When Dwyane Wade finally makes his Cleveland Cavalier debut a lot of the credit will be heaped upon the special relationship between Dwyane Wade and LeBron James who met during the 2003 draft. For 15 NBA seasons, Wade and James, have together or apart, put their stamp on NBA ballclubs, leading them to the Finals, competing for titles, and exhibiting their excellence. Off the court, both are deeply committed to social justice. Chicago raised Dwyane Wade and Akron raised LeBron James are well versed in the urban realities of young black men, violent realities they escaped by the nature of their talent. Both are dedicated to offering a hand up.
Regardless of the projections about the Cavaliers impressive depth, (no one is talking about Derrick Rose), and what that depth will do to the Eastern Conference, the fact that the Dwyane Wade-LeBron James opportunity has presented itself is courtesy of Pat Riley.
If Wade and James do hold the trophy up at the end of June, it will be Pat Riley who is punished. He had them both. They left to escape Riles. It won’t be a good look for Riles who seethes at the Wade-LeBron relationship post Miami Heat titles. Riley is a ride or die, you are with me or against me persona. James leaving devastated the Heat. In Riley’s eyes, LeBron was disloyal.
In Riley ‘s view, LeBron had already made the decision to leave the franchise in 2014. Meeting with Riles to discuss a new contract was a LeBron exercise in going through the motions. Riley has never forgiven the sucker punch of the defection.
Riley never forgave Wade, who he implicitly trusted, either.
That infamous plane ride home from Vegas in which LeBron allegedly never told Wade of his plans to return to Cleveland was something Riley never believed. LeBron was gone and he held Wade responsible for not cluing anyone else in. If LeBron was a traitor, Wade was a co-conspirator.
By the end of their title run, Riley couldn’t see what he was doing by force of his dogmatic personality- he usually burns players out- and his level of accountability was close to zero. As much as LeBron James wanted to come home in 2014, and as much as the butt whipping the Heat took in San Antonio in the Finals pushed LeBron out the door, the Riley relationship had devolved. When Riley took the podium after the exit interviews and basically tried to shame LeBron into coming back, equating his leaving with what a coward would do, basically telling him to man up, he was issuing a challenge LeBron could not help but take. Man up? Okay bye.
Two years later when Dwyane Wade was a free agent, Riley didn’t even bother to pitch him on staying. Riles had never let go of his anger. And so Wade did what Riley never expected him to do, he turned his back on the franchise and Wade County and Riley was left with egg on his face. It’s not that Wade is the same player he used to be but it was that Riley, by his inattention, underestimated the relationship. The executive who could engineer and create magic failed when it came to understanding his two best players. Wade and LeBron didn’t leave the Heat. They left Pat Riley.
So of course all this is karma. LeBron and Wade would find themselves back here again, seven years after they first came together and bragged about how many titles they were going to win. Though put all the sentimentality aside. It is different. Wade isn’t the same player he was in 2012 and there are still questions about his health. The Cavs are so deep it really doesn’t matter if Wade only makes it on the court for 60 games. Age has affected Wade more than LeBron but LeBron heroism wasn’t enough to slay the Warriors.
LeBron has played 18 Finals games against Steph Curry and company and lost 11 of them. He needs a cohesive and collective team effort and it is going out on a limb to say that Wade puts them over the top. Defense hasn’t changed despite their depth. But Dwyane Wade gives them one more option and the Cavs are the most complete team in the East.
Which brings us back to Riles. There may be a playoff matchup between the Heat and the Cavs in Miami. LeBron will be back. Wade will be back. The banners will hang over head. It should have been different. No one should have left but basketball, as much it is about competition, it is about divorce. The Lakers had to cringe when Shaq won a title. It may be the Pat Riley look at the end of the day. Cringing. It is one of those human stains he will never ever be able to get past. He had two great players and both left him. Now those players are reunited.
Three years later. Karma indeed.
photo via llananba