A three-time champion, Dwyane Wade could find himself in a peculiar position this summer. This offseason will be the first of two opportunities for the guard to get out of his contract early, and his decision will likely be tied to what he and teammates LeBron James and Chris Bosh decide to do collectively. All three players have early termination options this offseason and player options for 2015/16, a structure they formed by design when they joined forces in hopes of forming a dynasty before the 2010/11 season. NBA executives reportedly expect the trio to terminate their contracts but re-sign with Miami next season. While they made moderate sacrifices to squeeze into Miami’s salary books together, they aren’t expected to give up millions of dollars in salary to benefit the Heat cap structure this time around.
Ranked ninth in our latest Free Agent Power Rankings, Wade would risk the most by becoming a free agent before his six-year, nearly $108MM contract runs its full course. While James and Bosh could find max contracts in a number of cities, it seems doubtful that teams would be jumping at the chance to offer over roughly $20MM in annual salary to a 32-year-old who missed 74 games over the last three seasons due to knee injury and regimented rest. It’s unlikely that there are many teams, if any, outside of Miami that could afford to regularly rest a player of Wade’s caliber while paying him more than most or all of their other players.
Wade could play it safe and ride out his contract, but he would then face an even more precarious scenario at the age of 34. A team that believed in his talents enough to pursue him in free agency would presumably think he is still capable of performing as one of the best guards in the league for years to come. It could be worth accepting an annual pay decrease if it means securing a lengthy extension that guarantees more money overall. There haven’t been any teams legitimately linked to Wade at this point as the league waits on the Miami trio to makes their moves. The last time Wade was on the open market, his hometown Bulls made a serious play for his services.
Wade’s game has transformed significantly since taking a backseat to LeBron in the Heat offense. The year before the big-three era began, Wade averaged 30.2 points per game and stood tallest among the Heat legends. His scoring average has decreased each year since, with his 19.0 clip this season a career low outside of his rookie season. His 2013/14 per-game averages in minutes played, field goals attempted, free throws attempted, steals, and blocks are also at career-worst levels for Wade, not including his rookie year. On the other hand, he has adapted to his reduced role with improved efficiency. His true shooting percentage of .588 this season is a career high, as is his field goal percentage of .545, well above his career average of .492.
Wade has always been an abysmal three-point shooter, and he hasn’t improved at all as a veteran. He only took 0.6 threes per game this year, and only hit on 28.1% of those attempts. As his knee issues continue to be a concern, his reliance on a brutally physical offensive game is somewhat troubling. All aging players lose athleticism, and if Wade’s knee problems cause his driving and slashing abilities to decline more quickly than with most players, he doesn’t have a long-term skill set to fall back on. Shooting guards that can’t shoot from distance aren’t common in the NBA, and typically have to play defense at an elite level to stay on the floor. Wade is one of the best instinctive defenders in the game, but deteriorating athleticism would damage his defensive ability as well.
Wade has built his Hall-of-Fame career in Miami, and he has expressed a desire to play there until he retires. Kobe Bryant‘s latest extension fortified Wade’s inclination to stay, but many around the league pilloried the wisdom of such a lucrative deal for a player on the downside of his career. It would be difficult for the Heat to avoid repeat-offender tax penalties if they extend Wade significantly above market value and they also retain James and Bosh.
If Wade does opt out, my guess is that Wade’s fate as a free agent will be influenced as much by Miami’s thinking as his own. Pat Riley has been shrewd in building a championship roster without incurring enormous tax bills, but the repeater tax looms if the team moves forward with three max contracts. It would certainly be unpopular with the fan base, but if Wade’s departure would open the door for Miami to free up space for better role players or even another, younger star to complement the final stretch of LeBron’s prime, the Heat might just walk through it.