This article is the first in a series. For Part II, click here.
It hit me earlier today. FiveThirtyEight gives the Miami Heat less than a one percent chance of making the playoffs. Barring some improbable events, Dwyane Wade’s NBA career will end on Wednesday. And he leaves the Heat with a legacy that fans can only hope to see for a player.
Wade wasn’t supposed to be a franchise player, or one of the 30 best players to ever pick up a basketball. According to NBA trainer Tim Grover, Pat Riley called him the day of the 2003 NBA Draft and asked him if he would take Wade or Chris Kaman. Grover thought back to when the Portland Trail Blazers picked Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984, telling Riley to pick Wade.
And right then, Riley made his smartest decision as an executive, overriding his impulses to pick a big man to choose a player many knocked as a tweener. The “6-4 on a great day” Wade played point guard his first year, on a team with Eddie Jones, Caron Butler and Lamar Odom. He introduced himself on the playoff stage with a killer crossover and floater to win Game 1 of Miami’s first-round series.
Miami hadn’t made the playoffs the previous two seasons, but Wade helped the Heat take the top-seeded Indiana Pacers to six games in the second round. Miami was back to contention, after the Alonzo Mourning era.
Of course, the Heat made the blockbuster trade for Shaquille O’Neal in the summer of 2004. But in his introductory press conference, the then-three-time champion said, “This is Dwyane Wade’s team.” It was true — O’Neal was at the end of his prime. Wade took the reins, leading the Heat to a 59-win season in his second year. But moments before going up 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the defending champion Detroit Pistons, Wade drew an offensive foul on Rasheed Wallace. Miami gained one possession, but lost Wade due to a rib injury. Wade sat out Game 6 and played in Game 7 of the series, but he wasn’t at 100 percent. The Heat lost to the Pistons, missing out on making the Finals for the first time.
But Wade’s third year? That was when he moved into one of the all-time greats. He showed it even before the 2006 NBA Finals. He scored Miami’s final 17 points in a crucial February regular-season game against Detroit. Again and again, Wade went at a strong defensive player in Tayshaun Prince and delivered.
Miami defeated the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals that year, but fell down 0-2 to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. In fact, Dallas looked like they were headed for a sweep, leading 89-76 with 6:34 left to play in Game 3. In a timeout huddle, Riley wrote down the word “Season” on his clipboard. Wade gritted his teeth and told Riley, “I ain’t going out like this.” The third-year guard scored 12 of Miami’s final 20 points in that game — to this day, his finest hour in a Heat uniform.
Miami blew out the Mavs in Game 4 to tie the series, but the Heat needed more heroics from Wade to win the championship. After struggling early, Wade again became the player who delivered in the clutch — again and again.
And in the clincher, the Heat predictably took a punch from the Mavericks early. But Wade was cooking from the second quarter on. He drained jumpers, blocked shots and led the Heat to a halftime lead. He found James Posey for a huge 3 to put the Heat up 87-81 with 3:43 left to go. And he grabbed the rebound after a Jason Terry miss in the final seconds, throwing the ball in the air as the Heat won their first championship.
We knew Wade was special as a rookie. But he proved himself to be one of the greats just two years later. ESPN ranked Wade’s 2006 NBA Finals performance as the best ever. His potential seemed limitless, but subsequent injuries threatened to derail his career.
Click here for Part II of Dwyane Wade: An Unparalleled Legacy.