They are teammates, mutual admirers and by all accounts basketball soulmates who are as tight as can be. Dwyane Wade is one of the reasons LeBron James came to Miami, and yet you wonder if Wade will be one of the reasons why LeBron may leave Miami this summer.
We all remember the thick public and media overkill that followed LeBron's decision to hook up with Wade and Chris Bosh, which gave the planet an excuse to love or hate the NBA and the Heat. The deck was stacked and the Heat became an overnight basketball inferno, elevating themselves with the likes of the Cowboys and Yankees while creating a new way of doing business.
That obviously turned out to be the right choice, and the unification was and is a smashing success. Together they made three straight NBA Finals and won two titles and could make it four straight and three by next month. The prophesy of LeBron in 2010 was that he'd stand a better chance of building his bulletproof legacy by playing next to Wade instead of trying to carry the Cavs, loaded with B-list talent.
But if he weighs those same factors in July when he can utilize one of his two player options on his current deal and test the free agent waters, wouldn't his pros-and-cons list favor a change of scenery and teammates? Hasn't LeBron, now 29, enjoyed the best of Wade and shouldn't he move on before the worst kicks in, which could happen as early as next season?
Should LeBron be just as cutthroat about breaking off the relationship for the good of his career, just as he is when putting some poor defensive player on a poster?
When LeBron arrived, Wade was a certified franchise player with a championship ring and a Finals MVP and already groomed for the Hall of Fame. He was young, frisky and 28, still locked in his prime, the premier player at his position. Right now he needs a constant tune up and new tires, about 25 games off each season and is 32 with red flags flapping about his long-term health and giddy-up.
Oh, and we should mention Wade will demand a new and rich and potentially cap-killing contract this summer, which would make it next to impossible for Miami to add fresh blood while Wade and LeBron and Bosh pull down $20 million-plus each for the next six years.
Given all that, if you're LeBron, do you find that more attractive than your options, which suddenly mushroomed Tuesday at the NBA draft lottery? Does he want to ride or die with Wade at shotgun, or Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins? Would he rather win another title in (ho-hum) Miami or become a folk hero in a more desperate and genuine basketball town that's ready to embrace him again and let bygones be bygones?
Which would be better for his legacy and history, something that LeBron cares deeply about?
From a basketball standpoint, the answer is easy and painful. Wiggins and Irving vs. an old Wade and a fading Bosh? LeBron should make that call, thank Miami and Wade for the wonderful memories and then make Johnny Manziel the second-most hyped athlete in Cleveland.
And suppose the Cavs are smart (don't bet the paycheck on that) and somehow get Kevin Love without surrendering the No. 1 pick. Say, offer Luol Deng in a sign and trade with Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and two unprotected No. 1 picks to Minnesota. Then offer the coaching job and all personnel power to John Calipari. Does LeBron turn that down? Kyrie, Wiggins, Love, Coach Cal?
Is his love for Wade that deep?
Wade needs constant therapeutic attention from his personal trainer, Tim Grover, and giving Wade 28 games off during the regular season, as they did this year, will likely become standard operating procedure for the Heat until he retires.
The best news for Miami is Wade breezing through these playoffs without issue. He was placed in the deep-freeze all season for this very reason, to blossom in May, to be an effective co-star to a four-time MVP. He's averaging 34.6 minutes, averaging 19.2 points and attacking the rim like a youngster. He's sticking defensively with Lance Stephenson, the mouthy Pacers guard who hoped to make Wade's "knee buckle" in the Eastern Conference finals. Yes, everyone knows Wade is just a buckle away from becoming the NBA's version of Robert Griffin III.
Wade refused to respond to Stephenson, a bit of a surprise; instead Wade has decided to let his pain-free play speak for itself.
"I just want to keep going, keep getting better," Wade said. "I feel good."
Even Stephenson has bit his tongue lately, especially after Wade dropped 23 points, five rebounds and five assists in Game 2. "He's making big shots. He's being aggressive. I've got to slow him down," said the Pacer guard.
The chemistry between Wade and LeBron was apparent from the start. The fast breaks, the alley-oops, the court awareness and recognition, it came together like a melody. Their ability to keep each other on radar is the beauty of their on-court relationship. Wade also sacrificed his ego for LeBron, no easy task for someone who was the face of the franchise.
But this isn't about the past or even the present. It's about the next five or six years and where LeBron feels he has the best chance to collect rings and make everyone's Mount Rushmore. It's always risky to project greatness for 19-year-olds. But if Wiggins or Joel Embiid, whomever the Cavs take at No. 1, are the real deal, coupled with a 22-year-old Irving, that would be easier on LeBron in his 30s. Plus, the Cavs would be able to add talent while Wiggins is still on his rookie deal.
Meanwhile, Miami has serious financial issues to address going forward. LeBron will get the maximum contract and possibly Bosh as well. The thorny negotiation will take place with Wade. Does Miami give the max -- or come close to it -- for a player in his 30s with injury concerns? Or does the Heat risk alienating Wade and his ego with a lower offer and essentially tell him he's not as important as LeBron and Bosh?
By shelling out upwards of $70 million a season for three players, the Heat must live with the luxury tax and even the dreaded "repeater's tax" which punishes those teams that chronically spend. If the Heat, for example, wanted to pay a role player $5 million, it would likely cost the team twice as much, if not more, based on the tax. Look, Micky Arison is a billionaire but doesn't want to become merely a millionaire.
Also: Does LeBron go to bat for Wade? This is where it gets interesting. LeBron will pepper Arison and Pat Riley with tough questions about the future and how the Heat plan to get quality help for the Big Three. You can only find so many Birdman Andersens and Shane Battiers to pad the roster. As Wade and Bosh get older and less productive, LeBron will need more than aging stars (Ray Allen) or young marginal players (Mario Chalmers) to keep his championship hopes up.
LeBron is sturdy enough to play 37-plus minutes and be a multi-tasker, although he's human, and the best way to ensure a long career is by taking on less responsibility as you age. With Cleveland, LeBron wouldn't need to handle the ball (Irving) or rebound (Embiid or Anderson Varejao) or score as much (Wiggins and Irving), just defend and bail out Cleveland in the clutch.
If the Heat lose to the Pacers, LeBron must at least play devil's advocate with himself and take a hard look at his good friend and playing partner. This isn't about personal feelings or relationships. It's business. And LeBron is in the business of winning championships and building a resume that would withstand any and all skepticism or comparisons.
There's certainly a risk in leaving Arison for Dan Gilbert, sunshine for snow and proven winners for wannabe winners. It comes down to trust. Does he buy Wade's health or the upside of Irving and Wiggins? And if Love is somehow in the mix, does he leave Cleveland hanging again?
It's all about a potentially shaky marriage made in Miami and whether LeBron feels the need to rekindle an old romance in Cleveland that suddenly looks like it'll work the second time around.