Dwyane Wade is still an elite player, a dangerous weapon on both ends of the floor when healthy. He's the kind of player that turns a LeBron James-led contender into a dynamic, unguardable title favorite.
Erik Spoelstra's squad needed every bit of what Wade could give them during the 2013 championship season, including multiple knee injuries and knee-draining procedures. His sporadic stellar performances helped them overcome formidable hurdles, namely the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs.
His presence will be even more crucial in 2013-14.
There is less wing support coming off the bench, and Miami can't afford for Wade to be a peripheral, part-time player.
The Heat own a strong roster and should still be considered the top seed in the Eastern Conference entering the upcoming campaign. The return of Chris Andersen and the addition of Greg Oden helped bolster the frontcourt, and there is a solid cast of role players surrounding the Big Three.
But at shooting guard and small forward, the club is a bit more vulnerable than last year because it's not quite as deep.
Mike Miller's departure to the Memphis Grizzlies via amnesty gives Miami fewer proven backcourt scorers, because the club never really replaced him. It puts extra pressure on the oft-injured Wade and 38-year-old Ray Allen to stay healthy, explosive and productive.
Even though Miller tallied less than five points per game, they were big points. His ability to step in and work alongside James was critical.
Can Wade turn around the trend of declining health?
On the monumental strength of LeBron, the Heat won two consecutive seven-game series to topple Indiana and San Antonio. As amazing as their championship was, let's face it—it wasn't a dominant performance, and they scratched and clawed to pull it off.
In other words, if Wade's knees were any worse at all, there wouldn't have been a parade in Miami.
This summer, he told Sean Highkin of USA Today that he planned on heavily resting and treating his knee throughout the offseason in hopes of returning stronger. The Heat hope an offseason of putting his feet up does the trick, because they would like him to reverse a troubling trend.
His games played and minutes per game have decreased significantly over the past couple seasons, and if they keep sliding downward, it may be rough sailing for Spoelstra and Co.
Wade played in 79.7 percent of Miami's regular-season games the past two years, and his playoff minutes dipped from 39.4 per game in 2011-12 to 35.5 in 2012-13.
Preseason surgery on his left knee kept him effective for most of the 2012-13 regular season, but a deep bone bruise in his right knee severely hampered his playoff efforts.
Scenes like this became all too familiar for Heat fans:
Even if Wade is healthy enough to suit up, his knee issues are still worrisome to the franchise because he still depends on athleticism for much of his success.
Yes, he is a smart player who increasingly relies on timing, positioning and a developed mid-range game. However, most of his effectiveness is predicated on explosiveness, lateral quickness and playing above the rim.
Wade's simply not good enough from three-point range to overcome a substantial decline in athleticism. He's converted 29 percent from distance for his career and 32 percent in the playoffs.
Miami needs him to be that lightning-quick cutter and strong finisher, making teams pay for focusing on LeBron. Wade is also invaluable as a facilitator and slasher when James is getting a breather, and he's frightening to opponents when he's locked in on defense.
There have been some stretches in the past when Wade's absence or diminished playing time resulted in Heat victories, but lately, his productivity is closely linked to Miami's prosperity.
He averaged 22.3 points per game in the club's wins and an underwhelming 16.9 in its losses during the regular season. During the last two playoff series (when his knee was bothering him most), he posted 18.4 points per game in wins and 16.3 in losses.
Heat Outlook for 2013-14
What happens if Wade is injured for one-third or more of the regular season, or his knees are in worse shape in the 2014 playoffs than they were in 2013?
If he intermittently misses sizable chunks of the season, Mike Miller won't be around to keep the offense alive with a couple threes, and Ray Allen is nowhere near the playmaker and scorer he used to be.
The end result might be an undesirable seed in the playoffs, the loss of home-court advantage and potentially missing the NBA Finals.
Realistically, the Heat can't ask the one-dimensional Allen to score more than 10-12 points per game at this point in his career. James Jones, Rashard Lewis and Shane Battier are also one-dimensional, and Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole are table setters rather than wings.
Therefore, Spoelstra yearns for 65-75 healthy games from Wade at a rate of 20-22 points per game. In the lower-scoring playoffs, he'd still like 18-plus points per game instead of the 15.9 he posted in 2013.
There isn't much margin for error when it comes to Wade's knees, and there's less leeway for mediocrity during the postseason.
If Miami wants to attain the prestigious three-peat, Wade must be healthy and explosive enough to exceed last year's output.
We won't know how strong he'll be from October through June, so it will be a season-long area of concern for Erik Spoelstra—and anyone else who wants to see another trophy hoisted in South Beach.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @DanielO_BR