Dwyane Wade and the Bulls are undertaking the most unexpected and illogical homecoming in recent memory.
Chicago has agreed to sign Wade, a 12-time All-Star who won three titles during his 13-year tenure in Miami, to a two-year contract worth $47 million with a player option on the second season, according to Yahoo Sports and ESPN.com. Wade, 34, will leave South Beach after engaging in tense negotiations with Heat president Pat Riley for the second straight summer.
At first blush, the move is stunning for all three parties: Miami loses its franchise player for nothing, Chicago takes on an aging shooting guard who appears to be a poor fit with its existing core and its coach’s preferred style, and Wade leaves the only home he’s known in the NBA to play for a non-contender and for less than max money.
The deeper one digs, though, the more the parting makes sense for Wade and, arguably, even for the Heat. Wade clearly seemed to believe he was taken for granted in Miami and that his financial sacrifice during previous deals were not adequately appreciated in Riley’s off-season planning. After so many years, so many deep postseason runs and so much success brought about by his successful recruiting of LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010, he had every right to expect the Kobe Bryant golden parachute treatment from management. Instead, he watched as Riley maxed out Hassan Whiteside, unsuccessfully chased Kevin Durant and left Wade hanging. Now, Wade gets to save face and by returning to his hometown of Chicago, a big market with a proud basketball tradition.
Miami unquestionably takes a big short-term hit here: Losing Wade will justifiably anger the team’s fan base and it throws the 2016–17 season completely up in the air. As if coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t have enough to juggle with Chris Bosh’s health concerns, Luol Deng’s departure to the Lakers, and Whiteside no longer playing with the carrot of his first major contract dangling in front of him, he now must grapple with his new Wade-less existence. Although Wade’s numbers have been in fairly steady decline since they peaked in 2008–09, he led the Heat in usage last season and was the driving factor in Miami’s first-round series win over Charlotte.
Longer term, though, the Wade-less Heat can enter the 2017 free agency period with significantly more flexibility and, frankly, less baggage. The Lakers were unquestionably held back by Bryant’s presence and salary in the 2014 and 2015 off-seasons, and now Riley can pitch A-listers as coming to the Heat as headliners rather than as Wade’s sidekick. Is Miami guaranteed to land a big fish? No. Does getting a better shot at Russell Westbrook or Blake Griffin make the sting of an abrupt parting with Wade go away? No. But Wade, at his current age and in the NBA’s current top-heavy competitive landscape, is no longer capable of being the best or second-best player on a contender. While it may take years for Riley and the Heat to construct his next title-worthy roster, they might as well get started on it now rather than tethering themselves to Wade’s timeline.
That brings us to the Bulls. Unfortunately, that’s where the logical justifications start to break down. After losing Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol this summer, the Bulls have operated like a team that’s making it up as it goes along. The first questionable move was the signing of Rajon Rondo, a past-his-prime, ball-dominant non-shooter and non-defender who has butted heads with his coaches at two previous stops. Now, the Bulls add Wade, another past-his-prime, ball-dominant non-shooter who forces Chicago’s best player, Jimmy Butler, to shift up to small forward. Second-year coach Fred Hoiberg supposedly wanted to unveil a more modern offense relying more heavily on perimeter shooting, but his new backcourt combined to hit just 69 three-pointers all of last season. For comparison’s sake, Stephen Curry had more than that by Thanksgiving.
It’s also worth noting that while Chicago wanted to play faster under Hoiberg, Wade’s Heat ranked 25th in pace last season and 29th in pace the year before. Running and gunning with Wade, who has missed an average of 17 games over the last five seasons, is a non-starter, especially with Robin Lopez in place as the starting center. So no space, no pace and one ball for three players who are used to pounding it.
Although Wade’s arrival certainly improves Chicago’s marketability and star power, it will take a meaningful toll on the roster’s depth. To create the room to add Wade, Chicago must trade away two players who would have logged significant minutes this season: point guard Jose Calderon and small forward Mike Dunleavy Jr. Given the obvious spacing issues presented by using the Wade/Butler combination, Calderon easily could have emerged as a preferable starting option to Rondo. Instead, he’s gone to the Lakers, creating a major hole when the Rondo experiment inevitably runs off the rails. Dunleavy, meanwhile, was a hard-nosed three-point shooter on a reasonable contract who was immediately, and smartly, snapped up by Cleveland.
Chicago’s motivations ultimately seem pretty transparent: to sell a bunch of jerseys, to generate some positive buzz after a disappointing 2015–16 season and to buy some time for whatever comes next by squeezing back into the East playoff picture. Even if Wade remains fully healthy and productive and the Bulls accomplished all three of their goals, this signing represents a philosophical course correction that undercuts Hoiberg and it meaningfully delays Chicago’s ability to build a roster capable of sustained success throughout Butler’s prime.
Even though the short-term benefits of adding Wade are real, the Bulls would have been better off taking their loss in free agency rather than plunging forward on this road to nowhere.