- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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The symbolism is hard to miss.
That message, which instantaneously served as a stamp to hundreds of social media posts, was a way of embracing Wade for recommitting to the only NBA team for which he has ever played in his 11-year career. It was also a parting shot at LeBron James, aka King James, from a still grieving group after the four-time league MVP bolted Miami and returned to Cleveland as a free agent last week.
It was equal parts love for Wade and loathing LeBron.
The truth is Wade was never going anywhere after he opted out of the final two years and $41 million left on his contract to help the Heat shore up the roster after last month’s loss in the Finals to San Antonio. This round of negotiations for Wade, 32, was only a matter of how much less he’d be willing to take and how long the Heat would have to fork over significant -- and potentially crippling -- cap space.
Wade did the Heat a huge favor on both fronts Tuesday by signing a reported two-year deal worth at least $31 million, which includes a player option for the second season. It was widely believed Wade would push for a four-year, $60 million contract that would essentially guarantee he’d retire as a member of the Heat and never go through high-end free agency again.
But there’s a unique thing about this form of loyalty and sacrifice. By accepting a shorter deal for less money and greater flexibility for the Heat, Wade has locked himself into a lifetime commitment. NBA rules prohibit promises and agreements by teams to take care of players beyond their contracts.
Still, there’s no doubt Wade has only solidified his stake in this franchise, this town, for life. There are only four people getting reservations ahead of Wade at any establishment in Miami. Dan Marino. Don Shula. Pat Riley. Tony Montana. And Riley may have just gotten bumped.
“He has shown his commitment to the Heat many times over the course of his career and has always been willing to sacrifice in order to help build this team into a champion,” Heat president Pat Riley said. “This time is no different. I am ecstatic to have him back in the fold and I am confident that Dwyane, as always, will be leading this team as we look to contend for NBA championships.”
By taking a deal worth half as much and for half as long as Wade could have commanded, the Heat are in position to be a major player in free agency again in 2016. Leaving that much money on the table as part of plans to retain LeBron and upgrade the supporting cast this summer was the expectation.
The reality played out completely different. Wade’s sacrifice this time around allowed Miami to re-sign Chris Bosh to take a max deal worth $118 million over five seasons and to sign Luol Deng to replace LeBron at small forward for $20 million over two seasons. The Heat continued their recent run of signings Tuesday by bringing back Udonis Haslem, who opted out of $4.6 million due next season to agree to yet another team-friendly deal, and securing 2013 second-round pick James Ennis.
This seed planted by Wade was laced with loyalty and legacy.
All anyone needs to know about either of those coatings can be summed up by the bargains and sacrifices associated with Wade’s place in the team’s salary structure the past dozen years. A vital part of all three of the Heat’s championship teams, Wade is Miami’s all-time leader in points, made field goals, free throws, assists, steals, starts, games played and, now, dollars given back.
Yet, he has never been first in salary during any of the 11 Heat seasons.
Over the years, that distinction has gone to Eddie Jones, Shaquille O’Neal, Shawn Marion, Jermaine O’Neal, LeBron and Bosh. The NBA’s rookie pay scale assured Wade would be a built-in bargain his first four seasons. When Wade earned $3 million during his 2005-06 NBA Finals MVP season, he was the lowest-paid player to earn that award over a span of 22 years. That stretch ended when Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard was named Finals MVP last month following a season in which he was paid $1.9 million.
But it was by choice the past two times Wade ended up with discounted deals in Miami. In 2010, he took less than a full maximum contract, also convincing LeBron and Bosh to pitch in, to make sure there was room under the salary cap to re-sign Haslem and other key role players.
This time, Wade did it again to give the Heat the best chance to recover from LeBron’s abrupt departure. But this is more than about money for Wade, who has $121.3 million in NBA career earnings and likely a matching amount in endorsement deals.
He’s not exactly starving.
Yet expect Wade to be as hungry as ever to prove he can lead a post-LeBron push to remain prominent, especially in a wide-open Eastern Conference void of a clear frontrunner. Wade benefited as much as anyone from playing with LeBron. When he missed 28 games last season, mostly due to knee issues, it was LeBron who carried the extra load and got the Heat to a fourth straight NBA Finals.
But when Wade was healthy, there was a recurring burden he carried at times through a difficult adjustment to a secondary role the past four years. Wade has also talked about dealing with perceptions his legacy has been overshadowed by LeBron’s breakthrough as a two-time champion in Miami.
“I think when all the smoke clears -- because right now, so much is viewed on LeBron’s legacy and I’m wrapped up into that,” Wade recently told ESPN.com. “Obviously mine doesn’t get talked about or seen as much, and rightfully so. I understand. But when all the smoke clears, you sit down and it’s something you can talk about in terms of what I’ve been able to accomplish and how I’ve accomplished it.”
Wade compares his circumstances with those of other marquee players who have remained with one franchise their entire careers. He admires how the Lakers treated Kobe Bryant, 35, who was awarded a two-year, $48 million extension during an injury-plagued season because of what he has meant through the years.
Wade also respects how Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have been more flexible with their salaries in recent years to give San Antonio and Dallas, respectively, a chance to retain key players, remain in the mix for valuable free agents and stay in title contention.
“There’s a different way to look at things when you’re at this stage of your career, in terms of helping your team and your team helping you,” Wade said. “My way has been different than some guys'. But I’m just continuing to add to what I am, my so-called legacy. I’m fine with it, whatever it’s going to be.”
Giving back salary at a time when few could have blamed Wade for holding onto every dime of that $41 million he was due is the clearest sign of the lengths he’s gone to sacrifice for his franchise.
No player in NBA history has opted out of that much money to take that steep a cut.
Now, one unprecedented move deserves another. Wade’s No. 3 jersey is certain to be hanging from the AmericanAirlines Arena rafters soon after he’s done playing.
But why wait? There’s no league rule against doing so while he’s still playing, perhaps as early next season’s home opener. There would be no greater show of gratitude for the singularly restored face of the franchise.
For what Wade has given the Heat time and time again, he has already earned it.
No hashtag movement necessary.
The hashtag spread quickly the moment Dwyane Wade used his Instagram account Tuesday to confirm he signed a new contract and planned to be a Miami Heat for life.