Wade admits he took a step back so LeBron could lead Heat

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It was always the question that ultimately needed to be answered in Miami — whose team is the Heat? LeBron James or Dwyane Wade?

They tried sharing the load evenly and that got them within two wins of an NBA title. But you could feel the limitations of that style when LeBron went into a fog in the finals. The question loomed. It was not something Pat Riley or Erik Spoelstra could answer for them.

But as this season has worn on it was clear Wade had given the reins to LeBron. Wade still averaged 22 points a game, he still had his moments, he would still close some games, but this became LeBron’s team. He had an MVP season. That includes in the fourth quarter, when LeBron had the second highest PER in the league.

Wade did this as a conscious decision, Wade told Israel Gutierrez in a fantastic story at ESPN (you should read the entire thing).

“It was probably one of the hardest things I had to do in sports was to, in a sense, take a step back,” Wade said. “A lot of people don’t understand. They’ll say, ‘Why would you do that?’ To me, I want more success from winning. I don’t want another scoring title. I’m just trying to win.

“I felt that it had to come from nobody but me, to say, ‘Go ahead, man. You’re the best player in the world. We’ll follow your lead.’ Once I said that, I thought he kind of exhaled a little bit.”

Wade said this really came to him in January when, sidelined by injury, he watched LeBron step forward with monster numbers. Wade said he realized he had to make LeBron feel comfortable.

“I just had some time to sit back and think a lot,” Wade said. “I just realized what we’re playing for, and what I’m playing for.

“LeBron is probably the most talented player we’ve seen in a while, but how good can we be? Are we going to be good if me and him are both scoring 27 a night? Yeah, we’re gonna be good, but it would be too much, ‘OK, it’s your turn, now it’s your turn.’

“I wanted to give him the opportunity where he didn’t have to think about that. It’s kind of like I told him, ‘Listen, I’ll find my way. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be there. But you go out and be the player that we want you to be.'”

The result was a strong regular season. Of course the real test — the only test that will matter in many people’s minds — is still ahead of them. Unless they return to the finals and get two more wins this time, the same questions, taunts and everything else will come back with a vengeance.

But Wade seems very comfortable with his decision. That alone has changed the dynamic on this team. We will see in the next month how much.

Only high schoolers who would’ve been consensus draft candidates to receive $125,000 minor-league offer

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The NBA’s minor league’s plan to offer players $125,000 salaries straight out of high school sparked two major questions:

  • Who will receive that offer?
  • Who will take it?

Former NBA player Rod Strickland and former WNBA player Allison Feaster will run the program, and they’re answering the first question.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The NBA is limiting eligibility for the professional path program to prep players who would be considered consensus candidates for the draft if there were no early entry rule to prohibit them. Feaster will work with a group that includes Strickland and the NBA’s basketball operations and player development staffs to evaluate the potential players.

“It will be elite prospects with a readiness for a professional league,” Feaster told ESPN. “We want to target players who would not be going to a university if it weren’t for the NBA eligibility rule. That’s more or less what’s going to dictate this.”

Feaster expects a “handful” of players to be part of the initial group in the professional path. Feaster and Strickland emphasized that the program will be judicious in choosing those eligible for the pro path opportunity.

For reference, 17 high schoolers were picked in the final two drafts (2004 and 2005) before the NBA implemented its one-and-done rule. So, that suggests about 8-9 players annually will get offered the $125,000 deal.

That still leaves the other question: Who will take it?

Kevin Durant said he wouldn’t have. Shoe companies are still spending the most money, and they’re heavily invested in the visibility of college basketball.

But every prospect’s situation is unique. With Strickland and Feaster in place, we’ll soon see how players receive this new path.

76ers sound caught off guard about Markelle Fultz stepping away

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Markelle Fultz has played in all 17 of the 76ers’ games this season, starting until they traded for Jimmy Butler. A couple weeks ago, Fultz called himself generally healthy.

Then, Fultz’s agent, Raymond Brothers, informed the 76ers the guard wouldn’t play or practice until visiting a specialist Monday. Fultz will miss at least three games – against the Pelicans, Cavaliers and Nets.

76ers coach Brett Brown:

It’s kind of the first real sort of red-flag-type news.

This news about his shoulder, it did catch me off guard. But if it’s that real that he needs to go seek further consultation, then we support him. In my eyes, it’s not complicated. If that’s what it is, then we’ll support him.

76ers general manager Elton Brand:

We thought it was the regular bumps and bruises.

There’s nothing that we saw medically that didn’t allow him to play.

This yet another odd turn in a saga that already included plenty of contentiousness, animosity, rumors and cringe-worthy moments. At this point, it’s hard to be shocked by anything with Fultz.

It’s also hard to take the 76ers seriously when they suggest it seemed like business as usual. Fultz’s shot is disturbingly broken. There is clearly a problem. Maybe letting Fultz play without fretting over the issue was the right course, but how surprised can Philadelphia be that he took a more drastic measure?

Hopefully, the specialist helps Fultz identify and fix this issue.

Bulls’ Denzel Valentine likely to miss entire season

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Bulls wing Denzel Valentine has had a rough go of it.

A lottery pick two years ago, battled ankle injuries during his rookie year and underwent ankle surgery after the season. He stayed mostly healthy last year, but his season still ended early for knee surgery. Then, over the summer, he got torched in the Drew League by Frank “Nitty” Session, who questioned how Valentine was in the NBA:

And now…

Mark Strotman of NBC Sports Chicago:

Denzel Valentine was originally expected to miss one to two weeks after suffering a sprained ankle on the second day of training camp. One setback led to another, and on Monday the Bulls announced that the third year guard will undergo surgical reconstruction on that left ankle. He’ll miss four to six months, the team announced, effectively ending his season.

The long end of that timeline will keep Valentine sidelined the entire season. The short end would allow him to return late in the year, but with Chicago so dismal, there’s little incentive to rush him back.

Valentine is under contract next season, the final year of his rookie-scale deal. He might need to prove himself to make Nitty’s question still relevant.

Report: J.R. Smith and Cavaliers separating as they seek trade

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DETROIT – Yesterday – yesterday! – J.R. Smith explained why he didn’t leave the Cavaliers when, a few weeks ago, they pulled him from the rotation and gave him the offer to step away.

“I can’t do that to the city and the fans,” Smith said. “A lot of people have been backing me since I’ve been here. I feel like it’s been a new start since I came here. The way the fans embraced me, the way that I’ve embraced the city, my teammates, I can’t do that to them.”

But Smith also said Cleveland is tanking and reaffirmed his desire to be traded. That probably set wheels in motion.

Joe Vardon of The Athletic:

Smith – who’s guaranteed $18.59 million on a contract that will surely end after this season – carries negative trade value. The Cavs shouldn’t attach the sweetener necessary to dump him. They’re better off just paying him for now.

Because just $3.87 million of his $15.68 million salary for next season is guaranteed, Smith’s contract could prove useful in a trade.

If Smith would reduce his guarantee with a buyout, let him go. But Smith probably shouldn’t do that without a new job lined up.

So, the stalemate continues.

If everyone is happier apart, all the better. Smith wasn’t making a difference on the court for a team he correctly identified as tanking.