Believing in Dwyane Wade has never been so difficult.
One of the greatest shooting guards in NBA history has unraveled on the league's brightest stage, and it has been difficult to watch. The Miami Heat were supposed to traipse their way to the NBA finals. Behind LeBron James and Wade (and Chris Bosh), they should have been unbeatable. At the very least, winning should have come easy.
Leading into the finals, it hasn't.
James has been left to shoulder the burden of stardom on his own. Bosh hasn't shown up consistently, and more importantly, Wade has struggled to show up at all.
Injuries have prevented him from dominating the game at the dynamic pace he has grown accustomed to. Rim-rocking hasn't come as frequently. Paths to the basket suddenly seem clogged. Floaters aren't falling. It's been a nightmare.
Harrowing concepts became harsh realities in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Up 3-2 on the Indiana Pacers, Miami had the chance to advance. One more victory and the Heat would've secured their third finals appearance in as many years. The time to show up was then.
Struggling mightily, Wade found himself on the bench for most of the fourth quarter. He finished with 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting.
"We have to do a better job of getting opportunities for me and Chris to succeed," Wade said afterward, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.
Deflecting blame; that wasn't Wade. Accepting responsibility for his transgressions, finding a way to be effective; that was Wade. But was that Wade lost for the season?
Game 7 would have us believe otherwise when it shouldn't. Nine rebounds worth of glass-crashing was encouraging. Scoring 21 points on 7-of-16 shooting wasn't as much.
Since when is Wade praised for a lackluster shooting percentage (43.8 percent) from the field? That's what constitutes success?
Wade's Game 7 wasn't a success. It wasn't horrible either. And that was an improvement.
James literally had to will Wade into the offense to get him going. He even missed a few of those "chippies" James alluded to after Game 6.
That's not success. And Wade isn't going to find success, the kind he had during the regular season, in the NBA Finals. It's not going to happen.
To be clear, I'm not declaring Wade as finished. When the offseason comes and Wade has ample time to rest and rehabilitate, he'll be able to return for the 2013-14 in close-to-full form like always. Will he be able to sustain such a bill of health? That much I doubt.
But that's not the point. Nor is this to say the Heat will fall to the San Antonio Spurs. They won't. Because James won't let them.
James and the rest of the Heat will have to win without the Wade they've come to miss, though. He's still a superstar—that's for sure—but he's just not playing like one. Nor will he.
Injuries have stymied his attack-the-rim-with-reckless-abandon approach. Those lanes aren't as open because Wade doesn't have the explosion he needs, the lift he's always had.
Knee injuries will do that.
Like anyone who chooses not to wallow in self-pity, Wade won't make an excuse—unless that excuse is James.
“I'm going to play through the pain because this is my job,” he said following Game 7, according to Michael Wallace of ESPN.com.
The problem is Wade can no longer do his job. Not like usual. He can't trust that the explosiveness will miraculously come back. It won't. Not without rest, and he doesn't have the time to rest.
Wade also doesn't have the tools necessary to play at a high level through this injury. Therein lies the real issue.
His athletic capacity curtailed by physical afflictions, Wade doesn't have the range to be consistently potent on the offensive end. He doesn't shoot threes because he can't hit threes. He's attempted four all postseason and only hit one.
Six of his Game 7 makes came at the rim. Six. Of seven. What's he supposed to do when he can't get there, as has been the case for a majority of the postseason? Rely on his jump shot? Funny.
Per Hoopdata.com, nearly 63 percent of Wade's field-goal attempts came within 15 feet of the basket during the regular season. And he converted on just 36.2 percent of his attempts outside of nine.
When healthy, that's fine. Wade attacks the basket. That's what he does. It's who he is, how he got here.
Years pass, though. Players, they get older. They need to be able to adjust, especially those as injury prone as Wade. Yet he hasn't.
I liken his situation to Kobe Bryant. As Bryant has aged, he's been forced to stray away from his habitual rim-rocking ways. Nearly 62 percent of his field-goal attempts came outside of nine feet this past season, according to Hoopdata.com. By comparison, just over 42 percent of Wade's attempts came outside of nine feet.
Bryant, 34, knows he's not 25 anymore. At 31, Wade has yet to grasp that same concept.
Now, it's pointless to get into an efficiency argument. Bryant shot 46.3 percent from the floor and has never been considered as economic of a scorer as Wade. That's held true for him no matter where he's shot from. It's not some anomaly that was borne out of Bryant shooting more jumpers. His 46.3 percent clip was actually the sixth-best mark of his career.
Wade shot a career-best 52.1 percent from the field this past year. He also attempted the fewest number of shots per game (15.8) since he was rookie (13.1). His minutes (34.7) were also the second-lowest total of his career.
Blame James if you must, but that only gets you so far. Wade has battled internal abrasions since reaching the NBA and as he grows older and, let's face it, more fragile, his injuries are bound to hinder his performance even further—unless he circumvents them.
In this case, that means developing an outside game.
Take a look at Bryant's "heat" chart for the 2012-13 season:
See how the hotter zones extend well past the free-throw line and beyond the arc?
Now glance at Wade's:
Not only his hottest zone restricted to one area, but he's ice cold when he steps beyond the arc and, in certain instances, inside it.
Until Wade expands his game to encompass consistent outside shooting, he's not going to be able to play through injuries the way he always has; he won't be able to provide the superstar-esque support he's always lent to James.
Is Miami doomed? Wade finished? The world ending?
Will Dwyane Wade play at a superstar level in the NBA Finals?
No, three times over. Life in South Beach just isn't going to become instantly easy because of Wade as long as he's this injured. Game 7 performances will be smattered throughout however many games the NBA Finals last, but that's his ceiling.
In this condition, that's what he'll be limited to.
"I'll find a way. I'll figure it out," Wade explained, as reported by Wallace. "Someway, somehow, if you give me enough time, I'll figure it out.”
Wade no longer has the time to figure it out. Over the offseason he will. Not now.
So James is left to lead the Heat to victory over the Spurs with Wade the sidekick, not the superstar.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com and Hoopdata.com unless otherwise attributed.