Will Dwyane Wade Reclaim His Place Among the NBA's Unquestioned Elite?
They were forward.
They were fast.
They were sure.
While this wasn't Wade's most efficient performance—he shot 10-of-22 for his 29 points—the night was a welcome sight to Heat teammates and supporters. It was an extension of the preseason, when the Heat guard appeared surprisingly explosive on his surgically-repaired knee.
Erik Spoelstra, who was Wade's assigned assistant for five seasons and has been his head coach for the past five, has repeatedly told reporters that Wade "is way ahead of schedule," while praising Wade's decision to address the knee, skip the Olympics and stay in premium shape. This comes after Wade and Spoelstra publicly aired some grievances during the 2012 championship run.
In 2011-12, Wade took a step back behind LeBron James in the Heat's pecking order.
Now, months from turning 31, is the eight-time All-Star capable of reclaiming a spot among the NBA's top 10, or even five, players?
Yes: He Didn't Slip All That Much
Rumors of Wade's demise may have been quite a bit exaggerated.
Yes, he went through some erratic stretches in the playoffs, with some strange struggles in many first halves. Yes, he tended to force the action —or obsess about officials—when frustrated by a questionable call or his sore knee.
And yes, the Heat was 14-3 without him, compared to 32-17 with him, a statistic that was widely cited.
But look deeper into his overall 2011-12 numbers, and you won't see much difference in production and efficiency from where he stood the season before. He simply played fewer minutes, averaging 33.2 compared to 37.1, in part by Erik Spoelstra's design, in part due to injury.
Compute his numbers based on 36 minutes, and he actually rose in assists (5.0 vs. 4.4), steals (1.8 vs. 1.4) and blocks (1.4 vs. 1.1), while slipping just marginally in points (24.0 vs. 24.8) and rebounds (5.3 vs. 6.2). And he did this while keeping his field goal percentage at 50 percent, and improving his free throw percentage from 75.8 to 79.1.
In there, it's tough to detect a decline.
No: Too Much Wear and Tear
Is it just a matter of time before Wade misses time?
The Heat has taken measures to preserve Wade's body, none more notable than the signing of Ray Allen, who should relieve Wade of the burden of playing 40 minutes unless absolutely necessary.
But he still plays without pause, still attacks the rim with abandon.
Since winning a championship in 2006, he's suffered significant shoulder, knee, ankle and foot injuries, and missed 93 of a possible 476 games.
He'll be 31 in January and, while he's tired of talking about his age, it's likely that even minor ailments will keep him out longer than they once did—especially with the Heat's depth on the wings allowing the team to compensate for his absence.
And the knee, while feeling good now, may resurface as an issue after the pounding of another full season.
Wade takes as much pride in how he looks in a suit as how he looks on the court. But if he's wearing one too often, while the games are going on, others will pass him by.
Yes: Miami's Best Team Makes Him Better
Dwyane Wade has never played on a team like this.
He carried the 2006 team to the title, with Shaquille O'Neal often acting as an oversized decoy, and a collection of ornery vets filling gaps.
He was part of a Big Three that won the 2012 championship in spite of little backing—late in the playoffs, Erik Spoelstra had essentially limited his rotation to six men.
This Heat team is healthier and deadlier.
For instance, Mike Miller looks like twice the player he did last season, when he thanked Pat Riley for not taking him out back and shooting him like a broken horse. And Miller's not assured of any minutes in a rotation that now includes Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis.
So how does the Heat's quality depth affect Wade?
He has shown that he can do more with less.
That's why welcomed Allen's addition. Allen's shooting prowess gives Wade more space to operate. It gives him less reason to chuck up threes, the weakest part of his game. And it gives him more opportunities to rest.
Wade averaged fewer minutes in February than in any other month in the compressed 2011-12 regular season. He posted his highest monthly scoring average and, by far, his highest monthly shooting percentage.
“I enjoyed that,” Wade told me in Aug. 2012. “I really enjoyed that. Ideally, that’s where I would like to be. When I know when I’m playing, I’m a lot more efficient, I get in and I get out.”
No: Younger Stars Have Seized the Stage
Dwyane Wade has never finished higher than third in MVP voting, and that was a distant third, in 2008-09, when his subpar supporting cast kept him from seriously challenging LeBron James or Kobe Bryant.
Last season, when James won for the third time, Wade finished 11th, earning a single fourth-place vote and three fifth-place votes.
He's older than all but two—Bryant and Steve Nash—of the players who finished ahead of him. And, for the remainder of his career, he figures to soar in the shadows of James, who is three years younger.
In a survey of all 30 NBA general managers on NBA.com, only Bryant and Wade received votes in the "best shooting guard" category, but there are plenty of young talents at the position, including James Harden, who will now be a featured star in Houston. Even with Derrick Rose injured, Kyrie Irving, Rajon Rondo and Deron Williams will present a legitimate challenge to Wade's starting All-Star spot.
And it's possible that several lesser stars will post gaudier cumulative statistics, now that Wade—by welcoming James and Chris Bosh—has sacrificed some of his shots in the name of winning championships.
Wade still has the potential to be elite on each end, and just about every night.
But, with the gifted roster around him and the greater goals in mind, he might save himself for selective circumstances.
Yes: Maturity Matters
There's a point in every player's career when athleticism fades, and experience takes precedence.
At the moment, it appears Wade can still sky, and perhaps that will be the case all season.
Still, he now has so much more savvy he can call upon, when his body doesn't do exactly what it once did.
It has not always appeared comfortable for him, over the past seasons, to adjust to complementing LeBron James. James now operates, in the Heat attack, from many of the spots that Wade once did. That has made it difficult, in many circumstances, for Wade to unleash the mid-range game that was such a major part of his arsenal in the years prior to James' arrival.
Yet he has also shown the ability to think the game, and find the times and places when he can have an impact. Tuesday, the time was when James was sidelined by cramps, and the place was the post, where Wade can be extremely effective for his size.
"They wanted to run the offense through me," Wade told reporters after the win. "It felt good, like old times again. I don't want LeBron leaving too many times. But it felt good to have kind of what I'm used to in the sense of guys coming to me at the end of games."
There will still be plenty of times when his teammates will go to him, and he'll take them places.
No: No Longer Living at the Line
In the 2006 NBA Finals, Dwyane Wade shot 97 free throws in six games.
That was 16.2 per game.
In the 2012 NBA Finals, Wade shot 40 in five games.
That was eight per game.
And that was well above his season average, of 6.1.
Compare that to his averages the previous seven seasons: 9.9, 10.7, 10.5, 9.2, 9.8, 9.1 and 8.6.
Unless he can find a way to get back to the stripe, he'll be more reliant upon his long jumper—and, according to Hoopdata.com, he has shot a rather ordinary 37 percent from 16 to 23 feet the past three seasons.
Of course, the more he attacks, and the more contact he draws, the more injuries he risks.
Conclusion: If He's Healthy, It's Dangerous to Doubt
Udonis Haslem has marveled about many things, over the past nine-plus years, when it's come to Dwyane Wade.
But Haslem has repeatedly said that what impresses him the most is the way Wade channels anger—whether the anger comes from being smacked around by opponents on the court, or knocked about by detractors off of it.
"I can't do that," Haslem said recently.
The second-round series against Indiana was just the latest example of his resilience.
Wade was not only awful for the first three games; he was agitated and even insubordinate, screaming at his coach, after Erik Spoelstra told him he was playing soft. Wade then spent a day with his college coach, Tom Crean, clearing his mind and letting his recently-drained knee settle.
And what he do?
He followed a 2-for-13 disaster by shooting 40-of-65 in the final three games, as the Heat rallied from a 2-1 series deficit to advance.
He's always been special that way.
Doubt at your peril.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.