Less than four years later, though, could Wade actually be the driving force behind James' departure from the Miami Heat? More specifically, will the 32-year-old's nagging knee pain force the four-time MVP to seek out greener pastures should he choose to test free agency again this summer?
Those answers will remain a mystery until James provides some clarity.
But here's what we do know. Wade's knee problems are not going to go away. The Heat can take (and have taken) every precaution to protect his joints, but this issue dates back more than a decade.
None of this is lost on James. He sees the struggles his All-Star running mate is going through and understands just how much Wade means to his own championship pursuits.
Provided he sticks around in Miami, of course. If Wade was healthy, that's simply a formality. But he isn't, leaving James' future far from settled.
It's important to note that the Heat are doing the right thing by carefully monitoring Wade's exposure.
Miami's maintenance plan, which includes game-day discussions between head coach Erik Spoelstra and trainer Jay Sabol about Wade's availability, is the perfect way to approach this. Dynasties aren't graded for their regular-season work. This franchise has been on the championship-or-bust scale since the Big Three first came together.
That said, this is far from an ideal situation for anyone involved.
Wade's a fiery competitor, watching his team wage war without him cannot be easy. His absence—he's missed 12 of the team's first 42 games—leaves a major void that someone else has to fill.
Losing such a pivotal piece, often with an advance notice of hours, not days, isn't easy. Not even for the two-time defending champs, James said, via Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:
It’s tough. Guys think it’s easy, but it’s tough. We have a team built on chemistry, built on rhythm. With so many of the guys being in and out, and the concern with D-Wade, it’s been tough on all of us. We’ve got to go in with the mindset sometimes that he’s not playing, as opposed to: Is he playing?
Team president Pat Riley has done a masterful job of finding (cheap) champagne options on a beer budget. But it's not as if there's another Wade for Spoelstra to plug in.
Instead, there's guys like Ray Allen, Roger Mason Jr. and James Jones. When they've started in Wade's place, they haven't exactly replaced the nine-time All-Star's production.
|Varying Levels of Production for Miami's Various Starting 2 Guards|
|Roger Mason Jr.||2||3.5||25.0||1.5||2.0|
Obviously, these players aren't Wade, so asking them to mimic him on the court is unreasonable.
These also aren't the players James envisioned starting alongside when he turned his back on his hometown fans, opened himself up to widespread criticism and even adopted an ill-fitting villain role to try to stay in front of the vitriol.
That's why James can post a seemingly harmless birthday message to Wade on Instamatic and we zero in on a potentially cryptic message: "No matter what happens in the future we stuck together like brothers for life." Why we assume there's a hidden meaning every time he speaks.
There's a chance James hasn't deceived us all. That he really doesn't know what will happen next summer.
There's an equally good chance that Wade will give him plenty more to think about before the season is over. There's still a hope that better days are up ahead.
Sticking to the Plan
Wade's disappearing act, while certainly frustrating, shouldn't be surprising at all.
The Heat haven't hidden their intent to keep their aging star as fresh as can be for the postseason push. This preservation plan might be playing a bigger role than we expected, but we knew going into this season that "DNPs" were inevitable.
Could these increased periods of inactivity be a sign of something bigger? Perhaps.
As Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel noted, "Three games in a row after so much extensive action is more than a 'maintenance program.'"
Wade has sat out four of Miami's last six games and wasn't particularly effective in the two he played—a 4-of-11 shooting effort against the Washington Wizards on Jan. 15 and a quiet (eight points, two assists, two rebounds), 25-minute performance against the Philadelphia 76ers two nights later.
He's struggling right now, both with his game and his body.
But isn't that the reason this maintenance plan is in place? So that a brutal stretch like this comes in January, not June?
This rough patch aside, it looks like Miami's monitoring program is working. Wade's been wildly productive across the board when he's been healthy, and that scorching 54.0 field-goal percentage is nearly two percentage points clear of his previous best (52.1, set last season).
Not to mention, he isn't missing a second of his injury coverage by the media. He's performing at an All-Star level and picking up some added (and, judging by his stat sheet, unnecessary) fuel:
If Wade makes it to the postseason with a point to prove and the health to prove it, he'll be the best No. 2 option (and better than a lot of No. 1 options) in the championship race.
His injury concerns will play a major factor in James' decisions. But so, too, will his incredibly high talent level.
Is the Grass Any Greener?
James won't find another situation like Miami. Not right out of the gate, at least.
Beyond the abundance of talent—having Chris Bosh as a third wheel is the definition of an embarrassment of riches—there's a willingness (eagerness even?) to share the spotlight in pursuit of a shared goal. That kind of chemistry doesn't happen everywhere.
As B/R's Adam Fromal put it, "It took Wade accepting his 'Robin' role for the Heat to live up to their championship potential, and the excellent ball movement and the knack for making difficult plays look far too easy only come with terrific rhythm."
How many legitimate superstars are ready to sign up for a sidekick role for James? How many of their teams have the necessary ingredients—championship ceiling, financial flexibility, marketing opportunities—to lure in the game's biggest superstar?
Dirk Nowitzki would gladly jump in the back seat, but could James solve enough of the defensive problems to put the Dallas Mavericks into the championship picture? Have the Cleveland Cavaliers whiffed on too many lottery picks to make them a viable destination?
James needs to see something out of Wade to restore his confidence. However, he won't start collecting evidence until the postseason rolls around.
But don't forget about the proving period that his potential suitors are going through, too. If there is really a better supporting cast than Bosh and a part-time Wade, it hasn't surfaced yet.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.