Dwyane Wade has rarely, if ever, been considered the best player in his sport, having the relative misfortune of entering the league at the exact time as LeBron James and playing in an era that also featured Kobe Bryant.
And yet, Wade is unquestionably a true superstar, a basketball titan, a three-time NBA champion, a sure-fire Hall of Famer. From Converse to Jordan to Li Ning, he’s proven to be a marketable commodity. If he’s not quite on the lofty level of his peers, he’s credibly in the same ballpark — and on his best days, who knows?
Hailing from Chicago, Wade idolized — who else? — Michael Jordan. Despite a stellar high school career, eligibility concerns hovering above him, Wade stayed relatively close to home for college, choosing Marquette University.
Though he was ineligible to play his first season, Wade led the team in scoring as a sophomore, then truly blossomed as a junior. Powered by his strength and ability to score every which way, Wade was First-Team All-America, averaged 21.5 points and led his team to its first Final Four in 26 years. In the Elite 8 against Kentucky, he put up just the fourth triple-double in NCAA Tournament history.
If not for Carmelo Anthony’s freshman magic at Syracuse, Wade might have been the absolute face of college basketball. As it stood, his Draft status skyrocketed with his strong Tournament: In one of the greatest Drafts of all time, Wade was picked fifth overall by the Heat behind future Miami teammates James and Chris Bosh, Anthony and, infamously, Darko Milicic.
Wade had a stellar rookie season, though he again found himself behind James and Anthony, this time in the Rookie of the Year voting. Wade offered a tantalizing glimpse of the future in the playoffs, hitting a game-winning shot during the opening round against the Hornets and helping Miami offer a stiff challenge to the top-seeded Pacers.
The 2004-05 season saw the arrival of Shaquille O’Neal in a trade, coinciding with the launch of Wade’s launch into the sport’s stratosphere, adding nearly eight points to his scoring average, which reached 24.1. The Heat reached the East Finals, where like so many other stars before him, Wade fell short against the Pistons — just short. It was obvious his ascent was nowhere near finished, however.
His third season was perhaps the zenith of Wade’s powers. He averaged 27.2 points and led the Heat to the NBA Finals, this time getting past Detroit in the East Finals despite a variety of bumps and bruises brought on by his habitual breakneck drives to the hoop. Wade averaged 34 points in the NBA Finals against the Mavs, leading Miami back from the brink after they lost Games 1 and 2 by double digits and trailed Game 3 by 13 points with less than seven minutes left.
“I don’t want to say I put the team on my back. You know, we did it together,” Wade said after the Heat clinched in Game 6. “Like Coach (Pat Riley) said, like we’ve all been saying, it’s been 15 strong. They gave me the opportunity by putting the ball in my hands to prove people wrong.”
Riley, who knows a thing or two about superstar players, confirmed Wade’s entrance to the ranks of the elite.
“He just took it to another level,” Riley added. “You all witnessed it. You all watched it. Players like that are very hard to come by, and to watch them grow right in front of you, you know, he’s making his legacy in his third year. We’re blessed to have him.”
Wade’s dominance was tempered a bit by his injury-prone nature over the next couple of years, as multiple shoulder and knee injuries prevented Miami from reaching its past lofty levels. When he played, Wade was magnificent as always, but the next two seasons were mostly torpedoed by his physical maladies. Fully healthy in 2008-09, Wade surpassed 30 points per game to lead the league for the first and only time, though Miami would lose in the first round to Atlanta; the following season, Boston would oust the Heat in five games.
Then everything changed. Riley pulled the coup of the decade, re-signing Wade and famously adding his close friends James and Bosh to form one of the most prominent Big 3’s in NBA history.
With all three in their basketball prime, the Heat made the NBA Finals, where they ironically — for Wade, at least — faced the Mavericks. But with the Big 3 still carving out their identities playing next to each other, they were upset in six games.
From there, however, the NBA world was their oyster. With James coming into his own as the unquestioned best player in the NBA, Bosh providing defense and a diverse offense, and Wade filling in the gaps and playing brilliantly off LeBron, the Heat would win the next two championships.
It wouldn’t come easily — the Pacers and Celtics would push them to the brink in the 2012 playoffs — but they clearly outclassed the Thunder in that season’s Finals. And in the 2013 Finals, the Heat were on the verge of going down to the Spurs in Game 6 when Ray Allen hit a miraculous game-tying shot with time running out. Wade’s 23 points and 10 rebounds were instrumental in Game 7 as Miami repeated.
The cracks in the veneer — both the Heat’s and Wade’s — began to show the following season. Wade played in merely 54 games, and though his efficiency didn’t suffer, the quality of his court time did. San Antonio earned its revenge over the Heat in the Finals, with Wade widely considered to be if not a weakness, not a particular strength.
After the season, everything hit the fan: The Big 3 all opted out of their contracts, and James returned home to Cleveland. Wade and Bosh re-signed with the Heat, but questions swirled about whether they can remotely approach their past glory, especially with Wade’s injury total continuing to mount.
But legacy-wise, it’s hard to say it even matters. Wade has three championships under his belt that nobody can take away, and he is likely to be remembered as one of a handful of the best players of his generation. And when it comes down to it, while Jordan is and was beloved, there are plenty of people out there holding a candle for Pippen. When people talk about early 2000’s basketball, Wade will be near the forefront — as he always has been.