Thursday night’s Bulls-Heat battle in Miami had the energy of a playoff game but not the quality.
Ultimately, the Bulls won 98-95 in a down-to-the-wire contest that was settled by Dwyane Wade’s two made free throws with 13.7 seconds remaining.
The easy narrative that could come out of that moment would be to say that Wade came back to Miami and threw egg all over the face of the Heat’s basketball czar, Pat Riley.
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But that’s a short-term win in a long-term game. Wade can have that moment if he wants — everyone knows he’s done more than enough to deserve it.
“Weird game, man,” Wade told TNT after the contest. “I’m glad it’s over.”
But it doesn’t matter who won Thursday night’s tight game, because the Heat already won the real game — the long-term game — by letting Wade walk this summer.
Never was that more apparent than when they faced off against the greatest player in their franchise's history.
The biggest sin a team can commit in the modern NBA is to be mediocre, but there are two distinct kinds of mediocrity in the league, and both were on display on the court Thursday night.
The Heat are in wait-and-see mode: Miami is young and you can see that youthful core's budding dynamism shining through this season. Miami is a ways away from contending for a title again, but the Heat have Justise Winslow, 20, Josh Richardson, 23, Tyler Johnson, 24, and Hassan Whiteside, 27 and just coming into his prime. Add a superstar to that group and you have something cooking. Add in that Miami has an excellent coach, a deep-pocketed owner, and one of the best sales pitches in the league to give to free agents next summer and beyond, and it makes for a great situation. It’s not fun right now, but the basketball isn’t half bad — they stayed in Thursday’s game without Goran Dragic in the second half, after all — and there almost certainly will be much better times coming up soon.
Then take the Bulls — they’re mediocre masquerading as title contenders. They’re not even close to being an elite-level team, and worse yet, this is probably as good as it’s going to get for the Bulls for a while (and it has a chance to get a lot worse in a hurry). There are quality players on the Bulls, sure, but so far this season, the puzzle pieces haven’t fit together in any way that should elicit fear from the rest of the Eastern Conference or NBA. Yes, the Bulls can get hot from 3-point range and look good for a night, or Jimmy Butler could take over in the fourth quarter, like he did Thursday, but their top three backcourt options all have temperamental (at best) shots from distance (or no shot at all, in the case of Rajon Rondo) in a league in which that’s a surefire way to remain average.
How does this Bulls team get better? Even if they find a way to blend the talents of Rondo, Butler, and Wade, this team won’t be a title contender. The Bulls don’t have the team defense or shooting to compete with the NBA’s best and that won’t change this year or next.
Chicago sold some tickets and a lot of jerseys by bringing Wade to the Bulls. It added a good man and a great leader to its locker room, and that’s not unimportant, but it’s hard to see the Bulls’ signing of Wade as anything but neutral — he’s playing on one functional knee and he already had started to slide down the steep downslope of his incredible prime when he was in Miami. What's the real upside here? How is he worth a max deal to the Bulls?
The Heat’s young core wasn’t going to grow with Wade in Miami — they wouldn’t have been given the same opportunities with him on the court. Look at the difference in the Lakers this season — there are more factors than Kobe Bryant retiring, but the young Lakers look a whole lot better with him out of the picture.
The returns from this season for the Heat’s young nucleus won’t necessarily be felt for a while, but this experience should prove crucial in Miami’s next stage — whatever that might be.
Had Miami re-signed Wade, the Heat would have all but eliminated any chance of adding another impact player for as long as he was employed. The Heat would be treading water — not getting any better in the long or short term.