The Miami Heat don't panic.
Three straight NBA Finals appearances and two consecutive titles into the Big Three era, they've earned that right. Questions will be asked and sensationalistic storylines crafted after brushes with inconsistency, but the Heat are well schooled in tabloid control.
Most of their issues are champagne problems. LeBron James' shoes leave skid marks, Chris Bosh's laundry list of videobomb poses are wearing thin and Chris Andersen is running out of (upper) body parts to tattoo. Hell, this team brings in potential problems for sport, gambling on a stumper like Michael Beasley, only to see its steady and established locker room rise above possible theatrics once again.
That's why the problems the Heat actually do have are bigger than most. When attempting to accomplish something so incredible, the turns taken are sharper, the margin for error slimmer and the conflicts magnified.
Standing between Miami and its quest for a third straight title right now is the still-recuperating Greg Oden and the fragile Dwyane Wade. They are the Heat's two greatest question marks and will dominate headlines together.
Focusing on Oden a lot, but he's the story with this team for rest of regular season. His integration & Wade's knees. That's it.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) January 26, 2014
They are the story for the rest of this season.
The Greg Oden Integration
As far as big question marks go, it doesn't get any better than Oden.
When Miami traded away Joel Anthony, it was a surefire indication of its satisfaction with Oden's progress. It also increased the urgency behind bringing him along, but not by much.
Anthony made just 10 appearances all season before Miami traded him away. The Heat are perfectly content running small with Andersen and Bosh splitting time at the 5 if they have to. Anything they get from Oden is extra.
Their most pressing problem with him isn't his health, it's integration.
We can be sure the Heat want him to remain healthy, but again, they don't need him. They just need to find a place for him.
Slowly, surely, they've been bringing him along. He's appeared in five of their last seven games, including a 13-minute outing in Sunday's lopsided victory over the San Antonio Spurs. It was the first time he had logged more than 10 minutes in a game since December 2009.
"Most of the time I'm coming down, the rebound's going right over my head...But I'm working on it," Oden said on Jan. 23, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "The more time I'm out there, the more minutes I play, I think it's going to come."
It's coming. All of it.
In 42 minutes of action this season, Oden has totaled 17 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, the equivalent of 14.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes.
Reading too much into per-36-minute production by players who are used sporadically is dangerous and something yours truly often despises. But this is the same extrapolated potency Oden had while with the Portland Trail Blazers, an encouraging sign given he's being asked to play in only short bursts for Miami.
With a semi-healthy Oden, the Heat, who are already guaranteed to finish no worse than second in a disastrous Eastern Conference, become more difficult to dethrone than they already are.
Bigger and more physical opponents, like the Eastern Conference-leading Indiana Pacers, don't pose as great a threat if the 7-footer is available to frustrate Roy Hibbert. If he's even sort of healthy, he adds an interior two-way dynamic the Heat have lacked but managed to win without.
Which is what makes this the perfect situation for Oden. It always has been. He would be crazy to leave if his health doesn't deteriorate.
And here's the brilliance of the Oden move: if he works out, after Heat staff gets him back, he'd be dumb to go anywhere else when free.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) January 26, 2014
Just as the Heat would be near impossible to beat.
Puzzling Way of Wade
Wade is done with the knee inquiries.
Year after year, long before James called Miami home, he's been asked and asked, and asked some more, about the state of his knees and his ability to continue playing at a high level. And year after year, he's answered the call to action, however hurt, when it mattered most.
There's something different about this season. On the heels of an underwhelming playoff campaign, those questions have only grown more frequent and the Heat have never been more meticulous in monitoring their 32-year-old superstar.
Wade has already missed 13 games this season, matching the number of contests he missed all last year. And his absences have become more than circumstantial or the product of back-to-backs. Each game is veiled in a certain level of mystery. Will he or won't he play?
It's difficult for the Heat to handle his availability on a game-by-game basis. Those absences are aiding in what would be normal bumps in the road for any other team but are depicted as carelessness and lethargy in Miami.
"It's tough, it's tough," James told ESPN.com's Michael Wallace of Wade's knee injuries. "And guys think it's easy, but it's tough."
Filling such a void is tough, and not just because Wade is a top-10 superstar when fully healthy.
The Heat pride themselves on chemistry. Constant absences and relentless uncertainty disturb that chemistry, the same fellowship that has quarterbacked silly amounts of success.
Clarity won't suddenly be shed either. This is still an issue. Wade came off the bench against San Antonio for the first time since 2008—on his own accord, no less—and scored just eight points in 24 minutes.
Wade's last 7 games: 8, 8, DNP, DNP, DNP, DNP, 8. But at least he got 24 minutes in.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) January 26, 2014
"Look, I understand that everybody is going to use this as a lightning-rod subject to talk about for the next three days," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, per Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears. "Nothing is set in stone the rest of the year. We're going to evaluate everything day to day. We need Dwyane healthy."
That they do.
Miami struggled to secure victories last spring when James was the lone wolf, operating without the comfort of Bosh's and Wade's usual numbers. While Bosh has been spectacular as of late—23.4 points on 63.2 percent over his last five games—the Heat still need Wade.
James still needs Wade.
When healthy, he shifts the weight of any postseason series in the Heat's favor, even against Indiana. When injured, or limited like he has been, Wade creates an added air of dubiety, the kind that may not destroy but most definitely impedes Miami's championship pursuit.
Nothing new here.
Try as we might to immortalize the Heat, they're not infallible. But try as we might to turn unclear flaws into fatal imperfections, the Heat aren't out of it either.
Any answer eventually provided to Miami's Oden and Wade conundrums doesn't break down this team entirely. A healthy and able Oden and Wade make the Heat better. Stronger.
Likewise, their absence or downfall weakens Miami's armor, Wade's more so than Oden's.
"People can be whatever they want," Wade said after Miami's win over San Antonio, via Skolnick.
The Heat cannot. To an extent, they're at the mercy of players with indistinct roles and availability, uncertainty that directly impacts the difficultly of their quest for another title.