With the elimination of the Miami Heat from the playoffs last night, Dwyane Wade has played his final game under his current contract, and conceivably played his final game for the Miami Heat. In a summer of larger-than-life free agents, LeBron James is the pretty obvious number one out there. But Wade is an equally obvious runner up, and the gap between Wade and the rest of the field is pretty big.
First of all, let's establish that LeBron is clearly the first choice over DWade. Wade is amazing, but LeBron is LeBron. Not too mention that LeBron is a full three years younger. That's a pretty significant three years, if you're a team about to offer a five year contract to one of these guys. LeBron will be 30 five seasons from now; Wade will be 33. Considering that they'll be making around $23M in the 2015 season, it's within the realm of possibility, and one might even say likely, that by the middle of he decade Wade will be a salary cap albatross to whatever team happens to sign him. The same cannot be said of LeBron.
Let's also take a moment to establish just how savvy James and Wade and their agents (and sure, throw Chirs Bosh in there too) were to sign the deals they did the last time they were free agents back in 2007. By signing three year deals, with player options for the fourth year, all of these players are able to sign new contracts this summer under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. It may not seem like a big deal, but it's really a major confluence of positive factors, especially for Wade.
- There's no doubt that the next CBA is going to be less player-friendly than the current one. It's interesting that the player's have essentially conceded this point already, but they have. The economy is hurting, and the players realize that they're going to have to make concessions. No one really knows what those concessions are going to look like yet, and there will be a lot of negotiations and possibly a lock out or a strike before it's all settled, but a max contract circa summer 2010 is almost completely certain to be worth more than a max contract circa summer 2011. That's why none of these guys (James, Wade, Bosh) are even considering exercising their options for next season, despite the fact that they'll actually take minor pay cuts in 10-11. They want to get new long term deals now, while the gettin' is good.
- James and Wade and Bosh all happen to be seven year veterans as of this moment. This is significant in the current CBA. The maximum allowable contract for a seven year vet is 30% of the salary cap. For a player with less than seven years, the maximum is 25%. 5% of $56M? An extra $2.8M per. It should be pointed out that at the time these deals were signed three seasons ago, the cap figured to steadily increase every year, as it almost always had before. The reality is that the cap didn't increase nearly as much as expected, so these players aren't in line for quite as big a payday as they thought back in 2007 - but it was still a smart move.
- Finally, especially for Wade, these guys are young enough to secure long term deals without too much concern or grumbling from the team about their age. Wade was eligible for a six year deal from the Heat back in 2007. Had he signed such a deal, and become a free agent in 2013, not only would he be negotiating a new contract under a revised CBA - he'd also be doing it as a 31 year old. That's a massive difference. The simple fact is that whatever team signs Wade to a five year contract now (or six, if it's Miami) will be taking a pretty big risk that he'll still worth the money in his early 30's. But they'll be willing to do it to get a few more years of prime DWade, or maybe they just can't think that far ahead. At any rate, there's little doubt in my mind that negotiating this contract at the age of 28 will end up being worth tens of millions of dollars to Wade in the long run.
Remind me in a year or so - it will be interesting to look at how much this move actually ends up being worth to these guys. It will be simple enough to check. We can compare the deal Wade gets to the one Carmelo Anthony ends up getting in 2011 or 2012, year by year for the seasons they overlap.
Enough about the minutia of contracts: where is Wade going to wind up? I think you have to assume that he'll stay in Miami. He's played his entire career for the Heat, and they've been good to him down there. But it's certainly possible that he'll look at his situation and want to move on. Let's face it - as good as Wade is, the Heat haven't won a playoff series since they won the title in 2006. That's three first round exits and a 15 win season in DWade's last four years in Miami - and that's in the Eastern Conference! It's been a one man show in Miami for four full seasons, and the results have not been good. (This all makes the championship in 2006 seem all the more flukey in retrospect. How did that happen? Was it Antoine Walker?)
If you think the Clippers are re-tooling, with only five players under contract for next season, it's nothing compared to Miami. Assuming they don't exercise their option on James Jones (and they won't as he had fallen out of the rotation while making over $4M last season), they'll have only three players under contract - Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers and Daequan Cook. That leaves them more cap space than any other team out there - and they're going to need it, just to field a team. Depending on your opinion of Chalmers and Beasley, the Heat probably need to sign four starters this summer and possibly five, and an entire bench. (In case you missed it, Beasley had a terrible series against the Celtics and was benched for the second half of their elimination game last night - not what they were looking for from the second pick in the 2008 draft going into this uncertain summer.)
The idea in Miami is to use all that cap space to sign Wade and at least a second major free agent, probably a big. Bosh, Carlos Boozer and Amare Stoudemire all seem like distinct possibilities. My guess is that one of those three will be enough to keep Wade in South Beach for six more seasons.
Where else might he wind up? Well, not the Clippers. He's already got good weather in Miami, and he wouldn't be a particular good fit in the backcourt with Baron Davis, where they both need the ball. The Clippers also have the shooting guard position covered with Eric Gordon, and while they'd happily move EJ to the bench for a realistic shot at Wade, the possibility is so remote that it's not worth alienating one of the keys to the team's future. Of course, there's also the Sterling factor that makes a Wade signing a virtual impossibility.
Would LeBron James and Dwyane Wade team up together, maybe in New York or even in Miami? You can forget that also. These guys are mega-super-duper-stars, with the egos that go with the title. They may enjoy playing with each other for eight or ten games in the summer with Team USA - but they're not sharing 'face of the franchise' honors with anyone. For both the Knicks and the Heat, the multiple free agent strategy will come with a pecking order. If James bolts for New York, the other guy will have to know he's second fiddle. Same for Wade in Miami.
If Wade were to leave Miami, the most likely destination remains Chicago, his hometown. However, there would seem to be a problem with that scenario, where Derrick Rose is a young star who needs the ball in his hands. As talented as a Rose-Wade backcourt would be, I'm not sure that it would be a great fit, nor that Wade would be willing to sacrifice the touches that Rose would need.
So it seems to come back to Miami. I read something interesting in an AP wire story today: "The Heat expect to have enough salary-cap room to sign [Wade] and two other stars." Two other stars? Do they really have that much space? The Heat have $8M tied up in Beasley, Chalmers and Cook. They'll have a pick in the second half of the first round, and six or so roster spot holds to deal with. Call it $12M, which gives them $44M in cap space (I'm probably being a little generous here). Now, you take out $17M for Wade. That leaves $27M still. That's a lot of cap space. If you consider that the two biggest free agents of the summer of 2008, Baron Davis and Elton Brand, signed for less than $27M combined, then yeah, you can sign two 'stars' for $27M. If Bosh joins Wade and also commands a max deal, that still leaves $10M for a third signee - though with no quality point guards or centers on the market, it's hard to imagine a logical target for that $10M.
In the end, I think you can expect Pat Riley to work with Wade this summer to find two major pieces to put around him, and that Wade will remain with the Heat for the foreseeable future.