Thus far in the 2012-13 NBA season, the Miami Heat have appeared to be vincible and at times disinterested. Each player on the roster, from LeBron James to Ray Allen, has taken possessions and nights off.
Of the Heat’s principal players, Dwyane Wade seems to be garnering the most curiosity.
Is he on the decline, or is he just coasting?
It’s a fair question to ask; Wade recently turned 31 years old and is playing his 10th season of professional basketball. He has battled injuries in the past and was not operating at full strength for a large portion of last season’s playoffs.
Most notably, Wade was unable to compete in the Olympics, opting for surgery after the Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in last season’s NBA Finals. The procedure was Wade’s second surgery on his left knee; the first was performed in 2008.
To top it all off, entering play on Feb. 6, Wade is averaging a mere 20.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game.
Those numbers are a far cry from the 30.2 points, five rebounds and 7.5 assists Wade averaged per game back in the 2008-09 season. In fact, you’d have to go back to Wade’s rookie year to see comparable numbers (16.2, 4.0 and 4.5, respectively).
Still, those who claim that Wade is on the decline are jumping the gun. It’s simply another example of the NBA culture that we live in today: Instant gratification rules; knee-jerk reactions are the norm.
One great season, and a young player is headed for the Hall of Fame. One bad season, and he's suddenly not even worth an extension.
All too often, today’s NBA stars are judged by the medical standards of yesteryear. Wade, due to his advancing age, will more quickly be called "over the hill" because of it.
Kobe Bryant (34 years old), Kevin Garnett (36 years old) and Steve Nash (39 years old) are still performing at a very high level, so it’s a wonder why Wade, who is coming off of knee surgery, is considered by some to be on the decline.
The same was said of Garnett years ago. After helping to lead the Boston Celtics to the NBA championship in 2007-08, Garnett managed to play just 57 games the following season.
After the Celtics were eliminated by the Orlando Magic in the 2009 playoffs, Garnett, who was 33 years old at the time, opted for arthroscopic knee surgery. The following season (2009-10), he managed to play 69 games but was a shell of his former self.
That year, Garnett had no explosiveness. He looked weak and slow. His numbers declined across the board.
He managed just 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game and played less than 30 minutes per night for the Celtics. Even worse, Garnett entered that season having already played over 1,000 career regular-season games, a mark considered by many to be the point at which top players begin to regress.
By all accounts, Garnett was finished and was not supposed to ever be the same.
But something miraculous happened the next season. Garnett, even at 34 years old, managed to play 71 games. His minutes increased from the previous year (29.9 to 31.3), as did his scoring and rebounding.
Wade (30) was younger than Garnett was when he opted for knee surgery (33), and most importantly, Wade had played just 596 career games when he did. That’s just over half of Garnett’s 1,055.
While it may be fair to say that Wade’s best years are behind him, dubbing him on “on the decline” seems a bit premature, just like it was for Garnett.
There's a difference between a player being on the decline and him picking and choosing his spots. And now that the Heat are NBA champions, they are collectively picking and choosing their spots.
The simple truth as it pertains to Wade is that he no longer needs to perform at a superhuman level on each night in order for the Heat to win games. That, actually, is one of the main reasons why Wade recruited James to join him in Miami.
For the Heat, what’s most important is being healthy come playoff time. Once you become a champion, the perspective changes. Along with James and the rest of the Miami Heat, Wade is no longer playing with a chip on his shoulder, and he’s no longer playing to prove others wrong.
Today, he and his Heat are playing for legacy. Immortality. Glory.
Wade and the Heat now realize what Gregg Popovich and his San Antonio Spurs realized a few years ago: The race is not for the swift; rather, it's for those who can endure.
What we have seen from the Miami Heat in the first few months of the 2012-13 NBA season is not a team on the decline; it’s a team going through the motions of the season and waiting for the playoffs.
With that in mind, it's safe to surmise Wade is simply coasting as his knee fully recovers.
In the grand scheme of things, midseason games against the Detroit Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers don’t mean much to the Heat, and we have seen this movie before with Shaquille O’Neal’s Los Angeles Lakers.
Yet as was the case with Garnett, fans are quick to forget.
In some ways, it makes sense for Wade to not get the benefit of the doubt. Over the course of his career, he has experienced his fair share of injuries, and to this point, he has never played all 82 games in a single season.
Still, it should be pointed out that the Wade has played in 86 percent of his team’s game over the past four years. Conversely, in his first four years, he managed to play in only 80 percent.
Really, the only evidence to suggest that Wade is on the decline is his play this season. And though he has been somewhat inconsistent, his entire team has.
What’s more important for this Heat team is how it looks when the games really count. Obviously, there will be games such as the Heat’s Jan. 27 loss to the Rajon Rondo-less Boston Celtics. In 47 minutes, Wade shot just 6-of-20 for 17 points and turned the ball over six times.
But it’s unfair to point out a single poor performance without referencing the Jan. 23 Heat victory over the Toronto Raptors in which Wade shot 13-of-19, scored a game-high 35 points and also added five rebounds and seven assists.
Those performances being somewhat few and far between are more a result of Wade’s progression as a teammate and James emerging as the alpha male on this Miami Heat team than of Wade’s decline.
When Wade is motivated, he is still one of the more unstoppable forces in the NBA. And with his team’s collective eyes set squarely on the playoffs, the coasting until the postseason party begins will continue.
No, the question that should be asked of Wade is not whether or not he is on the decline, but how dominant he will be come playoff time. Or, given historical trends, how much better he will look next season.
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