A summer that was supposed to have been relatively devoid of drama has become the opposite and the Miami Heat - and their fans - find themselves at a crossroads unlike any before.
By now, you likely know what little details have been made public regarding Dwyane Wade's reported contract negotiations. With a year left on his contract, Wade can choose to opt out (forgoing $16 million in the process) and become a free agent. While most believe that Wade wants to stay in Miami, he's said to be seeking a deal worth $20 million a year for three years; the Heat have reportedly offered roughly half of that.
The "Wade Situation" has everyone playing general manager, as enjoyable a pastime for many as it is to watch the games themselves. However, even among these ersatz decision makers, it appears that two camps have formed, pitting the supporters of an individual versus devotees to an organization (as most labor negotiations usually do).
Muddling things further is that both sides make good points, making it even more difficult to decide where to stand on a situation where nearly everyone is lacking any tangible information.
On the pro-Wade side, many look to his 12 years of faithful and accomplished service, where he has acted as the team's brightest star even as other larger, celestial bodies (Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron James) have temporarily made Miami their home. Wade has tied two eras of championship success together and bridged them by playing at an MVP-type level from 2008-2010 where he was nearly carrying the team single-handedly.
At issue is that Wade has given up millions on at least two other occasions, most notably in 2010 to make the "Big 3" era a reality and again in 2014 when it came to an end. While many assumed that Wade's two-year deal was made to provide salary cap flexibility in 2016 (when he would presumably make yet another sacrifice before simply, and cheaply, fading away), it seems that the move was more of a level-headed decision to gauge the market and determine whether he deserved to be paid more.
His supporters would argue that, yes, he has certainly earned a bigger paycheck.
Many of these fans would rather not watch basketball at all than watch the Heat move forward without Wade. After such a long tenure, many can't recall a time when he wasn't part of the team and they can't (or won't) accept that it may come to an end soon. They would prefer to stave off the eventual end of Wade's brilliant career by giving the man anything he wants - who gives a damn what happens next.
But a bleak future darkened by a huge contract for Wade is exactly the concern for the opposing view among the Heat faithful. Their argument is that he's putting (reportedly) his own financial needs above the team's ability to pursue other quality players that will potentially put Miami in contention for a title. From re-signing Goran Dragic this summer or Hassan Whiteside the next (along with pipe dream Kevin Durant), they stand firm in their belief that, "In Pat, We Trust," and Wade is destroying that with his "selfishness."
Of course, both sides are "right" as much as they are "wrong" in this situation. Wade is certainly an incredible player and has proven himself more often than not over the course of the past 12 years. But his end in Miami is coming, whether now or when age and injuries eventually take their toll. And Pat Riley is right in being cautious about overpaying an often-injured player so much that any future personnel moves will likely anchor them to the bottom of the standings (look to the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant as proof).
But those that protest loudly in favor of Riley's 2016 plan for salary cap flexibility should realize that even a team comprised of Dragic, Wade, Chris Bosh and Whiteside is hardly a lock for a title. If a fourth championship parade down Biscayne Boulevard is the ultimate goal - and I'm not sure that it is - even a star-studded roster isn't a guarantee.
Painful as it might be to admit, James' Cleveland Cavaliers are showing that a well-balanced team might be more essential to postseason success than any potential assemblage of superstars in Miami.
Moreover, Miami's short history has shown that a team that defies all odds while still falling well-short of a title can be even more enjoyable to watch.
The summer of 2003 was also an unexpectedly dramatic one for the Miami Heat. The team had suffered through a miserable 25-57 season and was back in the draft lottery for a second-straight year. Negotiations with Alonzo Mourning, then the team's franchise player, had turned ugly as his kidney disease limited his impact on the court. While Riley hoped to re-sign Mourning, he'd only do so at a discounted rate considering there was no guarantee how much or to what level Zo would be available in years to come.
When Mourning chose more money and a chance at a title with the New Jersey Nets, Heat fans were distraught and couldn't imagine a future without their rugged center flexing for the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd. That was the case, until a major mistake by Heat guard Anthony Carter's agent changed the team forever. Carter's deal with Miami had a player option that had to be exercised by a certain time; it only required that the agent make his client's decision known to the team by that deadline and Carter would collect millions to be a mostly-ineffective member of Miami's roster.
Instead, the agent blew the deadline and Riley found himself with extra salary cap space to work his magic with. He tricked the Los Angeles Clippers into thinking he was pursuing a young Elton Brand by signing him to an offer sheet, one of the three restricted free agents owner Donald Sterling was hoping to re-sign. Sterling, notoriously cheap, was able to re-sign two of them (Corey Maggette and Brand), thus freeing up the third (Lamar Odom) to look for another team.
Riley signed the multi-faceted Odom and paired him with Caron Butler and an athletic, unproven rookie named Dwyane Wade who, at just 6'4", might never pan out as a shooting guard.
Wade blossomed quickly, fit well alongside Odom and Butler, and the trio led a late-season charge - winning an impressive 17 of their last 21 games - that is considered among the finest moments in team history. An upset over the Charlotte Hornets in the first round of the playoffs was followed by a 4-2 defeat to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Reaching their potential in such unexpected fashion made that season a lasting success. You could even argue that it was far more enjoyable watching that team than the group that sloughed their way through the 2014 regular season before collapsing to the Spurs.
Cliché as it may sound, Heat fans have been conditioned by the four seasons of the "Big 3" era to only focus on the destination and ignore the journey. A title run is thrilling but, as we saw in 2014, it could also be arduous and joyless. Moreover, we've enjoyed the championship success that only a handful of franchises can lay claim to - there's none of the desperation in cities like Cleveland or New York, frustrated by decades of mediocrity and ineptitude.
And while watching Wade play elsewhere would be painful, the sting would be erased by watching a team that rallies together to redefine the franchise and perhaps, like 2004, find unexpected success.
Riley's challenge is to assemble a winning team, not a recognizable one, and if Wade ultimately decides (and make no mistake that the choice is his) to play elsewhere then it's up to the team president to gather whatever players can help in that regard. Wade is absolutely an electrifying presence when he's on the court but that's less likely to be the case as he continues to age - does he really deserve over $20 million a year as he plays with less and less frequency?
Ultimately, having Wade back in Miami at a reasonable price point is the best case scenario. Should he leave, however, I'll have nothing but good memories and best wishes for his basketball future. But the team that, ironically, Wade led during his rookie season showed that there can be joy in starting fresh and surpassing lowered expectations.
After all, Wade's decision may not leave you any choice.