Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dwyane Wade and 90s Slang

           In honor of Dwayne Wade's recent return to form since the All-Star Break, check out this throwback post from the spring before Lebron's "Decision" in 2010 from my good friend Andrew Zolot. My nostalgia for the pre-decision glory days is running strong as the playoffs and the impending free agency of the Big Three draws nearer and another glorious rebuild comes ever closer. This article was originally written for The Dartmouth Independent, but their site is unfortunately no longer online, so here it is:

          The phrase “talk to the hand” was popularized by esteemed thespian Martin Lawrence during the five season run of his sitcom Martin.

 Its use, together with the implied second half of the statement “because the face is not listening,” allowed the 90’s American to ward off any homies that were attempting to ice their grill easily and effectively. Then Martin went off the air in 1997, and, sadly, the phrase has been unusable ever since. Unusable, that is, until Sunday afternoon when Dwyane Wade, in the midst of one of the dopest playoffs performances witnessed since these phrases were in vogue, went old school on the Boston Celtics. After scoring eleven points in the first two minutes and forty-seven seconds of the fourth quarter, Wade trotted down the floor, talking to his own hand. And every face in the American Airlines Arena was listening.

            Dwyane’s performance is notable first and foremost for the ease and style with which he converted a six point deficit to a five point lead. At this stage in his career, it’s rarely surprising when Wade goes supernova and almost single-handedly wins a game. He outscored the entire Celtics team by himself in the fourth quarter, posting nineteen points to the Celtics’ fifteen on five of six shooting from the field. He drained all four threes he took. Make no mistake: these are not human qualities. Few other players have that gear, and it’s precisely this type of play that makes Wade the de facto second prize in what will be one of the hottest free agent markets the NBA has ever experienced (second prize after LeBron James, who is hereafter referred to as “Optimus Prime” based on the fact that he is an indestructible basketballing machine, and because we’re keeping this firmly grounded in nineties pop culture). 

            Wade’s antics in those moments when his greatness comes to the fore make him, at least for this Heat fan, the best entertainer in the game. He has only two peers in the NBA skill-wise in Kobe and LeBroptimus. But Kobe is at the point where he is so accustomed to his greatness that game winning shots don’t even faze him. Sure, he’ll knock ‘em down almost every time, but the only reward is a cool nod and possibly a chest bump or two. He’s not in it for the fans, he’s just a creature that needs to win to validate the insane amount of work he puts into the game (and for good reason). Optimus, on the other hand, is very much the greatest basketball show on earth. He is a veritable three-ring-circus, a basketball freakshow from another planet. No other player is as physically gifted, no other player as unstoppable. He jumps higher, passes more accurately, runs faster, and does everything but lay waste to opponents with shoulder-mounted rockets and lasers. But even when LeBron is peering down into the rim – literally – as he tomahawks another two points that feel like they should count for ten, the performance is somehow cheapened by the fact that you simply expect it. The man is six-feet-nine-inches of the greatest athlete you will ever witness. You would be disappointed if he didn’t dominate.

            Wade’s game, on the other hand, is all drama. He stands a mere 6’4”, yet he collects blocks on the biggest players in the league through sheer how-the-hell-does-he-jump-that-high?-ness. He weaves through defenses with a slick combination of wicked handles and changes of direction that are impossible to predict or keep up with. And he has an unmatched sense for the moment. Case in point: March 9th, 2009, Bulls-Heat, three seconds left in the second overtime, Wade steals the ball from John Salmons and dribbles the length of the court, hitting a running three pointer to win the game as time expires. He then sprints over and jumps up onto the scorer’s table, screaming over and over that “This is my house!” just in case it was still in doubt. Or how about the time he blocked Amare Stoudemire (only six inches taller than Wade) with his forearm, launched a sixty-eight-foot shot and danced all the way down court as it splashed through? YouTube that insanity if you haven’t seen it. And then there was Sunday, when Wade screamed at his own hand like a madman after putting in another signature, game-winning performance. As he said after the game, “I was telling [my hand] he was hot. We were having a conversation about that.” This is the attitude and these are the moments that make Wade one of the most adored and sought after brands in the league. And this is why I want him to stay in Miami.

            Of course, four-for-four-from-three is out of character for Wade, a point made all the more salient as he missed all three treys in the fourth quarter of game five. Unable to produce another Herculean effort to pull the rest of the flotsam that fills out the roster into the win column, Wade and the Heat crashed out of the first round of the playoffs for the third time in four years. And so the summer that will make or break the Heat franchise has just about arrived. The speculation over where Wade, Optimus, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, and the rest of the Summer of ‘10 free agent class will land is only barely overshadowed by the playoffs, but it’s no secret that Wade’s preferred option is to build a title contender in Miami. That he will stay is no foregone conclusion, though. His first priority is winning, and after the game five loss Wade made the prediction, “This will be my last first-round exit for a while.”

           The burning question is whether Pat Riley can lure the right free agent to Miami to persuade Wade to stay. The Heat figure to have about $24 million in cap room to work with, more than enough to sign a max free agent and then some. And that’s not even taking into account the possibility that the Heat might be able to move Michael Beasley, James Jones, and Daequan Cook to take their payroll all the way down to zero, aside from Wade. With a projected cap around $56 million next season, that leaves the possibility that two max free agents could join Wade in Miami.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Heat’s future is just as much about what happens after the dust settles and the marquee free agents have signed their max contracts. Signing Dwyane and another max free agent would make the Heat instant contenders in the East, but the makeup of the rest of the roster would determine whether they are good enough to bring home rings. The only three players currently on the roster that are relevant in that regard are Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, and Michael Beasley. Wade has stated before that he would prefer Udonis Haslem (and Dorell Wright) stay with him wherever he signs, going so far as to say in his most recent interview, “I would love for them to be here. I would love for them to be with me for the rest of my career. They’re like my brothers. I love those guys.”

Trying not to read too much into Wade’s use of the word “here” – i.e. in Miami – it’s reassuring that he acknowledges Haslem’s value to the organization. Haslem, the only other holdover besides Wade from the 2006 championship team, is the Heat’s second best player, their most consistent rebounder, and an incredibly clutch shooter from 16-18 feet. Keeping Haslem, a consistent contributor and possible starter with whom Wade is very close and incredibly comfortable on the basketball court, should be a priority. Wright is expendable, but could prove an economic backup if resigned for at or less than the $2.75 he is due in this, the final year of his contract.

Then there are the enigmas of Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley, the Heat’s top two draft picks from the 2008 draft. Mario Chalmers has struggled with his consistency this season after an impressive rookie campaign in which he started every game and proved to be a dynamic backcourt with Wade, providing a consistent three-point option as well as generating plenty of steals. Chalmers should be retained, if only because he represents cheap labor. The Heat have a $847,000 team option for next season that would provide a backup point guard, and possibly a starter, at as much of a discount as they’re likely to find in the market this summer.

Beasley, on the other hand, should be shown the exit. It’s tough to swallow, but it appears that Beasley was, if not a bust, surely not worthy of the second pick that the Heat spent on him two years ago. The monstrous statistics he put up in his freshman year of college have simply not translated to the NBA. He has difficulty scoring against the physically imposing defenses in the league, his shot is streaky at best, and his rebounding has suffered now that he doesn’t hold a physical advantage over his opponents. Add to that his off court issues and lack of focus and discipline in late game situations, and you’d be hard pressed to justify spending the $5 million he would be due next season. His offensive promise is unquestioned, and there will likely be a team out there willing to take a gamble on his upside, specifically in a deal that would be designed to clear cap space for Miami. Beasley could thus be gotten on the cheap, and the Heat could be rid of their failed project in the hopes of building a contender with the money freed up. That brings us to the main event (although how everything will shake out chronologically is the basis of much speculation): assembling a contender. The formula is pretty simple. The Heat won a championship in 2006 with a young Dwyane Wade and an old Shaquille O’Neal. 2006 was Wade’s coming out party, and Shaq’s last year of real dominance. Following that logic, an older Wade in his prime plus another all star in his prime should again catapult the Heat to the upper reaches of the league’s pecking order. It’s only fitting that three of the top four free agents, aside from Optimus and Wade himself, are big men. Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, and Carlos Boozer have all shown the ability to play both power forward and center. Any one of them would slide into the 5 slot that has been vacant since Shaq was shipped to the Phoenix. Center is, of course, the Heat’s biggest need, as the position has only technically been filled in the past couple years by the undersized Haslem and the corpses of Jamal Magloire and Jermaine O’Neal. Stoudemire was nearly traded to Miami at the trade deadline this season, Boozer is on record stating his preference for Miami (he has a house there), and Bosh is widely reported to be seeking to ply his trade somewhere in the south after being trapped with playoff nonentities Toronto.

Of course, then there’s the pipe dream of pairing Wade with Optimus and bringing showtime to South Florida. I’ll be the first to admit that the odds are extremely long, and so won’t spend much time on it, but allow yourself a moment to share the fantasy. How would you play LeBron and Wade if you couldn’t double either of them, because to do so would be to automatically give the other two points?

But before any of this even matters to Miami, they have to ensure that Wade resigns. The repeated insinuations by the Celtics’ color commentator during game four that “this could be Wade’s last game in a Heat uniform” were certainly unnerving. As if! The proposition is a doomsday scenario, and would spell the crippling of the franchise, even if the Heat did sign another all star. I, for one, choose to take solace in Wade’s increasingly suggestive comments in recent interviews while nervously awaiting this summer’s soap opera to unfold. “I’ve said it all year. My heart is here. Everybody knows me, I’m mostly heart more so than anything. That’s all I can say. My heart is in Miami and if everything works out I’ll be in Miami again.” And if everything does work out, Miami, and the NBA, very well might be on the verge of birthing a new basketballing dynasty, one that would demand the creation of an entirely new slang lexicon where “talking to the hand” means the affirmation of greatness. Word? Word.