It was a frigid January day in the Windy City back in 2011 — the high temperature that afternoon was a bone-chilling 24 degrees — when the United Center heated up with a showdown between two of the greatest basketball players ever to come out of Chicago.
The hometown Chicago Bulls were led by their homegrown star, Derrick Rose, then just 22 and en route to becoming the youngest league MVP in NBA history that season. The visiting Miami Heat — in the first season of its big three era — were led by Dwyane Wade, then 28 and already a Finals MVP winner, with LeBron James sitting out with a bum ankle.
Watching highlights from that game on YouTube is like entering a time warp. Not just because several of Rose’s and Wade’s then-teammates (Carlos Boozer, Keith Bogans and Kurt Thomas for Chicago; Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Carlos Arroyo and Eddie House for Miami) have long since retired. And not just because Rose and Wade had close-shave haircuts back then and now sport miniature dreads and a mini curly Afro, respectively.
The highlights bring you back to a time when either one of those guys could turn a long defensive rebound into an instant score on the other end, barely needing three dribbles to get there. It’s a reminder why both of their acquisitions by the Cleveland Cavaliers this offseason were so noteworthy, seeing the relentless spirit and frenetic creativity in their games that made D-Rose and D-Wade household names.
The Bulls won that game 99-96, with the pair exchanging buckets back and forth in the final minutes — a twisting layup for Rose, a 3 by Wade, an and-1 jumper by Rose, two more 3-pointers by Wade.
“We’re watching two of the best — Rose and Wade — go at each other!” Chicago play-by-play man Neil Funk exclaimed on the broadcast.
Kyle Korver — then a Bull, now a Cav — eventually hit a 3 with 25.5 seconds left to set up the win for Chicago when Wade’s final 3-point attempt fell short at the buzzer.
Rose finished with 34 points, eight assists, four rebounds and three blocks to Wade’s 33 points, four assists, six rebounds and five blocks. Both players, now teammates sharing the Cavs’ starting backcourt in Tuesday’s preseason game against the Bulls, reflected on that game and what they’ve been through since in conversations with ESPN this week.
“Just being from Chicago, and I was the young buck, and you got to test yourself sometimes,” Rose said. “So, who was a better player to test yourself against than D-Wade at the time? We both took on that moment. … When you play in those games, you learn so much about your game, you learn so much about yourself and just the league, period. So one of those type of games you can build off of and help you with your momentum through the league.”
“I think everyone uses certain guys as measuring sticks, whether you tell him or not,” Wade added. “Everyone has those, and you have those certain matchups and you’re like, ‘OK, let me see what I’m made of tonight.'”
Wade is 35 now. Rose turned 29 last week. They’ve both strayed from the franchises that drafted them and turned them into stars — Wade had a drama-filled Chicago homecoming last season; Rose had an ill-fated stint with the New York Knicks — and have settled in with Cleveland as supporting cast members behind James, whose star, nearly seven years later, still hasn’t diminished.
That juice surrounding their marquee matchup years ago now flows to when Stephen Curry faces Damian Lillard or when Russell Westbrook plays against James Harden or even when Lonzo Ball goes up against De’Aaron Fox. Circle-the-calendar Cavs games this season will be about James vs. _______, not whomever Wade and Rose battle with.
The absence of fanfare is just fine with both Rose and Wade.
“[Rose] came in with no ego at all, just saying, ‘Coach, whatever you need me to do, and if you yell at me, cuss at me,'” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “I said, ‘I don’t do all that.’ But he said, ‘Whatever it is I can take it. Whatever you need me to do, I’m willing to do.’ And D-Wade has been pretty much the same. Coming in and knowing it’s about sacrifice. If you want to win a championship and have a chance to win a championship, you have to sacrifice. They understand that.”
The question is whether the Cavs are sacrificing their true potential by relying on Wade and Rose to play such prominent roles this season, replacing minutes once held by Kyrie Irving and Matthew Dellavedova, who were both in their early- to mid-20s when Cleveland won it all in 2016.
Wade averaged 18.3 points per game last season but shot a career-low 43.4 percent from the field and missed 22 games because of injury. Rose averaged 18.0 points on a 31-win Knicks team and missed 18 games.
Their pairing as a starting backcourt is a head-scratcher in the modern NBA. They combined for just less than one made 3-pointer per game last season — which was almost two times worse than the 1.7 made 3-pointers the worst starting backcourt averaged last season (not surprisingly, the Bulls).
They also combined to make just 28.3 percent of their 3-point attempts last season — considerably less accurate than the worst shooting starting backcourt last season (the Phoenix Suns at 33.4 percent).
Yet, there is a plus side. They averaged 17.4 combined points in the paint per game last season, which would have ranked first among starting backcourts (the Wizards were tops at 16.6). Also, their combined free throws made per game (7.2) and drives per game (16.2) both would have ranked a respectable eighth among all starting backcourts last season (all numbers courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information research).
James has a penchant for making the pieces around him better. It will be on him, along with Lue, to find a way to make everything fit.
“It’s still surreal,” James said of the Cavs’ collection of talent. “And it’s still a work in progress with all of us. We’re all still adjusting.”
The past precedent of NBA teams choosing name over game has not gone too well. The 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers added Gary Payton and Karl Malone to a team that already had Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant on it and were embarrassed by the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals after a rocky regular season. The 1998-99 Houston Rockets flanked Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen beside Hakeem Olajuwon and flamed out in the first round of the playoffs against the Lakers.
Snarky fans on the internet are already grouping the Cavs with those failed fading constellations in L.A. and Houston, tweeting things like, “Cleveland’s offseason would have been fantastic if this was 2011.”
“It’s true,” Wade said with a laugh when informed of the shade already being thrown his team’s way. “We would have been great in 2011! Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still be good now. It’s a different time. And I think back then, we was young guys who were in our primes and playing the way that we could play at that time, and then you make adjustments to your game, to your body, to your age and people don’t give you enough credit for that. It’s hard work to make adjustments to the game and having injuries and things like that. There’s not many LeBrons out here, guys that don’t get injured. There’s not many Russells [Russell Westbrook], but even Russell’s gotten injured. There’s not many guys like that. I think Derrick has done a great job of fighting through injuries and coming back and fighting through injuries and coming back and it takes a strong mental guy to be able to do that. I fought through a lot myself.”
Health is a major question mark for Cleveland. And not just because of Rose and Wade. If Isaiah Thomas can come back fully healthy from the torn labrum in his right hip that has sidelined him the past five months, then Rose and Wade become complementary pieces. If Thomas doesn’t return to form, however, Rose and Wade become necessary pieces. And how much is too much to ask from Wade and Rose at this point, both on the Cavs thanks to veteran minimum contracts worth about $2 million apiece?
“I mean, it’s really unbelievable,” said JR Smith, who lost his starting spot to Wade, when asked about adding the two guards. “D-Wade is a buyout and coming here is obviously a blessing in disguise [for him] but to get D-Rose for what we got him for is just, we still look at it like, ‘Man, I can’t believe we got him for that.’ We got him for nothing, almost.”
Just how much of a bargain Rose and Wade are will be determined by whether there’s something left for them both to give.
“I believe that I’m still a talent,” Rose said. “But that’s one of the reasons why I came here, where I wanted the stage again. Last year I felt like I had a decent year. Last year, the only thing I was missing was that stage and I feel like I have that this year.”
With a stage comes a spotlight, one that Rose and Wade are sharing rather than splitting like they did on that cold day back in 2011.
“I think we have the right personalities in here to go together,” Wade said. “I think we got the right leaders to help to make everything work. … You got to be who you are today and you can’t really focus on who everybody else wants you to be. So I don’t think D-Rose is worried about it and I know I ain’t either.”