Dwyane Wade's Greatest Challenge Is Clearing the Mental Hurdle in 2013-14

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 10, 2013

NASSAU, BAHAMAS - OCTOBER 2:  Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat participates in Training Camp on October 2, 2013 at Atlantis Resort in Nassau, Bahamas. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The physical side of Dwyane Wade's recovery from nagging knee injuries is already well under way.

While he avoided having a second straight offseason wrecked by surgery, he's been handling the joints with less obtrusive procedures for months.

He received platelet-rich plasma therapy late last season, then had his left knee drained before Game 7 of the NBA Finals. He tried OssaTron shockwave treatment on his knee over the summer, a procedure that delayed his offseason preparations for about a month.

His body isn't all the way back, but it's getting close. He told ESPN.com's Michael Wallace that this summer has treated his body better than the last one:

I'm not where I want to be, but I'm better at this point this season than I was last year. I'm not ready for Game 1 (against Chicago). I'll work my way to get there, and we'll see how it goes game by game.

But for Wade, and all other professional athletes for that matter, the physical damage is rarely as threatening as its impact on his mental state.

A lack of confidence and comfort, not physical limitations, kept Derrick Rose off the floor for the entire 2012-13 season. Rajon Rondo said his mental, not physical, health will let him know when he's ready to return from his torn ACL, via Tom Layman of the Boston Herald.

Now, Wade didn't suffer the same debilitating injury as Rose and Rondo. But his rehab hurdles are just as steep, if not steeper, because he's been plagued by this knee pain for several seasons.

He's still a top-flight talent, but the 31-year-old isn't as active as he once was.

As Father Time has started tightening his grip on Wade, his basketball odometer has started reading off the charts. Wade wouldn't trade these three straight trips to the NBA Finals, but the result has been nearly an extra season played (66 playoff games) over that span.

And it's not as if Erik Spoelstra has the luxury of protecting Wade the way Gregg Popovich does with his elder statesmen. With Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh chewing up more than $55 million of Miami's payroll this season, team president Pat Riley has been forced to fill his bench with past-their-prime veterans (Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis) and NBA outcasts (Chris Andersen, Michael Beasley and Greg Oden).

Wade's best path to preservation, as he told Wallace, is preparing for another taxing mental grind and hoping for the best:

You don't want to go in thinking, 'I'm going to half-ass it' at all. We're not that much better than teams where we can preserve and sit guys. That's just not the way we do things. So you try your best, knock on wood, you don't suffer any injuries.

He doesn't have the same athleticism to compensate for any mental lapses.

MIAMI - APRIL 23:  Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat reacts after an injury in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Boston Celtics during the 2010 NBA Playoffs on April 23, 2010 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida.  The C
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His 6.1 field-goal attempts at the rim in 2012-13 were his fewest over the last seven seasons, via Hoopdata.com. For the third time in his career, and second straight season, he shot fewer than 6.5 free throws a night (his career average is 8.6). His block percentage (1.9) last season was the lowest it had been since his injury-plagued 2007-08 campaign.

If he doesn't trust his knee, then his pace of play suffers. His changes of direction are slower. He's late as a shot-blocker or misses his flight window around the basket.

Suddenly "Flash" stands for "Flashes of Greatness," which come fewer and farther between. Without trusting his own body, it's harder for him to ask his teammates to do so.

At a time of year when (almost) every NBA player is in the best shape of their lives, it has to be a bit unnerving for the defending champs to be talking injury concerns already. Especially having those conversations about a player not named Greg Oden.

But the larger issue in play is that Wade's knee isn't the only mental hurdle he'll climb this season.

Come next summer, no one knows what Miami's roster will look like. Each member of the Big Three can opt out of his current contract, and each would vault near the top of the 2014 free-agent class if they choose to do so.

James hasn't yet made up his mind, so by extension neither have Wade or Bosh. Pull the best player on the planet off of this roster, and suddenly Miami transforms from a title contender into a second-tier playoff team. Wade and Bosh will rightfully wait for James' call before committing to anything themselves.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 16: Chris Bosh #1, LeBron James #6 and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat sit at the scorers' table during Game Five of the 2013 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs on June 16, 2013 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE
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It's hard to say if a title in 2014 would help or hurt Miami's chances of keeping the King. On one hand, he'd look foolish to bolt from a championship club, but on the other it puts a storybook ending on his four-year run through South Beach.

No matter how hard he tries to distance himself from this decision, Wade has the biggest say in James' future. He doesn't need to simply play at an elite level—his 24.0 player efficiency rating was still seventh-best last season—he has to prove he can stay at that level long enough for James to fulfill his goal of "not one, not two, not three..." titles.

The only way for Miami's salary-cap issues to clear is if one (or more) of the Big Three abandons ship. But the addition-by-subtraction approach gets dangerous when that subtraction is a top-25 player.

Barring a trade, James' top two teammates if he stays in Miami will be Wade and Bosh. That's how it stands now, and that's how it will stand in 2015-16 (the final year of their contracts).

Bosh is valuable, but Wade's the real superstar sidekick. Wade had 44 games with at least 20 points last season—Bosh had 21—in what could only be called a down year by his standards.

But his impact waned as the season wore on. His scoring average fell in each of the last two months of the regular season (from 23.9 in February to 18.0 in April), then plummeted further in the postseason (15.9).

A strong start to 2013-14 won't divert the prying eyes of the media. This season is all about sustainability, a theme he'll no doubt be discussing throughout the season.

He has a city and a franchise on his back, with the basketball world tracking his each and every move. That's a tremendous burden for anyone to shoulder, let alone a 31-year-old with bothersome knees.

But it's what's going on inside of his head that really matters. And that's something even the most advanced analytical minds won't be able to track.