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Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade Conundrum Has No Easy Answers

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Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade Conundrum Has No Easy Answers
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There is no guide for the Miami Heat to follow in their Dwyane Wade maintenance program.

The two-time defending champs know they'll need the nine-time All-Star come playoff time. They're well versed in his medical history and have studied the knee problems he's battled since his college days.

They're trying to control his regular-season exposure and limit his amount of regular-season stress. He's already sat out 12 of the team's first 42 games, including each of its last three.

There is a method to this madness—game day discussions are held to determine his status—but some unfortunate byproducts to it, too. While Wade's racking up these stress-free stays on the sideline, the stress level is surging for the players left taking the floor without him.

Miami's trying to get a healthy Wade to the finish line, without sacrificing the players needing to carry the torch without him. As if there's some magical way to take the burden off its aging star without having to then place it on someone else.

And that's only the challenge for this season.

As the entire basketball world knows, Wade's health could determine the balance of power this offseason.

 

Lesser of Two Evils

For the most part, Wade's teammates have done a masterful job of supporting him throughout this process.

They know how to read this situation. They appreciate his importance in their attempt to pull off the league's first three-peat in more than a decade. They know as well as anyone that a healthy Wade can still be a championship-caliber difference-maker.

The stat sheet backs up that sentiment.

Wade is one of only three players (along with LeBron James and Kevin Durant) averaging at least 18 points, four rebounds, four assists and shooting at least 50 percent from the field. Miami is 24-6 with Wade in the lineup and 6-6 without him.

"The most important thing is his health," James said at the start of the season, via Tom D'Angelo of The Palm Beach Post. "If he needs to take a game, second game of the season, 30th game, 50th game, 80th game that’s the way it is.”

That's the way it's been since, and those absences are starting to come with more frequency.

Wade sat out eight of the team's first 36 games. He's since missed four of the last six. Red flags are flying around the organization even if those inside aren't willing to hoist any just yet.

"Three games in a row after so much extensive action is more than a 'maintenance program,'" Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel wrote. "While the Heat are not saying anything about a new injury or recurrence, the reality is that Plan B too often is becoming the only option."

Wade's teammates aren't turning their backs, but frustration is clearly setting in.

"With some of the guys being in and out, and with the concern with D-Wade, it's been tough on all of us trying to fill that," James said, via Michael Wallace of ESPN.com. "We've just got to be able to do a little bit more consistently, and go in with the mindset sometimes that he's not playing instead of [he is] playing."

In other words, when James goes back to his "Cleveland days" now, he's doing it with a supporting cast that doesn't look much different than what he left behind in Cleveland. Chris Bosh is still a weapon (16.3 points on 52.8 percent shooting), but this team needs its full Big Three to maintain elite status.

That said, there's no reason to force the issue with Wade.

A full complement of talent needs to be available in June not January, particularly with Miami having all but wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the East (8.0 game lead on the third-seeded Atlanta Hawks). This isn't any fun for his teammates, but it figures to be the least harmful short-term approach the Heat can take.

 

Ominous Sign for the Offseason?

For all of the favor the basketball gods appear to have shown Miami over these last several seasons, they did them no such luck this time around.

Winning three straight titles is no small feat.

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The mileage is adding up (67 playoff games since this core came together in 2010). Distractions are coming from all angles (James chasing a movie deal, Wade selling a sitcom, even Ray Allen mulling a return to the silver screen). Motivation has been hard to come by.

There's the championship-or-bust pressure to perform, only this is blown up exponentially. Miami has the chance to become historically special. James could add his most compelling evidence to date for the G.O.A.T. debates.

Yet, even with so much at stake this season, Miami can't view anything through a one-year lens. Not with Wade, Bosh and James all holding early termination options for this summer.

Conventional wisdom says James will need to see positive signs regarding Wade's health, even as Wade has tried to keep that thought from engulfing him:

James is a student of the game. He's long viewed his career in historical terms. He made championships the most important part of his free-agent search in 2010, and he'll use that same criteria the next time he's evaluating pursuers.

He said before the season he wants "to be the greatest of all-time and that's my motivation," via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. "I'm far away from it. But I see the light."

That light doesn't shine solely on championship collections, but rings are a part of any historical sports debate. They might not be the only piece of the puzzle (sorry, Bill Russell fans), but try to have an argument about Michael Jordan and see how many times the word "six" comes up.

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James has two titles to show for his first 10 seasons. He's done enough to put himself in those legacy talks, but his championship bling is still the appetizer to the real meat of his argument (statistics, individual awards).

He could change those conversations by amassing more jewelry. That won't happen in Miami without a healthy Wade.

But does James really want a part-time sidekick? Can the Heat even afford to give him anything better?

 

Proceed with Caution

Miami's options are limited here.

The Heat are going to do everything in their power to make another championship run. That means giving Wade as much time off as he needs before the real season starts.

As they should. They owe it to their players, their coaches and their fans to put themselves in the best possible position to get back to the podium.

There is no way for Miami to know exactly what lies ahead after that.

Another title could be that last bit of convincing James needs to stick around South Beach. Or it could serve as his chance to ride off into the sunset, leaving Miami on a high—and facing a massive rebuild in his absence.

Wade needs to dominate whenever he's on the floor. These knee issues aren't going to go away, and neither will the need for this careful watch over him.

Wade needs to show James that he's worth the wait.

Miami can only cross its fingers and hope that's enough.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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