The BFFs are back - LBJ and Wade team up in Cleveland

TJ Manotoc
FILE - In this Dec. 25, 2014, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) and Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade talk following an NBA basketball game in Miami. Wade is expected to sign Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, with the Cavaliers, reuniting the 12-time All-Star with James, a former Miami teammate and one of his best friends. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

My first-ever experience of covering the the NBA Finals live was in 2010, with the newly-formed Big 3 of the Miami Heat. They came charging through all the way to the NBA Finals and would lock horns against the best of the West at that time, the Dallas Mavericks. Amidst all the flash and flair of what they called the Heatles, the heart of that squad was a friendship that goes beyond basketball, between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

It wasn’t an easy road to the Finals that first year. Do you recall how they sputtered out of the gates and had a 9-8 record? Everybody wanted to sack our kababayan Fil-Am Coach Erik Spoelstra and most experts were already predicting a return of Coach Pat Riley. But then after a players-only meeting, led of course by James and Wade, things went smoother.

And yet, they still they had their hiccups. Sure they made the Finals, but clearly they were nowhere near their full potential. And part of the problem was that Batman and Robin hadn’t yet figured out how to play together. Heck they didn’t even know who was Batman and who was Robin. That was just one of the many dynamics that most pundits identified as contributing to their eventual loss to the Mavericks that year. Clearly, South Beach water plus off-court friendships was not enough of a recipe to form a championship. They had to figure some things out on the court.

In the offseason, with the help of Spo and Riley, James and Wade did just that. Wade stepped back a bit, despite the fact that the Heat had been his team since Shaq retired, to give LeBron the needed clearance for take-off to be the man and be the leader. Because of that agreement, they started to play beautiful music together and as a team. Four NBA Finals trips and two titles later, and it’s clear that the Big 3 and Spo have places waiting for them in the Basketball Hall of Fame, because of the history they crafted from 2010 to 2014.

After their first title, coming against the OKC Thunder, I sat down with Spo in Miami, and he said that the whole process, from being part of the recruitment, to turning down part of the limelight, showed his maturity, and how much he wanted to accomplish something bigger. Spo added, “Dwyane still had the same talent as before, but he understood that LeBron was playing at such an incredible MVP level and was ready to really explode, that he didn’t want LeBron thinking about sharing that MVP level and just let his talent drive us. But Dwyane was still able to impact in all of the same ways, more so with his voice, leadership, [and] competitive worth.”

I saw them every year, every All-Star Weekend and every Finals. Boom Gonzales and I were two of the few who got up close at the sidelines during practices, press conferences, and media scrums. And I could see clearly what all the talk was about. The bond between James and Wade was a brotherhood. It extended beyond the basketball court. They were inseparable, always sitting beside each other, and sharing the podium at press conferences. But that true-life friendship off the court eventually made them better basketball players and a better team as a pair of leaders carrying their pack of title-hungry players to the promised land.

Fast-forward now to 2017. LeBron finally won one for The Land and wants a crack at another one, but badly needs help taking on the mighty Warriors of the West. Wade on the other hand had a dream come true as he said. He had a bitter parting with Miami turn into a chance to live out a childhood fantasy of playing for his hometown Chicago Bulls. It wasn’t pretty though. He saw the struggles of the management, of Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo. But Wade gave his all and proved that he could still ball and be a significant piece on a contender.

And so after the buyout and waivers, Wade now rejoins LeBron, this time in Cleveland. Yes Wade is nowhere near his prime. He’s not in his “athletic peak,” which was in 2008, when he scored 30 points per game. Nor is he at his “mature-winner peak,” around 2013, when his scoring dipped to 22 an outing, but he managed to shoot 52 percent from the field with five boards, five assists, two steals, and a block. LeBron meanwhile is on another level, coming off arguably another MVP year by his lofty standards, save for that monster from OKC doing some unearthly things. And of course, James bowed out of the Finals despite averaging a triple-double.

Both are more mature now. Both are still hungry for more.

James has said that he looks forward, not only to have Wade around as his brother on the team, but also the leadership and basketball IQ he will provide. Adding Wade to the squad gives the Cavs an enormous boost in depth, now that JR Smith can slide to the bench. They also add a playmaker in Wade to run alongside James, or takeover when LBJ, or their point guard (be it Derrick Rose or Isaiah Thomas) hits the bench. Remember last year? Most of LeBron’s complaints were about the lack of a playmaker after him and Kyrie Irving. Cleveland’s offseason moves certainly fill that void. The team’s perimeter defense will also get a boost too with Wade, even if he’s not at his defensive peak anymore.

But the most interesting thing to see from Wade this year is how he will be able to save his legs in games throughout the season, now that he doesn’t have to shoulder the majority of the scoring load. Think of it as a Tony Parker on the Spurs when Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge rose to prominence. The points may be sporadic, but the impact may be even bigger then before.

The whole banana boat gang may not be together on one squad just yet. But observe this tandem wearing the same uniform again. Win or lose it all, we are lucky enough to witness a second run of one of the most special partnerships in basketball history.

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