Miami," Bosh said.
One aspect of the Heat that won't necessarily change is the players' feelings about James.
While you could easily find reasons for Wade, Bosh and a handful of others in the Heat organization to have animosity toward James because he left everyone in the dark while making his free-agent decision -- or simply for leaving a team that could've maintained a long, championship-level run -- no one displayed even the slightest bit of bitterness.
Spoelstra said it took him and the front-office staff about 10 minutes to shift moods from disappointed to invigorated.
Udonis Haslem said he was plenty satisfied with two titles in four seasons during James' time in Miami.
Even Danny Granger, who briefly reopened his free agency after hearing of James' return to Cleveland, said he decided Miami was still the best fit for him, even without the four-time MVP.
Among players, Wade probably has the most reason to be upset with James, given that the timing of it all cost Wade millions, and he was considered James' best friend on the team.
Wade said he understands there are reasons for him to be angry if he chose to be. He simply chooses not to.
"I don't want to focus on none of that," he said. "I want to focus on moving on. That’s my friend, at the end of the day. The rest of it, I'm just focused on moving on and doing what I can. I can't focus on disliking somebody and all that. That's putting too much energy on the wrong thing."
Besides, given how much the Heat have to adjust now that James is gone, there's probably not enough time to even hold a grudge.
"I was disappointed," Bosh said. "There was a letdown initially for not being able to keep that going, but you have to get over it. You can't stay in the past.
"It's a huge opportunity, not only for this team, but for every individual that's here."
"I just knew I was looking at a guy that was going to be like a 10-time All-Star -- was going to be in the discussion as one of the best centers, for sure," Horford said. "I have no question in my mind, looking back, that he was going to be a great player."
Almost three months later, Oden was selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft while Horford went third.
Seven years later, Horford is the one playing in All-Star games while injuries and other issues have derailed Oden’s career, to the point where he has openly described himself as “one of the biggest busts in NBA history.”
The 2007 draft’s legacy is one of rare extremes. And not only the ever-diverging gap between Kevin Durant's path to prominence and Oden's tumultuous tumble toward obscurity.
For every major hit that turned out to be an elite-level talent, such as Durant, Horford, Mike Conley Jr. (picked fourth), Joakim Noah (ninth) and Marc Gasol (48th), there were massive lottery misses on the likes of Oden, Yi Jianlian (sixth), Acie Law (11th), Julian Wright (13th) and Al Thornton (14th).
The 2007 class boasts both the league's reigning MVP (Durant) and defensive player of the year (Noah), marking the first time that has happened since the 1999-00 season. But it also produced a class in which seven of the first 21 players selected are no longer in the NBA. Oden would become the eighth if he's out of the league again this season.
Oden's arrest also places him among a far more disturbing distinction associated with that draft's first round.
Sean Williams, selected at No. 17 by the Nets, saw his career mired by a string of arrests on drug, trespassing and felony misconduct charges. He has been out of the league since being cut by the Rockets in 2012.
Ryan Blake, senior director of NBA scouting operations, is among those still trying to make sense of the 2007 draft’s many postscripts.
"It's such an interesting one, with sort of all of the weird things that have happened," Blake said. "There were a lot of differences in terms of guys with upside, guys we thought were better and guys that just didn't pan out ... just a lot of risks in that draft."
Horford, though, cringes when he sees Oden ridicule himself or measure his plight of misfortune against Durant's meteoric ascension. Though Horford’s Atlanta Hawks have made the postseason in each of his seven NBA seasons, he has endured his own injury problems, causing him to miss 116 games over the past three seasons.
"I think it's unfair for Greg," Horford said. "There were a lot of expectations on Greg, but we all knew it was just a matter of time before Kevin was going to blossom and become the player he is today. With Greg and everything he had to go through, he shouldn't compare himself to Kevin. When he's been able to play, he's been able to do OK.
“I can tell he's a good guy, a good person. It's just been a tough road as far as injuries and even this off-the-court situation. At the end of the day, we're all humans that make mistakes."
The hashtag spread quickly the moment Dwyane Wade used his Instagram account Tuesday to confirm he signed a new contract and planned to be a Miami Heat for life.
The symbolism is hard to miss.
That message, which instantaneously served as a stamp to hundreds of social media posts, was a way of embracing Wade for recommitting to the only NBA team for which he has ever played in his 11-year career. It was also a parting shot at LeBron James, aka King James, from a still grieving group after the four-time league MVP bolted Miami and returned to Cleveland as a free agent last week.
It was equal parts love for Wade and loathing LeBron.
The truth is Wade was never going anywhere after he opted out of the final two years and $41 million left on his contract to help the Heat shore up the roster after last month’s loss in the Finals to San Antonio. This round of negotiations for Wade, 32, was only a matter of how much less he’d be willing to take and how long the Heat would have to fork over significant -- and potentially crippling -- cap space.
Wade did the Heat a huge favor on both fronts Tuesday by signing a reported two-year deal worth at least $31 million, which includes a player option for the second season. It was widely believed Wade would push for a four-year, $60 million contract that would essentially guarantee he’d retire as a member of the Heat and never go through high-end free agency again.
But there’s a unique thing about this form of loyalty and sacrifice. By accepting a shorter deal for less money and greater flexibility for the Heat, Wade has locked himself into a lifetime commitment. NBA rules prohibit promises and agreements by teams to take care of players beyond their contracts.
“He has shown his commitment to the Heat many times over the course of his career and has always been willing to sacrifice in order to help build this team into a champion,” Heat president Pat Riley said. “This time is no different. I am ecstatic to have him back in the fold and I am confident that Dwyane, as always, will be leading this team as we look to contend for NBA championships.”
By taking a deal worth half as much and for half as long as Wade could have commanded, the Heat are in position to be a major player in free agency again in 2016. Leaving that much money on the table as part of plans to retain LeBron and upgrade the supporting cast this summer was the expectation.
The reality played out completely different. Wade’s sacrifice this time around allowed Miami to re-sign Chris Bosh to take a max deal worth $118 million over five seasons and to sign Luol Deng to replace LeBron at small forward for $20 million over two seasons. The Heat continued their recent run of signings Tuesday by bringing back Udonis Haslem, who opted out of $4.6 million due next season to agree to yet another team-friendly deal, and securing 2013 second-round pick James Ennis.
This seed planted by Wade was laced with loyalty and legacy.
All anyone needs to know about either of those coatings can be summed up by the bargains and sacrifices associated with Wade’s place in the team’s salary structure the past dozen years. A vital part of all three of the Heat’s championship teams, Wade is Miami’s all-time leader in points, made field goals, free throws, assists, steals, starts, games played and, now, dollars given back.
Yet, he has never been first in salary during any of the 11 Heat seasons.
Over the years, that distinction has gone to Eddie Jones, Shaquille O’Neal, Shawn Marion, Jermaine O’Neal, LeBron and Bosh. The NBA’s rookie pay scale assured Wade would be a built-in bargain his first four seasons. When Wade earned $3 million during his 2005-06 NBA Finals MVP season, he was the lowest-paid player to earn that award over a span of 22 years. That stretch ended when Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard was named Finals MVP last month following a season in which he was paid $1.9 million.
But it was by choice the past two times Wade ended up with discounted deals in Miami. In 2010, he took less than a full maximum contract, also convincing LeBron and Bosh to pitch in, to make sure there was room under the salary cap to re-sign Haslem and other key role players.
This time, Wade did it again to give the Heat the best chance to recover from LeBron’s abrupt departure. But this is more than about money for Wade, who has $121.3 million in NBA career earnings and likely a matching amount in endorsement deals.
He’s not exactly starving.
Yet expect Wade to be as hungry as ever to prove he can lead a post-LeBron push to remain prominent, especially in a wide-open Eastern Conference void of a clear frontrunner. Wade benefited as much as anyone from playing with LeBron. When he missed 28 games last season, mostly due to knee issues, it was LeBron who carried the extra load and got the Heat to a fourth straight NBA Finals.
But when Wade was healthy, there was a recurring burden he carried at times through a difficult adjustment to a secondary role the past four years. Wade has also talked about dealing with perceptions his legacy has been overshadowed by LeBron’s breakthrough as a two-time champion in Miami.
“I think when all the smoke clears -- because right now, so much is viewed on LeBron’s legacy and I’m wrapped up into that,” Wade recently told ESPN.com. “Obviously mine doesn’t get talked about or seen as much, and rightfully so. I understand. But when all the smoke clears, you sit down and it’s something you can talk about in terms of what I’ve been able to accomplish and how I’ve accomplished it.”
Wade compares his circumstances with those of other marquee players who have remained with one franchise their entire careers. He admires how the Lakers treated Kobe Bryant, 35, who was awarded a two-year, $48 million extension during an injury-plagued season because of what he has meant through the years.
Wade also respects how Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have been more flexible with their salaries in recent years to give San Antonio and Dallas, respectively, a chance to retain key players, remain in the mix for valuable free agents and stay in title contention.
“There’s a different way to look at things when you’re at this stage of your career, in terms of helping your team and your team helping you,” Wade said. “My way has been different than some guys'. But I’m just continuing to add to what I am, my so-called legacy. I’m fine with it, whatever it’s going to be.”
Giving back salary at a time when few could have blamed Wade for holding onto every dime of that $41 million he was due is the clearest sign of the lengths he’s gone to sacrifice for his franchise.
No player in NBA history has opted out of that much money to take that steep a cut.
Now, one unprecedented move deserves another. Wade’s No. 3 jersey is certain to be hanging from the AmericanAirlines Arena rafters soon after he’s done playing.
But why wait? There’s no league rule against doing so while he’s still playing, perhaps as early next season’s home opener. There would be no greater show of gratitude for the singularly restored face of the franchise.
For what Wade has given the Heat time and time again, he has already earned it.
No hashtag movement necessary.
MIAMI -- The doors swung open to Aderholt Gym on Hurlburt Field’s military base in the Florida Panhandle four years ago, unveiling a scene that remains as vivid now as it was on the opening day of the LeBron James era during his first training camp with the Miami Heat.
“That’s bulls---, man,” LeBron shouted.
Wearing a netted yellow vest over his black cutoff shooting shirt, LeBron was livid that day in late September 2010. These were the first words heard as nearly 100 reporters filed past the base’s bomb-sniffing dogs, filtered through the security checkpoint and found their way into the facility.
Once inside, the baritone-voiced barking and frustrated banter of the boulder-shouldered man standing near the free throw line was essentially bouncing off the walls.
“That’s bulls---,” LeBron repeated in the heat of battle. “Get it right. Stop cheating.”
The Heat’s first scrimmage with the Big Three had devolved into a verbal scrum.
Standing across from LeBron was new teammate and temporary practice adversary Dwyane Wade, leading an opposing group of players in the split-squad game. Standing between LeBron and Wade was Heat assistant coach, Hall of Famer and resident scrimmage referee-scorekeeper Bob McAdoo.
Somehow, McAdoo screwed up the count.
First, he ruled Wade’s team was ahead. LeBron exploded. McAdoo was reminded of a score he hadn’t accounted for earlier in the game and granted LeBron’s team the lead. Then Wade lost it. Meanwhile, Heat president Pat Riley sat nearby with a smirk as he proudly took it all in.
There was one prevailing thought that day: Buckle up for a wild and crazy ride.
It didn’t take long to comprehend the level of intensity, heavy artillery and fireworks that would be in play covering arguably the most dynamic and polarizing team in NBA history for the Heat Index. It proved to be a thrill ride that never disappointed despite the highs and lows.
After four straight trips to the Finals and consecutive championships in 2012 and 2013, LeBron walked away as a free agent Friday to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite the articulately crafted essay he wrote to explain his decision for Sports Illustrated, LeBron needs to face some real questions about why he left and when he knew he would be leaving to reunite with his home-state team that drafted him No. 1 in 2003.
But there’s one thing that can’t be questioned. It’s his relentless, passionate effort that never ceased.
Before he took off for Cleveland, LeBron hardly took off a day in Miami. From his first training camp practice amid the Heat’s bunker mentality in that sweaty, cramped gym to the final game he played in a desperate yet ultimately failed push against San Antonio in a series-clinching Game 5 of the Finals last month, James gave the Heat everything he had -- even in times when his body literally gave out.
Then he took the first option out allowed in his contract to return to a place he never emotionally left. Some are still struggling with whether to shame LeBron or thank LeBron. But as some of the numbness and shock subsides from his abrupt departure, it’s growing more difficult to truly blame LeBron. He didn’t make a public spectacle of his free agency like Carmelo Anthony, who was within his rights to tease and flirt through a four-team recruiting tour before returning for mega money in New York.
And LeBron didn’t spend the season working behind the scenes to force a trade to Cleveland. He simply did his job at an MVP level -- sore back, bum ankles, broken nose, creaky knees and all -- every night. It can be tough to focus on what’s ahead when that level of excellence hangs in the rearview mirror.
The Heat have rallied the past few days to recover from LeBron’s departure with a flurry of moves that have included re-signing or closing in on deals with Wade, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem.
That’s a surefire playoff team, especially in the wide-open East. That’s a squad that could win 45 to 50 games next season if healthy. Solid but hardly spectacular. Teams don’t recover quickly from losing the best player in the game. They regroup as much as possible and hope for the best.
That’s the 2014-15 Miami Heat -- almost certain to be better than they were the three years before James arrived but probably never as dynamic and dominant during the four-year run with him. There’s no way to recreate the self-described Heatles, sans LeBron as the front man. No one expected the Jacksons to extend the same magic for long once Michael left to do his own thing.
After closing the chapter on LeBron, the franchise began this week contemplating plans to start removing his No. 6 jersey either completely or at least from prominent display in the team stores at AmericanAirlines Arena. It remains to be seen whether the Heat take a similar approach with some of the floor-to-ceiling images displaying LeBron’s postseason exploits the past four years.
One of the most prominent murals is the one positioned just outside the Heat’s locker room. It’s the photo that captured LeBron’s maniacal stare as he crouched down in a defensive stance during his epic Game 6 performance against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.
It’s the first image players see as they head down the “Championship Alley” tunnel to enter the court. It’s the last glance that holds them accountable as they head back to the locker room after games.
There’s no denying what LeBron has meant to the Heat on and off the court the past four years. But what is overlooked is the way he conducted his business with the media. The same player who controlled every aspect of the game also had the wherewithal to engage many on a personal level.
There were the moments before games when he asked, unprompted, about the recovery of one reporter’s mother, who was hospitalized and needed surgery. There was another time when, after a big game against Oklahoma City, he checked on the baseball performance of another reporter’s son.
Covering the huge performances in marquee games as well as the demoralizing losses and controversies were all memorable. But so were many of the behind-the-scenes moments, like the time when LeBron turned up the volume to ear-splitting levels in the pregame locker room and engaged Shane Battier in a rap battle as they recited N.W.A.’s explicit lyrics.
Yes, that Shane Battier.
Should LeBron have given the Heat more of a clear heads-up on his way out?
Absolutely. Perhaps he did as much and Miami simply refused to take no for an answer. In hindsight, there were plenty of hints and subtle messages that were either dismissed or overlooked along the way, especially the final six months of this season.
But LeBron left without owing the Heat anything else.
That was clear from his first day of work to his last.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Shabazz Napier turned the ball over on his first possession and launched an airball on one of his final shots during his first game as an NBA point guard.
Those kind of miscues can only mean one thing: The Miami Heat’s first-round draft pick is right on track in the early stages of his transition to the league. Struggling in a summer league debut has become a rite of passage for point guards getting their first taste of NBA action.
Napier, the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player who had LeBron James’ stamp of approval when he was drafted in the first round last month, missed his first 10 shots and had eight turnovers Saturday in Miami’s 85-77 loss to the Boston Celtics at the Orlando Pro Summer League.
But a productive spurt in the fourth quarter during a rally that fell short left Napier embracing the growing pains and eager to quickly adjust in time for his next summer league test Sunday.
“I definitely needed this one to understand the game much better,” Napier said of Saturday’s performance. “It’s a big adjustment. I’m unable to do a lot of things I was on the college level. I’ve got to find the adjustments on how to do those things. I’ve still got the college game coming in. We’re learning on the fly, and we’re going to make big mistakes. This is a different game.”
But the humbling start makes Napier no different than plenty of other point guards who stumbled along their initial steps into the league. This time a year ago, Michael Carter-Williams shot 27 percent from the field in Orlando, had games with nine and eight turnovers, respectively, and he never found a rhythm despite putting up solid overall scoring numbers.
The Sixers point guard ended up being named NBA Rookie of the Year last season.
There are similar stories of early struggles dating back to Derrick Rose’s NBA summer league opening act in 2008. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Napier’s approach to this process was revealed after Saturday’s game when he was asked how much he either watched or knew about the early growing pains some top college point guards had in their initial week of summer schooling.
Napier, who never shied away from controversial statements during his time at UConn about the NCAA’s governing guidelines, offered a dish better than either of the two he had in Saturday’s game.
“I didn’t watch it at all,” Napier said of tracking previous summer league seasons. “I never had NBA TV, especially at school. If a lot of point guards do this, then I guess it’s a remedy. But it’s a big learning curve for all of us. So you’ve got to find a way. I will as soon as I continue to play.”
Repetition is certain to be a remedy, too.
Napier was targeted by the Heat for several reasons. Chief among them was that LeBron likes him and considered the shifty, sharp-shooting, two-time NCAA champion as the best point guard in the draft. Another reason was that Napier plays a position of potential need for the Heat, who saw 14 of the 15 players on last season’s roster become free agents this summer.
It’s made for a hectic and desperate month of July already, with LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh still yet to publicly commit to re-signing with the Heat since entering free agency last week. There has been a steady dose of conflicting reports about the intentions of the Heat’s Big Three, from some outlets speculating that all three players are likely to return, to others reporting that LeBron and Bosh are now apparently open to exploring how they might fit with other teams.
Meanwhile, Heat president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra have been traveling the country the past few days meeting with potential free-agent targets, including Luol Deng and Pau Gasol, in an effort to retool the roster in anticipation of LeBron, Wade and Bosh returning.
Amid that backdrop, the Heat are hoping to develop and prepare a handful of prospects on the summer league team who might be able to contribute to next season’s roster. In addition to Napier, Miami is hopeful that swingman James Ennis, a second-round pick last season, and holdover center Justin Hamilton can add a “layer of youth” to the team Riley mentioned was needed moving forward.
Ennis led the Heat with 18 points and eight rebounds, showing both the athleticism around the rim and the shooting distance from 3-point range Miami needs to replace aging veterans from last season’s team that was overrun by San Antonio in five games during the NBA Finals. Hamilton missed nine of 15 shots, but he had 13 points and nine rebounds Saturday against Boston’s young prospects.
Heat assistant Dan Craig, who is coaching the summer league team, said Napier’s uneven play was more a result of his inability to adjust to the pace of the NBA game -– even at the scaled-down summer level.
“At times, I thought he sped himself up,” Craig said. “That’s one thing we’ve been talking about. Slow down, let the defense make the mistake. As he settled in, I think he did a good job of adjusting. Obviously, we’re still learning each other. If he makes a mistake, he goes on to the next play. I think he got in trouble more than they got him in trouble. And that’s just about slowing down.”
Among the dozens of former players, league executives and team scouts who watched Napier in action at the Orlando Magic’s practice facility was someone who knows quite a bit about a point guard’s transition from leading a team to an NCAA title to getting prepared in a hurry for the NBA.
Isiah Thomas, who guided Indiana to a championship in 1981 and then entered the draft three months later, smiled and nodded his approval as he spoke with ESPN.com Saturday about Napier.
“The thing I like about him most is that he competes. And not only does he compete, he’s smart and has a great fundamental base you can build from,” Thomas said. “He understands offensive concepts and defensive concepts. I’m not concerned about what his field goal percentage was today, or any of that.”
Thomas, a Hall of Fame point guard who won two championships with the Detroit Pistons, said Napier has the intangibles and instincts necessary to work through many of the initial adjustments required to be an impact point guard in the NBA. Thomas pointed to a stretch in the fourth quarter, when Napier made three straight shots, got a steal and sparked a comeback in a key stage of the game.
“They had a stretch there when he really got it going,” said Thomas, now an analyst for NBA TV. “The thing that is impressive is that he can have those type of bursts in a game, when he can hit a couple of shots, get a couple of steals and change the whole momentum of the game. It didn’t matter to him what he was shooting before that moment. He’s able to grasp that, and that’s a big thing at this level.”
Ennis, who played for the Heat’s summer league team last year, said he spoke with Napier about not allowing a slow start or bad game to linger. The week is far too short for any of that.
“I told him, ‘This is your first time here. Last year, I was very nervous,’” Ennis said. “I know he got drafted in first round, so a lot of people expect a lot of him. Next game, he’ll be better. Just get the jitters out.”
That process for Napier started with the first play of the game. He brought the ball up in transition and tossed a lazy pass across the court and knew it was a mistake the moment it left his hand. The turnover led to a Celtics fast break.
“I passed it, and I didn’t know I threw a loose pass,” Napier said. “I thought I threw a regular pass. That’s one of the things I’ve got to learn. Throw a pass that has a chance of getting there. As soon as I threw it, I said, ‘There it is, get back on defense.’”
A good sign is that Napier didn’t get defensive about his miscues.
He dissected them. He accepted them.
His plan was to spend the evening in his room watching film and refocusing for Sunday’s game.
“I can come in here and not be prepared, or I can come in here and be prepared,” Napier said. “And I like being prepared for everything.”
Everything, including a long and productive NBA career at the point.
After seeing Napier on Saturday take his first step -- and a few missteps, as well -- Thomas likes his chances.