By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Any red-blooded capitalist will tell Dwyane Wade to take the money and run. He earned it.
Only this isn’t free-wheeling Wall Street, it’s the salary-capped NBA. And Wade is no longer a wolf, now a flicker of the former “Flash” of South Beach. Therefore the remaining $41.8 million over the final two years of his contract is no longer a value, but a hindrance to his franchise’s only path forward as a title contender.
And so it is the moment of truth for Wade, just 32, but aged hard by throbbing knees: Opt-in, take all the money contractually owed to him, yet surely suffer the vilification of his own fans; or opt out for the good of the team, re-sign at a discount, and secure his legacy as one of Miami’s all-time most cherished sports stars.
There is no middle ground here. If Wade opts in it will almost assuredly kill the Big Three era. Wade’s salary would hamper president Pat Riley‘s ability to reinforce the roster and LeBron James — the centerpiece of the franchise and the first of the three to opt out of his contract earlier in this week — will take that as his cue to relocate his talents elsewhere.
While the overwhelming focus is on what James will do, it is Wade who controls the Heat’s future. He can follow Kobe Bryant and gobble up a significant percentage of his team’s cap space. Of course, Wade, who has earned more than $121 million in salary alone during his 11-year career, can, like the rest of us, gauge Bryant’s title chances over these next two seasons.
If Wade opts out, as some reports have him doing this weekend, the expectation is for forward Chris Bosh to do the same, allowing the Big Three, with four consecutive Finals appearances and two rings during their time together, to work in concert on deals that allow Riley to get to work on “re-tooling” the team.
There is, of course, a stunningly convincing blueprint for all three to take less if contending for championships is truly the ultimate goal. The San Antonio Spurs’ Big Three combined to make $29 million this season, or $1 million less than Bryant took home. Tony Parker, the Spurs’ 32-year-old All-Star point guard, made a pedestrian $12.5 million this season, and will again next season.
In 2012 at age 36 and seemingly physically slowing down, Tim Duncan signed a three-year contract for $30 million. At the same age, Kevin Garnett signed a three-year, $36 million extension. Next week, Dirk Nowitzki, also 36, is expected to sign a new deal in a similar range.
Wade is obviously a younger player, but considering the health issues that limited him to just 54 regular-season games while on a season-long maintenance plan — one that surely must continue into the foreseeable future — and clearly slowed him in the Finals, accepting a similar contract could be asked of Wade.
There is one glaring difference, however, between the aforementioned players and Wade that could push him to seek a bit more in return in a reworked deal — none were asked to opt out of a lucrative deal already in place.
Wade is realistic enough to understand the cap ramifications of opting in vs. out, and what it means for the Heat’s ability to stay together, contend and plausibly rewrite history. After playing in four consecutive NBA Finals, it’s doubtful Wade, who has sacrificed salary and stature in the progression of the Big Three, could stomach a return to mediocrity, despite the millions he will be asked to leave behind.
And he’s likely honest enough with himself to realize that his twilight could be short. His knees are robbing him of prime basketball years, a shame, but also a reality.
Can he last four more years? Maybe he has only two left. The clearest picture is for Wade to opt out and accept a lesser deal in the neighborhood of four years and in the range of $40 million to $50 million.
It might not be the American way of doing business, but odds are it keeps James in town, keeps championships in play and retains Wade’s status, perhaps not as the King of the Heat, but as the King of Miami.