Back in November, a more innocent time for the Bulls and their backers, Dwyane Wade was leaning back near the sideline at TD Garden in Boston, looking ahead to what figured to be a fascinating season for his new team. Chicago had brought together Wade and former rival Rajon Rondo to go along with established star Jimmy Butler. The future was still cloudy, but promising.
“We don’t look at ourselves as a Big Three,” Wade said then. “We’re just coming out here and trying to help lead this team and play basketball. Everyone on this team is on the same level, same page. It’s just the way it is. We are all cheering for each other, cheering for each other’s success. We know we need all of us and everyone to be successful.”
Successful never really took shape in Chicago, as the Bulls remained a volatile bunch loaded with behind-the-scenes intrigue, nonstop trade chatter and wild inconsistency, leading to their current stretch of six losses in seven games. That stretch — and this season — was punctuated on Wednesday with an elbow injury to Wade that the team has announced will keep him out for the rest of the season.
That figures to be a final blow to a team that has been in the midst of a full unraveling in the past two weeks. One thing that Wade proved over this season in Chicago — the first of his 14-year career outside of Miami — is that he can still be a productive shooting guard at age 35. He’s far from an elite player these days, of course, but he gave the Bulls 18.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists per night.
But with the elbow injury, Wade’s future in Chicago is now in question. He signed with the Bulls last summer after a bitter breakup with the Heat, taking a two-year contract worth $47.5 million — but with a player option for next season. In explaining why he went to Chicago over his chief other suitor, the Nuggets, Wade pointed to his roots in Chicago and his ability to help his hometown.
He also wanted to close out his career in relative happiness, however. There hasn’t been a lot of that in Chicago’s turmoil-stricken season, with the Bulls limping toward the finish line one game out of the playoff picture. Tensions between players and the coaching staff have bubbled up all season, and the Bulls locker room has been a fractious place.
If Wade came into the year intent on leading a group that needed a strong voice in the locker room, he — like the rest of the Bulls — came up short.
Now Wade will have to decide whether to opt in for the second year of his deal and go back to a Bulls team that could go in a number of different directions this summer. None of those directions would be particularly appealing for Wade.
They could trade away their best player, Jimmy Butler, and begin a rebuilding process with Wade playing the wizened veteran among young pups. They could ax coach Fred Hoiberg, who has just not been a fit with this group in almost any incarnation, and does not seem to have the respect of Wade or Butler. Or they could run this bunch back again, warts and all, with a focus on 2018 free agency.
Back in late January, he said that the Bulls struggles would be a factor as he maps out his remaining NBA years. “It’s tough in this league,” Wade told reporters then. “A lot of it also depends on how much money you’re willing to make. It depends on what city you’re willing to be in. So it’s a lot of variables to that. But no question about it, what happens throughout this year as I go into my summer, I’ll definitely take a look at it.”
At the same time, opting in for the final year of his deal will guarantee him $23.5 million, securing his spot as the third highest paid shooting guard in the league, a salary well beyond his production. If he opts out and seeks more happiness elsewhere, he can be assured that he won’t get the same payday he’s due if he stays in Chicago.
It’s hard to say what options would be available to Wade should he opt out. The Bucks and Nuggets were both interested in him last year, and would be willing to talk again this summer if he were a free agent. He could chase another trophy, perhaps as a bargain signee for a team like San Antonio or the Clippers. Heck, it’s a long shot, but he could join the pile on a bare bones contractin Golden State or team again with LeBron James in Cleveland.
But first things first. Wade will have to deal with his elbow injury. And before he has any free-agent dreams, he will have to determine just where Chicago is heading, something about which even the Bulls themselves seem unsure. Wade signed on last year to lead the Bulls and re-establish his roots. But after one turbulent year, he might be willing to pull up those roots.