Wade, LeBron And The Shifting Superstar Archetype

Dwyane Wade‘s new book, ostensibly on fatherhood and the challenges Wade has faced in his own and those of his children, is also a book about basketball. That’s according to those who have read it, because I haven’t. For the record, I don’t know much beyond the headline-grabbing mention of Wade’s early David Hasselhoff hero-worship, but I do know a book about basketball and fatherhood carries relationships as a binding theme. There’s one in particular I hope he’s written about, because it’s changing the way we think of the NBA team and how it wins.

Every book about basketball does, of course, hit on relationships. In Bill Bradley‘s “Values of the Game” he wrote: “I can learn more about people by playing a three-on-three game with them for twenty minutes than I can by talking with them for a week.” On making a new hire, he added: “I liked him, but it wasn’t until I played basketball with him that I knew I’d made the right decision.”

Back to that in a second. Wade’s career has seemingly never dipped in popularity even while his role has danced on either side of that constant. He’s gone from a score-first rookie to the maturing superstar NBA champion, through a nearly unmatched 2008-09 season and into someone seen as too proud to change his game as late as this spring. By the second-round series in Indianapolis, he was bickering with coach Erik Spoelstra (mentioned in the book, so I hear) and getting ripped by everyone with rudimentary use of a keyboard for his lethargy on defense and apathy to anything that wasn’t his way. We howled that his legs had departed him in Game 3 and wondered if his focus had as well. All that is changed now. And all because for the first time, alpha dog Wade — in the Michael Jordan role — stepped aside to let James — a Scottie Pippen sidekick at heart — lead Miami to a title.

That passage from Bradley, read in the context of meta-Wade, could be about Wade watching himself in last year’s NBA Playoffs and knowing he made the right decision with his basketball relationship with James. The decision wasn’t as overt as The Decision, but his choice to let LeBron sit in the driver’s seat made the difference in Miami’s NBA title. And for my money, it rested on realizing that LeBron’s confidence, so unerring when it’s on, has to be incubated carefully and then supported to reach the heights he did in 2012. He is the best player in the world today but can’t succeed in a man-against-the-world scenario. That’s Wade’s specialty. He thrived with that attitude to reach the game’s pinnacle in 2006, but it also nearly caused him to devolve into nothing but a gunner in this year’s playoffs.

It’s not supposed to work this way because it hasn’t in the NBA. The big man-guard dynamic has been continued in every decade. But dominant backcourt duos are rare in both their number and in definitive, no-more-questions hierarchy of No. 1 and No. 2. While MJ toiled in minor league baseball, Pippen couldn’t make the transition despite being a top-50 player of all-time. Walt Frazier was the established lead while Earl Monroe was the Old Knicks’ best Broadway supporter. Isiah Thomas never gave all the access codes to Joe Dumars. Paul Pierce carried the agency of the ’08 Celtics, not Rondo and Allen. Wade may be Jordan at heart and LeBron a Scottie in his dominance through deference, but of the two only James was thought to have the capacity to acquiesce. His critics said in the big moments all he could do was acquiesce, in fact, and pass up the last shot. The same chorus told LeBron to drive to the rim every chance he had, but we only came to realize in June that he couldn’t until he knew Wade signed off on running the offense through LBJ. Oklahoma City was the first to see a fully realized, reverse dynamic in play — and was also probably the first to spot what was coming — but by Game 2 of the NBA Finals it was too late. Cue the confetti.

It wasn’t supposed to work because basketball has taught us there has to be a give with the take; that two Jordans can’t work (though Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook gave it a hell of a try in 2012); that a guard duo must be complementary, not in competition. That give and take must come within strict limits — or so we thought: the natural born leader isn’t supposed to win while letting someone more prone to being rattled take over. What we saw in 2011 in Miami was two very talented, proud men awkwardly step on each other’s toes. In the 2012 Playoffs, Wade dropped the idea that the Big Three was a pyramid with him perched at the top. They tried that, it didn’t work, and maybe it took Spoelstra yelling in Wade’s face to know he had to make a change. Maybe it took him yelling back at Spoelstra to tell him he just did. Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals crystallized the transition in James’ 45 points and 15 rebounds. If you heard an audible sigh coming from Miami, it was the Heat roster’s relief at playing free, not scared someone’s legacy was being trampled. Instead they created a legacy. To steal from another Bradley book on basketball, the switch finally gave Wade and LeBron a sober sense of where they were.

As the NBA goes from here, maybe that switch means players will be measured not by their archetypes but by the fluidity with which they move between them. There will never be a post-MJ role era because there has to be a driving force behind each winner. Even on the Spurs of the mid-2000s, maybe the most amiable group to win a title ever, there was no confusion around Tim Duncan‘s ultimate leadership. And maybe there’s a shifting sense for Miami even now; who’s to say Wade or LeBron will want to keep their playoff roles for an entire season or career? I can’t answer that now, even if LBJ’s Olympic fortnight of destruction seemed to offer a preview. What I know is that while we’ve been fixated on Miami’s small-ball approach as the game’s next revolution (and I’m as guilty as anyone of it), we should have been investigating the role reversal, its consequences for the future and how it’s changed our standard of a winning relationship. Now that’s a book I’d actually read, if only it weren’t still being written.

What do you think?

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