Can LeBron James and Miami Heat Win 3rd Straight Title with Gimpy Dwyane Wade?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 19, 2013

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 13:  Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat falls to the court with an injury in the fourth quarter against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center on January 13, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. Wade left the game after the injury as the Nuggets defeated the Heat 117-104. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

"I don’t worry about it because I've dealt with so many different injuries since I was young and I've always bounced back. I've seen it work with my body before; I’m confident it will. My skills haven’t diminished. I’m not done yet."

That Dwyane Wade quote, which was relayed by ESPN's Brian Windhorst, is just brimming over with confidence, and that's exactly what the Miami Heat want to hear. Any good news on the Wade front is more than welcome. 

Wade wasn't vintage Flash at all during the postseason, struggling to stay healthy and effective. Now he's been using OssaTron shockwave treatment to regain some semblance of working knees. 

But the question remains, can he stay healthy after the treatment? Although the procedure did wonders for him a few years ago, Wade has even more wear and tear on those knees, and there's no guarantee that he stays effective during the 2013-14 season.

If Wade goes down or becomes a gimpy version of himself, can the Heat win a third title in a row? 

Wade's Skill

First of all, it's important that we not overemphasize Wade's supposed "decline." It seems to be a common belief that the shooting guard is in the twilight of his career now after an injury-riddled regular season and playoffs. 

Is Wade getting better at this stage of his career? Of course not, but it's not like he's about to take a production nosedive either. His job is just changing to reflect his body, age and role on the team. 

While his points per game are declining, Wade is coupling that with remarkably increased efficiency. 

Which would you rather have? 

  • Player A: 22.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game on 49.7 percent shooting from the field. 
  • Player B: 21.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game on 52.1 percent shooting from the field. 

I'd much rather roll with the second option, and those are the numbers that Wade put up in 2012-13. Player A is Wade from 2011-12. 

Even if he's not the most consistent offensive option anymore, he's making remarkably strong decisions and playing to his strengths more so than ever before. It's allowed him to mitigate any age-produced decline on the offensive end of the court. 

It's defense where Wade has actually experienced a dramatic decline in performance. He's no longer the All-Defensive stud that he was during the prime of his career, as you can see from Synergy Sports' (subscription required) breakdown of his points per possession allowed in different situations.

In just one season, Wade went from being the No. 7 player in the NBA against isolations to No. 192. He offset this with improved play against pick-and-roll ball-handlers and shooters running around screens, but it was quite clear that he was more physically limited during the Heat's second championship run.  

Even still, Wade bought into the Heat's overall defensive scheme and helped Miami allow 3.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the court, according to Basketball-Reference. Couple that with a six-point increase on offense, and it's quite clear that he was still a remarkably impactful player. 

Wade isn't experiencing a sharp decline. 

His defense has gotten worse, but a healthy season should remedy that by giving him back more quickness and endurance. And his offense is just changing, not displaying that he's washed up. 

Wade is still one of the more irreplaceable commodities in the NBA, and that's only bolstered by the extreme lack of options if he is too gimpy to play at a high level. 

Lack of External Options

Let's say that the Heat wanted to bring in a replacement for Wade, just to make sure that there was a viable backup in case of an injury. Or, worse yet, after one occurred.

Barring a trade of Chris Bosh, it's going to be remarkably hard to find an external option. 

Who exactly is left on the open market? 

The Heat could sign someone like Daequan Cook to make up for the offensive loss, but how are they going to hide his extreme lack of defense? According to Synergy, Cook actually allowed opposing players to score 1.13 points per possession against him in isolation during his stint with the Chicago Bulls

That ain't going to work for Erik Spoelstra's defensively oriented system. 

The other options are all similarly unappealing. 

Miami could sign Terrence Williams and hope that his offensive and defensive versatility were enough to compensate for the complete dearth of a workable jumper. But even then, his ball-handling skills are marginalized because it's not like he'd be taking control from LeBron. The offense would just be left playing four-on-five. 

Stephen Jackson is another option—perhaps the most intriguing one—but he's not much more than a role player at this stage of his career. And speaking of former members of the San Antonio Spurs, the Heat could ask Tracy McGrady to make another China-to-NBA leap at the end of the regular season for the postseason stretch run. 

None of these sound like good ideas for a championship team. And, unfortunately, the internal options aren't much better. 

Lack of Internal Options

James Jones or Rashard Lewis could take on much larger roles off the bench, but both of those decisions would come at the expense of success on one end of the court. That's not something that Spoelstra wants for his Heat squad.

That leaves two more options.

The first is moving Ray Allen into the starting lineup in Wade's place. But doing that is a recipe for disaster.

There's no guarantee that the sharpshooter is capable of playing major minutes at this stage of his career. Tired legs make it harder to hit shots efficiently, and that's Allen's primary reason for being on the Miami roster. He makes threes, especially at the end of big games (Sorry, Spurs fans).

Moving Allen into the starting lineup also has negative effects on the rest of the second unit. Points would be harder to come by, and there aren't strong enough offensive options to make up the difference. Spacing would also decrease, and the Heat would lose the luxury of having a stellar bench.  

Another option would be playing (kind of) "big ball." While "small ball" is in vogue, the Heat could do something completely novel and move LeBron into the backcourt. Who would be prepared for a starting five that featured Mario Chalmers, LeBron, Shane Battier, Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen/Greg Oden? 

The answer is easy: no one. 

LeBron is one of the few players in the NBA capable of moving between shooting guard, small forward and power forward, and the Heat could take advantage of that in certain situations. But still, it's a new idea that hasn't been tested, and that may not be the kind of thing a championship-contending team wants to mess around with while shooting for a three-peat. 

There simply isn't a great way to replace Wade if he goes down with an injury or becomes too gimpy to retain his All-Star-caliber effectiveness. Of course, there's no guarantee of it happening, but the lack of options would indicate that a championship run is no longer in the cards. 

Think about how tough it was for LeBron James to go into "Cleveland mode" and carry the Heat while Wade was struggling during the 2013 playoffs. And that was before the Eastern Conference got stronger. 

Strength of the Eastern Conference

The Heat weren't truly tested in the 2013 playoffs (no offense, Chicago faithful) until they had to play the Indiana Pacers. Then they were pushed to the limit before advancing in seven games and enduring a grueling series with the San Antonio Spurs. 

And that was the result of going through a weak Eastern Conference. That isn't possible anymore unless the conference gets hit by another rash of injuries. 

Going into the 2013-14 season, it looks like there are five elite teams, which means that the Heat are set up to play two tough series before potentially advancing to the NBA Finals and another difficult showdown. 

Just look at what happened to the best teams.

The New York Knicks remained fairly stagnant, but Carmelo Anthony has historically caused matchup problems for Miami and consistently made it tough on the Heat to win games. They're still a threat, although a very beatable one. 

The Brooklyn Nets made major upgrades, acquiring Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. As if the roster wasn't strong enough already, Pierce and KG have notoriously been thorns in the side of Miami throughout recent years. 

Add in the Chicago Bulls (who get Derrick Rose back) and the Indiana Pacers (who retained the starting five that gave Miami trouble before bringing back Danny Granger and adding Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson).

Now you're looking at a brutal gauntlet. 

Even with Wade healthy and in the lineup, it's a collection of teams—all of which are gunning for the two-time defending championships—that could easily end Miami's run. Without the 2-guard at full strength, Miami would be in serious trouble. 

And by serious trouble, I mean that there won't be another parade in Miami anytime soon. 


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