CHICAGO — The defining moment in Dwyane Wade‘s yearlong stint with the Chicago Bulls didn’t come during a game. It came during a team meeting.
After ripping his younger teammates following a Jan. 25 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, questioning just how much some in the group wanted to win, and dealing with the public fallout from Rajon Rondo‘s Instagram the following day, in which Rondo publicly called out Wade and Jimmy Butler for how they handled the situation, Wade sat with the rest of his teammates inside the Advocate Center prior to a morning shootaround to discuss the comments of the past two days.
Each player had the opportunity to speak on that Friday morning, and what became clear as the meeting progressed, according to multiple sources, is that several young players angrily voiced their displeasure to Wade regarding how he had called them out.
Veteran Taj Gibson would explain later that the younger players were upset, at least in part, that Wade wasn’t practicing all the time. At 35, Wade acknowledged he wasn’t going to be on the practice floor every day at this point in his career, but it bothered many in the young group that Wade was calling them out for a perceived lack of effort when he wasn’t exerting the same kind of effort on a regular basis. Young players like Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis had spoken openly after Wade signed about how much they were looking forward to playing with the future Hall of Famer.
Now, the young group had collectively turned its back on the aging star, and the Bulls’ locker room was never the same from that point on. Wade mostly kept to himself, developing an even closer relationship with All-Star swingman Butler, while the younger players continued to look for guidance from Rondo.
My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My vets didn’t pick and choose when they wanted to bring it. They brought it every time they stepped in the gym whether it was practice or a game. They didn’t take days off. My vets didn’t care about their numbers. My vets played for the team. When we lost, they wouldn’t blame us. They took responsibility and got in the gym. They showed the young guys what it meant to work. Even in Boston when we had the best record in the league, if we lost a game, you could hear a pin drop on the bus. They showed us the seriousness of the game. My vets didn’t have an influence on the coaching staff. They couldn’t change the plan because it didn’t work for them. I played under one of the greatest coaches, and he held everyone accountable. It takes 1-15 to win. When you isolate everyone, you can’t win consistently. I may be a lot of things, but I’m not a bad teammate. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don’t deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.
A post shared by Rajon Rondo (@rajonrondo) on Jan 26, 2017 at 3:03pm PST
The narrative of Wade’s happy homecoming back to Chicago wasn’t supposed to play out like this.
After signing Wade last summer, Bulls GM Gar Forman was confident that Wade would serve as a sounding board for the younger players and would help unify what had become a fractured locker room in coach Fred Hoiberg’s first season. The Bulls were also hopeful that Wade would help Butler become more comfortable as the face of the franchise.
After some early-season success, the good vibes that Forman was hoping for didn’t last. Wade was helpful to Butler as he took another developmental step in his career, but his relationship with many of the young players he was supposed to guide soured, culminating in the angry words in the Jan. 27 meeting.
From that point on, it wasn’t just the players who seemed frustrated with Wade. Many within the organization believed that the 35-year-old was more interested in his business ventures off the floor than he was his performance on it. Midway through last season, Wade told ESPN: “At the end of the year, you sit back and see what the team is, what direction they’re going in. I would be a liar to say that I want to play on a team with all 21-year-olds. You know what I mean? And be a part of the future building. I would be a fool to say that. But you also want to be in the best position for what you think is for you at that time, too … One of the main reasons I’m here is Jimmy. He’s the one who called me and got me to come here. So that’s a big part of my decision and everything else, is what Jimmy’s doing, what his future looks like and all that. And I’ve made it very clear. So I have no idea from that standpoint. You just have to wait and see and then see what works out.”
After reading those quotes, several Bulls officials privately chuckled, believing there was no way at this point in his career that Wade would opt out of the player option in his Bulls deal that would pay him almost $24 million in the upcoming season. So when Wade informed the Bulls two days before the NBA draft that he was opting into the deal, despite the fact that trade rumors involving Butler swirled, nobody in the Bulls organization was surprised.
After Butler was dealt to the Minnesota Timberwolves on draft night, it was only a matter of time before a buyout was reached. The surprise was that Wade and the Bulls were able to come to an agreement before the season began, thus saving themselves from the uncomfortable questions that would hover over them until Wade headed elsewhere.
In hindsight, it wasn’t Wade’s fault that he decided to accept the Bulls’ original offer. After all, he turned down more money from the Denver Nuggets last summer to make his arrival in Chicago possible. If there is blame to place here, it falls at the feet of Forman and the Bulls’ front office. With a desire to remain relevant after their championship window had already closed, the Bulls not only signed off on the Wade deal, they also agreed to give him the $23.8 million player option that they will be buying out.
ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Sunday that Wade will give back $8 million of that $23.8 million that was due to him this season, but the Bulls never should have made that deal in the first place. The Bulls should have either committed to building around Butler for the long term before last year or started the process of rebuilding earlier. Even if they had held on to Butler for another year in order to maximize his trade value, the decision to sign both Wade and Rondo was shortsighted. It also ended up costing the Bulls a lot more money that they could have used in other areas.
Both Wade and the Bulls deserve credit for making the buyout a reality before their unlikely union would have dissolved later in the year, but this was a marriage of arrogance on both sides that was destined for failure from the moment it was consummated. Even if Rondo hadn’t gotten hurt after the Bulls went up 2-0 over the Boston Celtics in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs last season, a team led by Butler, Wade and Rondo wasn’t good enough to ever sniff legitimate championship contention.
The reality at this stage in his career is that Wade isn’t the same consistently dynamic player he has been in years past. He can still have nights where he turns back the clock offensively, but he seems allergic to playing defense on a regular basis. The Bulls should have seen all the warning signs coming, but decided to invest in the hope anyway. They believed that Wade could still play at a high level on a regular basis, and that he could teach professionalism to a group badly in need of more lessons.
They ended up being wrong on both counts.
A Dream was fulfilled!!! Thank you Chicago!!!
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) September 25, 2017