SAN ANTONIO — LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have shared podiums together countless times over the past four years, most of the time collaborating to discuss pivotal Miami Heat playoff victories, especially in the past three years when they teamed for two championships.
Sunday evening was dramatically different. The perennial All-Stars climbed into their seats at AT&T Center and were left to explain the wreckage over the past week, which has included three embarrassing losses, terrible defensive focus, Wade appearing well past his prime, and Chris Bosh looking uninterested.
James chose to wear shades for the interview following the Spurs’ 104-87 title-clinching victory over the Heat. It was perhaps to disguise his disgust or reflection of his ambivalence toward the five-game collapse. He undoubtedly saw this coming. After the Heat eked out a Game 2 victory, James and his crew were supposed to continue their playoff dominance when the series returned to Miami.
Instead, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich took that 48-hour respite between Games 2 and 3 to make subtle offensive adjustments. The Spurs spent the next three games diabolically dismantling the Miami defense, leaving the Heat players so out of position on pick-and-rolls and other offensive sets that they were left in an unsolvable daze.
Wade remained in a daze at the podium, unable to explain why he couldn’t make an open basket or why he allowed Tiago Splitter to smash his dunk attempt, a block that perhaps symbolized Wade’s decline. The fact is, despite how closely James and Wade were seated during that interview, they could not be farther apart.
Each has a key decision to make that will determine the future of the Heat, whether they will remain a championship contender or slip back to the also-rans. James has to make a decision whether to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent or stay committed to Miami for at least one more season.
Wade has to make the same call, whether to honor the final two years of his contract at $41 million, realizing he would not earn that salary on the open market. James has approximately the same money on the line, but he would certainly earn that amount in a maximum deal on the open market.
For the Heat to improve, to shed their loyal but aging supporting case, Wade may have to make a financial sacrifice. Of course, James, Wade, and Bosh all could opt out and accept below-market deals to return to Miami, freeing salary-cap space to sign another player, perhaps Carmelo Anthony or Zach Randolph.
It’s apparent the Heat need to get younger. President Pat Riley’s offseason moves all backfired. Mike Miller was amnestied, but he ended up proving to be an effective piece for the Grizzlies; Greg Oden wasn’t ready to play more than scant minutes; Michael Beasley still hasn’t learned to play defense or treat his job seriously; and the other helpers just got old.
Four NBA Finals appearances in four years is beyond impressive considering James, Wade, and Bosh never played a game together before the 2010-11 season. But all three will need to make a financial sacrifice to continue the run.
Perhaps in coming weeks, we’ll hear about a Wade knee surgery or some additional facts about his health, but it was discouraging that the Heat took special precautions to keep him fresh throughout the season and he fatigued at the end, leaving more pressure on James.
The fact that the NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is 6½ years James’s junior is not lost on the four-time regular-season MVP. James, who will turn 30 in December, realizes he has to make some adjustments to prolong his career because, eventually, he won’t be the most physically imposing player in the game.
James looked into the eyes of Leonard, who defended him most of the series, and saw himself seven years ago, a hulking and versatile swingman destined for superstardom.
So James will think totally of himself when he makes this next “Decision.” And he gave Miami management a blueprint for what may keep him in South Beach.
“Obviously we would need to get better from every facet, every position. It’s just how the league works,” he said. “The Spurs continue to get better. Obviously, they kept those three guys intact, but they continue to put guys around them, high-basketball-IQ guys around them, high-energy guys around them that fit into the system of what Pop wanted to do.”
James is likely to opt out, meaning he will have to be recruited again by Riley, who must guarantee that he will overhaul the roster, acquire another capable scorer, and have coach Erik Spoelstra be sharper with his adjustments. Throwing Beasley and Udonis Haslem out there in Game 5 was a move of desperation that didn’t go unnoticed.
Will we see James and Wade together at the podium again? It’s in the best interest of James to return to Miami and trust Riley to revamp the roster. But it will be a fascinating summer. James’s refusal to commit to Miami next season confirmed that. And he has every right to take a wait-and-see approach because the organization is at a crossroads.