Dwyane Wade has more to prove than ever before.
Distrust springs eternal for the Miami Heat's shooting guard even now. People doubt him; he proves them wrong. It's a vicious cycle, but it's the real Way of Wade.
Future Hall of Famers tend to enjoy the comfort of stability in the twilight of their careers, a luxury that isn't at Wade's disposal. He's never been able to coast by on his reputation alone, and it's impossible for him to do so now when he's not even the best player on his team.
Three championships in, his career still isn't a honeymoon. There is no promise of individual prosperity or ubiquitous acceptance. There is only cause for Wade's decade-old chip to grow even larger.
“I always enter with a chip on my shoulder," Wade said, according to the Miami Herald's Matt Kelley. "People always think something about something. I’ve played with that chip just because of who I am and where I come from, and I’ll always play that way.”
Not that he could play any differently. Wade has been fending off an alternative fate for 10 years, and the time to stop isn't now.
Understanding What We Mean
Wade is a superstar, and to this point has had a phenomenal career. Nothing that happens from here on can negate the past. He'll always have that abstract swagger about him. Whenever his reputation does dull or he decides to dress like your girlfriend's retired Aunt Beatrice (again), he'll always have yesteryear and the times he proved you wrong.
But the pressures he faces leading into 2013-14 are different, more merciless than what his peers are up against.
Ringless superstars like Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are under more strain to win a title than most. Paul and 'Melo have the teams they want, it's time for them to win. If Durant wants to be more than No. 2, it's time to win like he's No. 1.
Then there's Kobe Bryant, who may never be the same after his ruptured Achilles. Though he's 35, there is a slight obligation for him to continue turning back the clock, to brave the laws of age and win.
Derrick Rose is under similar duress. Sitting out the entire 2012-13 campaign to rehabilitate a torn ACL, even after he was cleared to play, has made his return that much more difficult. After keeping the Chicago Bulls waiting this long, he better be spectacular.
The ball and chain attached to Flash is different. It's heavier.
Anthony, Durant and Paul may never win a championship, so what? Not all great players do. Their reputations would bend to the absence of a title, but present statuses won't be disaffirmed if they still play at a high level.
If Kobe can't return to form, he has 17 years of unquestioned dominance to fall back on. His health was never questioned like Wade's, and his longevity cannot be refuted. He went almost two decades before his career was put on the line.
On the off chance that Rose fails to return from his injury, he falls into the rare category of careers destroyed by chance, of young studs who fell victim to the game's omnipresent perils.
Wade's career has been obstructed since he entered the league. He never sustained that career-threatening injury, but incurred a superfluous number of not-so-minor to obviously serious setbacks.
Chronic knee issues have prevailed for over decade. He cites the removal of the meniscus in his left knee while at Marquette as the primary reason, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst.
"My knee problems and the things I've dealt with started from that," Wade explained. "That was  years ago and technology was different and the way you approach things was different."
Kobe and Rose's injuries were sudden and unforeseen, not realities that haunted them for over a decade. Championship voids—like the one Durant, 'Melo and Paul are trying to fill—aren't actually created until years after a superstar has made a name for himself. Taxing pressures to win don't surface right away.
Since college, Wade has been dogged by the sadistic "will he or won't he" game. Titles haven't liberated him from his body's defunct happenings; they haven't ended the speculation about his health and abilities.
Each year it's worsened. Now he's here, facing questions and uncertainty that have piled up for more than 10 years, confronting demons and pressures that have existed longer than most could imagine.
Healthy or Not Healthy? That's the Question
Everything coming out of Miami or the Bahamas indicates Wade is healthy. For now.
Subjecting himself to OssaTron shockwave therapy for the second time has left LeBron chirping about how this is the healthiest Wade has been in recent memory, via Kelley:
I hear ‘A healthy Dwyane Wade’ and I get excited. This is probably as healthy as he’s been since  training camp. He’s hungry. He’s hungry to get back to form and to show why he’s one of the greatest two-guards to ever play this game.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra agrees.
"He's extremely fit, he's had a great camp so far," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, per Windhorst. "He's trying to win every drill."
Returning to form has been Wade's forte over the years. In consecutive seasons he'll appear in just 51 regular-season games apiece (2006-2008), then he'll come back to play in all but three (2008-09). He's yet to play an entire season, but he's currently just the fourth player in NBA history to average at least 20 points, five rebounds, six assists and 1.5 steals per game for his career. The other three include LeBron, Larry Bird and Jerry West.
Pessimism continues to ride Wade's "comebacks," though. Critics have questioned his abilities for over a decade, and they haven't stopped now. Wade himself has even partially resigned to being at his body's beck and call.
"My body's going to do what my body's going to do," Wade said, as quoted by ESPN's Israel Gutierrez. "If it was up to me, I'd never have a sprained ankle in my life. But it's not up to me."
There's something almost incurably tragic about Wade's approach. He's not a quitter; he's facing reality. And it's a reality that's been his own for so long, far longer than any other star—including Rose and Kobe—in the league can say.
Will he survive the season? Is this the end of Wade, the superstar? These questions are routine, but haven't healed in time, instead growing in severity.
Postseason Blues Linger
We haven't forgotten about Wade's disappointing postseason campaign.
Miami managed to win its second straight championship, but did so after facing two Game 7's, overcoming Wade's noticeable struggles and relying on LeBron more than it should have.
Wade averaged career-playoff lows in points (15.9) and minutes (35.5), and his overall performance compared to the Heat's 2012 title run was night and day.
Look at the percentage differences across major statistical categories between the two years:
There was an obvious drop off in plenty of areas, none more so than his overall impact on Miami's collective performance.
This came on the heels of one hell of a regular season too, during which Wade shot a career-best 52.1 percent from the floor. That's how sudden his demise can be. In a short span of time, he goes from Wade the superhero, to Wade the potential liability.
Making matters worse is his inability to shut the door on any negative talk right away. Poor and injury-plagued regular season showings can be forgiven early on.
The same isn't true of the playoffs. At minimum, Wade must wait until late next spring to show he can still be a force when the playoffs roll around.
That his body can withstand the push and pull of a normal schedule, and still have enough left to let him, be him.
The LeBron James Conundrum
If and when he leaves, it will be because he's done all he can in Miami. Next to Wade.
Be honest, will LeBron really leave if the Heat win another championship and Wade is at the top, or close to the top, of his game? Would he leave the possibility of a fourth straight title, or third in four years, on the table if it was still, in fact, a possibility?
LeBron is only going to ditch the Heat if a better situation presents itself. Save for becoming the greatest player of all-time, he's accomplished almost all there is to accomplish. He's chasing rings at this point. We know this. We've known it since 2010, when he jumped ship and landed in South Beach.
His departure would deliberately mark the end of Miami's Big Three. Equally as important, his decision to leave all but revokes Wade's status as superstar.
Thus far, LeBron has done nothing but support him, but believed in him. But emulated him. Wade didn't follow LeBron somewhere, LeBron came into Wade's house and, with his blessing, took it over.
For him to leave Wade behind, to walk away from that bond they so clearly share, it's going to take something drastic. Like Wade retiring. Or more likely, a decline so grim, LeBron himself can't play the part of an unbridled optimist anymore.
"Don't try to put that pressure on me," Wade said of his ability to keep the Big Three together, to keep LeBron in Miami, per Gutierrez. "Y'all could stop that right now."
Only we won't; we can't. Much of the onus is on Wade, the one who spearheaded Miami's formation in the first place. What he does in 2013-14 will shape where LeBron goes, where the Heat go thereafter.
Pressure in its most daunting form.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!