What in the hell happened to Dwyane Wade?
Well, that's not entirely true. Something has changed—the "something" being Wade himself, and the "change" being the exponential increase of catechisms he's yielded.
To that end, more than a few people would maintain that he's not so much a question mark as he is collateral damage. His decline in production is merely the result of playing alongside two other superstars in LeBron James and Chris Bosh. He's chivalrous, not ambiguous.
Which is true. Few alpha dogs would have made the sacrifice Wade did to lure LeBron and Bosh to South Beach. Not only did he take (slightly) less money, but he took a backseat to the greatest player in the world.
But is that really an excuse for his postseason struggles at this point? That's what we're supposed to believe (via Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald):
On nights like Friday, when he attempted only one shot in the first half against the Chicago Bulls, Wade has to remind himself of that pledge and its underlying meaning.
The Heat went out in the first round of the 2010 playoffs despite a Herculean individual effort by Wade, who averaged 33.8 points in five games. He couldn’t do it alone. He needed help.
That's exactly what Wade, his teammates and the Heat's coaching staff would tell us as well. Wade isn't injured or on the decline. He's playing to the team's strengths.
"He's showing a great maturity in this series," Erik Spoelstra said (via Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com). "He's playing very, very intelligent."
Wade's also playing "very, very" hurt. He just won't admit it.
“When I have the ball I try to make the best play," he said. "It’s all about winning to me."
The concessions Wade has made and continues to make are not to be undersold. His role has changed because he's allowed it to. And he's allowed it to, because he wanted to win. Which he has. He won a second championship in 2012 and his—sorry, LeBron's—Heat are up 2-1 against the injury-riddled Chicago Bulls in the second round.
There comes a time, however, when you have to ask the question that was just posed, when you have to question Wade's health above all else.
We'd like to believe that his diminished production is voluntary, that it comes with the territory, but really, it isn't. Not entirely.
Wade is currently averaging a career-low 13.2 points on 12 shots per game (also a career low) during the playoffs, and he's failed to score more than 15 points since Game 3 against the Milwaukee Bucks.
In fact, Wade's failure to eclipse the 15-point plateau over the last four games is the longest such playoff streak of his career. His previous high was three games back in 2004, when the Heat were eliminated in the second round.
Wade is dishing out 5.5 assists and forcing a career-best two steals, but his 33 minutes a night are the lowest of his postseason career by more than six.
His struggles with ball control are worth mentioning as well. During the regular season, Wade coughed the ball up on 13.2 percent of his possessions. For the postseason, he's committing a turnover on 19.8 percent of his touches, the worst ratio of his career (regular season included).
Tactical aspects of his game have changed as well. As Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com explains, Wade's on-ball celerity has been reduced to that of someone he's not:
And those turnovers are telling. If you watch the film, you’ll notice that Wade hasn’t been able to slalom his way to the basket like he normally does. Instead, he has routinely stopped short in the midrange area for either an off-balance jump shot or a jump pass to the perimeter where he airmails it directly to a Chicago Bulls defender.
Wade has compensated for his lack of agility off the dribble by cutting to the rim and getting easy looks that way. In fact, 80 percent of his buckets in the restricted area this postseason have been assisted, whereas that number was just 57.1 percent in the regular season, according to NBA.com’s stats tool. This is when it helps to have that LeBron guy around.
Yes, we have to credit Wade for finding an effective detour off the ball, but the Heat can’t afford to watch Wade transform into Avery Bradley on the offensive end.
Spoelstra can then commend Wade for his decision making all he likes, and Wade can attempt to portray his decreased effectiveness as a deliberate ploy, but neither of them (or anyone) can suppress the truth: There's something wrong; Wade isn't himself.
And at 31, he's not supposed to be. He's battled injuries his entire career, and there was always going to come a point when he would drop off. It just wasn't supposed to be now, and it certainly wasn't supposed to be like this.
Wade put up 21.2 points, five rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.9 steals while attempting 15.8 shots per game during the regular season. In doing so, he became just the 11th player in NBA history to post better than 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and 1.5 steals in at least three separate seasons for his career. Most notably, he averaged more minutes (34.7) than he currently is during the playoffs (again, 33).
Now, there's a fine line between the belief that stars must play themselves to the point of exhaustion during the postseason and stupidity. Come the playoffs, players have already navigated the rigors of an 82-game season the best they could. Wade himself played in 69 games through another (somewhat) injury-plagued campaign. Is he supposed to have magically healed and his stamina suddenly improved?
Of course not. This isn't a video game. Wade doesn't have a regenerating health bar.
Playing fewer minutes in the postseason isn't typical practice, though. You're expected to play more (see: Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron, etc.)—unless you're unhealthy. And Wade isn't healthy. That's what's what the numbers tell us, and it's what his on-court tendencies show us as well.
None of that is to say Wade owes some sort of the explanation. His refusal to yield to his knees doesn't equate to a vindictive act of betrayal. It is, however, a problem for these Heat. The same Heat that won 27 consecutive games during the regular season and finished with the best record in the league.
Miami's path to a championship isn't going to get any easier. The Bulls are giving them just as much as they can handle—sans Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, no less—and life is only going to get more challenging as they move on to the Indiana Pacers or New York Knicks, and then whoever the heck comes out of the Western Conference.
The presence of the reigning MVP suggests yes, but the unpredictable beast that is the postseason begs to differ.
Even at full strength, the Heat aren't guaranteed to make it out of the Eastern Conference, let alone win an NBA title. Wade's health issues only complicate matters.
There's no need to unearth an element of permanency in Wade's recent health woes. Eventually, his long-term value will be an issue, but we've counted him out before (this time last year, to be exact) and would be foolish to do so again. But little can come of ignoring the notion that there's more at play here than Chicago's defense.
“I had some things to prove five years ago, now I just want to prove I can win,” Wade said (via Windhorst).
The focus has always been on winning, just like it is now. Winning now won't come as easy if he isn't healthy, though. And right now, Wade isn't right; Wade isn't Wade. And so, the Heat aren't the Heat.
Are their visions of a championship dynasty are still alive and well?
Absolutely. Just how alive and well, though, will depend on how well Wade is able to play through the rest of the postseason.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise attributed.