Dwyane Wade has done a lot of watching LeBron James lately.
After a while, Dwyane Wade didn't find it all that funny.
“Without Wade, the team was doing great,” Wade deadpanned.
That was January 27, 2012, after Wade had returned from two weeks off—resting a sprained ankle—to efficiently, explosively score 28 points against the New York Knicks. He had watched the Miami Heat win five of those six contests. And while at home?
“I had nothing else to do but watch TV,” Wade said. “It was on every other second.”
What was on was the "Without Wade" graphic, capturing the Heat's record without him. By the end of the season, that record would be 14-3, and that would include two losses at the end of the season that LeBron James missed also, as both rested for the playoffs. Miami was 13-1 in games that James played and Wade did not.
“This team could win with or without me,” Wade said at the time. “But to say they’re better without me, I doubt it.”
There was no doubt that the talk would start again if Wade missed more time. On the Heat's recent six-game road trip, he missed one game with a virus and two with a sprained foot, which could keep him out again Wednesday against surprising Milwaukee.
The Heat won all three....pushing the "Without Wade" record to 17-3.
In the three games he did play, he averaged just 11 points on 30 percent from the field, and Monday told reporters that he regretted playing in Wednesday's game against the Clippers, when he aggravated the foot injury.
"I didn't do myself any justice," Wade said.
Is it an injustice to Wade to say the Heat are as good, or better, without him?
(All quotes in this piece were gathered in the course of the author's coverage of the team. All stats are accurate as of Monday afternoon.)
If the Heat beat the Pistons without Wade, does it count?
Dwyane Wade could have sat Wednesday against the Los Angeles Clippers. He probably should have sat, as he has since acknowledged. But as he said after that day's shootaround, and said again this Monday, the nature of the game—solid opponent, national television—helped dictate his decision.
He has always liked the bright lights, and the biggest challenges.
So it's not surprising that if you look closer at the games Wade has missed over the past two seasons, the majority have been against lesser lights.
Ten of the 17 games he missed last season were against non-playoff teams. It's not really surprising that Miami—still anchored by two All-Stars—went 8-2 against a group that included Cleveland, Detroit (twice) and New Jersey (twice), or 8-1 not including a loss against Washington, which LeBron James and Chris Bosh also watched.
One of the three games Wade missed on the trip was against a team that didn't make the playoffs last season (Phoenix) and one was against a team (Atlanta) that has traded one of its key players in Joe Johnson.
Still, let's not overstate things:
It might be different if the Heat had to survive a playoff series against a quality opponent with Wade wearing one of his signature suits.
Sometimes, it appears Wade doubles as a Swiffer duster.
Which Dwyane Wade are we talking about?
If we're talking about the Wade who was gimpy and grimacing on a bum wheel in Los Angeles last Wednesday, or the Wade lurching about on a swollen knee against Indiana last postseason, then sure, the Heat are better off without that guy.
If we're talking about the Wade who, at times, has shown flashes of his old explosiveness, it's silly to say he doesn't add something significant to the cause.
Of course, as the injuries—knee, thumb, ankle, foot—pile upon each other, it is reasonable to wonder whether the dynamic, healthy guy we all remember is capable of making consistent appearances throughout the season. Certainly, that's not the guy that Nuggets coach George Karl saw as he prepared for a possible matchup with Wade last Thursday.
“I mean, we watched the last three games, and Dwyane Wade doesn’t look like Dwyane Wade in those games," Karl said.
He didn't. He was 2-for-10 against the Clippers, and if you could measure defensive performance with an equivalent statistic, it would look about the same—80 percent of the time, Wade appeared at a disadvantage.
So it was wise for him to skip the Nuggets and Suns games and try to get right. A similar shutdown decision—if for a full two weeks—led to an exceptional stretch. In February, Wade averaged 24.5 points in just 30.8 minutes, shooting 55.7 percent.
Certainly, during that period, Miami was better for his presence.
So it makes sense to see how he returns this time.
They both contributed to a title, but Bosh contributes more when Wade's out.
It's a stretch to say that someone nearly seven feet tall is a little fish.
But when Chris Bosh came to the bigger pond of Miami, that's essentially what he became. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were 1A and 1B, depending on whether you judged that on skill level (James first) or hometown appeal (Wade).
It was awkward to watch their shared press conferences, early in the 2010-11 season, when Bosh—arguably the most erudite of the trio—would twiddle his thumbs, nary a question coming his way.
Over time, however, Bosh has proven his worth, and that's been especially true with Wade out. This was most evident during the six-game stretch that Wade missed last January, when Bosh averaged 26.7 points on 62.9 percent from the floor.
It's not that Erik Spoelstra runs a lot more plays for Bosh—the coach has conceded that he usually doesn't. It's more about Bosh's mindset, and the mindset of his remaining teammates.
"I know that usually I have to step it up a little more when we're missing him," Bosh said. "You know, I don't change my game or anything. I don't change the aggression. The frequency and the touches are there a lot more, because he's missing sometimes. So that gives me more opportunity."
With opportunity, he tends to produce solid efficiency; it certainly helps that he can get to the line and then make his shots while there.
There's enough evidence now to suggest that Bosh is best as a second option, rather than as a first or third.
Allen and James: Of course this combination works.
James Jones is not an elite all-around NBA player.
He is, however, one of its elite stand-still long-range shooters, at least when he gets on the floor. That isn't much this season, due to the addition of Ray Allen, the large role for Shane Battier and the return to health of Mike Miller, but if Jones played, it's a good bet that LeBron James would look comfortable out there with him.
That's because James sure looked comfortable with Jones last season. James tends to look comfortable with all natural shooters. James is a virtually unstoppable force with the ball in his hands, and the "virtually" is erased when he's guarded by just one man. That happens most frequently when defenses feel like they must stay tethered to the accurate aerial artists around him.
So why should it surprise anyone that James—who never played with an attack guard with anywhere Wade's ability in Cleveland—tends to be most at ease, and most dominant, when he's not sharing the ball with someone with such a similar skill set and is instead flanked by those who space the floor.
Instead of tripping over Wade, he's setting up Battier, Miller, Allen and Mario Chalmers for triples—or he's storming to the basket against little resistance, as he did in scoring the Heat's final 17 points in Newark last April. Wade missed that game, and James felt no pressure to defer.
Again, this is different from saying that James and Wade can't play together. Of course they can. They did throughout the entire 2012 postseason, collaborating most memorably in sweeping the final three games against Indiana. They have the rings to show for it.
But Miami is capable of beating a lot of people if its shooters are putting on a "three"-ring circus.
Most teams would still happily take Wade... and his rings.
This isn't empirical.
It's just logical.
Sure, it's hard to argue with 17-3 "Without Wade" over two seasons, when the Heat have been 37-20 with him over that same time frame. Sure, the sheer number of those absences should be concerning for a franchise that has made a sizable commitment to the 30-year-old going forward and—if he opts out after next season—will need to determine how to proceed financially with a local icon. And sure, there are times when Wade isn't quite as engaged defensively as he could be, especially when distracted by the officials.
But, even with all that said, it's hard to sign off on the notion that someone of Wade's caliber could be holding the Heat back, or that the team would be better off, night after night, series after series, with Mike Miller or even Ray Allen.
He's still among the top two-way players at his position when his body isn't betraying him, capable of squeezing into tight spaces and finishing like few others, and a threat to chase down just about anyone for an open-court block. He's still a matchup nightmare for many coaches, especially when it matters.
And just about every time he's been doubted during his career, he's used that as fuel—as was the case in Indiana, when he exploded for 22 points in the second half of Game 4 of the second round.
As George Karl said last week of a healthy Wade: "He and LeBron, at the end of the game defensively, I think win as many games as anybody in basketball.”
Odds are that they'll win plenty more.
Of his most recent injury, Wade said: "Everyone goes through something. You've just got to deal with it. Sometimes you can deal with it and play through it. Sometimes you're hurting yourself even more. You've got to do what's smart."
It's smart for him to sit until he's healthy. It's not as smart to say the Heat won't be better when he's back.