There is no more underestimating Dwyane Wade's importance.
If the Miami Heat are a car—a McLaren MP4-12C, no doubt—then LeBron James is the driver. Wade, meanwhile, is riding shotgun, holding the money set aside for gas and the navigation system programmed to direct Miami toward a three-peat.
Let us not manipulate that message. The Heat will go as far as James can take them. It was that way last year, and nothing has changed. Whether you think the Heat are still a top playoff team without him doesn't matter. He is still their championship lifeline.
In a league dominated by superteams and superstar dyads, though, the importance of talented sidekicks cannot be overstated. Deficient, starless supporting casts have hindered the potential of superstars like Kevin Love and Carmelo Anthony, and James is no different.
To be sure, James is different in that he's LeBron James, the greatest player on our planet, capable of carrying a team to new, fulfilling heights on his own. But that doesn't always lead to championships. We saw him leave the Cleveland Cavaliers ringless and alone, and subpar playoff performances from Wade and Chris Bosh nearly derailed Miami's championship hopes last year.
Similar emphasis must be placed on Wade's performance this year, as he battles through an injury-related decline that is both grossly exaggerated and actually happening.
The Heat know what they're going to get from James night in and night out. Wade's production has been more of a mystery, if only because his day-to-day status is often unknown.
For the Heat's three-peat to become reality, Wade needs be more like James: present and accounted for, healthy and productive.
Slowly, surely, that's happening. Wade is becoming whole again, adjusting to circumstances of age, reprising his role as an encouraging touchstone and pointing Miami in the direction of its coveted three-peat.
Wade's role is not an empty one.
When he's playing poorly, it matters. When he's playing well, it matters even more.
By and large, Wade has been playing well, averaging 19.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.6 steals on a career-best 55.5 percent shooting, proving to be otherwordly efficient:
Those numbers have meant something to Miami. A great deal, in fact.
When Wade puts up at least 19 points, four rebounds and four assists in a game—his season-average benchmarks—the Heat are 15-2. When he simply tallies at least 19 points, they're 21-4. Basically, when he hits his season averages, the Heat—who are already an impressive 42-14—are nigh unbeatable.
Which isn't to say they're bad when he doesn't. The Heat are still a dominant 12-4 when he notches under 19 points. But that's not as impressive as 15-2 or 21-4. Nor is their record without him.
In the 15 games Wade missed this season, the Heat are 9-6. For a team winning 75 percent of its games overall, and 80.5 percent with Wade in the lineup, a 60 percent win rate constitutes failure. It's more than enough to keep Miami afloat in the baseborn Eastern Conference, but the Heat aren't about treading water.
Miami is about winning championships, about forging a dynasty, both of which become more realistic with Wade on the floor and playing at high level.
With Wade now on the wrong side of 32, one could easily argue Miami is better off not being so reliant on its aging, injury-prone shooting guard. But the beauty of Wade's value is his game has morphed into one fit for a productive 32-year-old.
"The worst-kept secret is the fact that he has worked on his game and developed his game for the last three years to not only reinvent himself, but—more importantly—to add a skill set that is important for this group," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, per ESPN's Michael Wallace.
Reckless rim attacks and floor-hitting fadeaways are still a forerunner of Wade's incisive offense, but they're no longer staples. It is with less frequency Wade is relying on his athleticism, verticals and ability to absorb contact.
Where there was once a spry Wade, waging dribble-drive assaults that appeared feckless only to prove bountiful on the heels of gravity-defying, able-bodied spins, there is now a calculated veteran, less inclined to improvise.
"He couldn’t just be the same player that he was before the way this team had been put together," Spoelstra explained. "It has been a long, steady process of developing his post-up game and his midrange game."
Honing his jumper has been invaluable to his livelihood. Wade, a notoriously spotty marksman, is shooting at a clip that suggests most of his looks come at the rim or from point-blank range.
Spoiler: They're not.
Only 41.3 percent of his shot attempts are coming within five feet of the basket, down from 43.4 percent last season and 42.9 percent in 2011-12, according to NBA.com (subscription required). More than 56.5 percent of his shots are coming between five and 24 feet, which is easily the most since 2010-11, when the Big Three first joined forces.
More importantly, Wade has never been draining his mid-range jumpers at a higher clip.
|Wade's Shot Selection|
|% FGAs within 5 FT||44.9||42.9||43.4||41.3|
|%FGAs between 5 and 24 FT||48.3||53.5||53.2||56.6|
|FG% between 5 and 24 FT||39||40.2||41.1||47.4|
What we're seeing, then, is Wade attempt more shots away from the rim while hitting on a greater percentage of those shots. That's difficult, if not impossible to defend.
Opposing defenses are going to soften in a majority of those areas. Mid- to long-range two-pointers are among the most loosely defended because of how lackluster the trade-off is.
Attempting more of those shots is also going to be easier on Wade's legs. They limit the number of times he's forced to explode toward the rim while decreasing the contact he absorbs. It's part of the reason why he's attempting a career-low 4.3 free throws per game.
But the Heat will gladly take fewer free throws in favor of Wade's newfangled offensive tendencies. When his current scoring acumen could prove to be the difference between an ever-fragile, semi-healthy Wade, and a broken, rarely present Wade, how could they not?
Health Above All Else
I've said it once, and I'll say it again: For Wade, it's never been about ability, only availability.
Knee injuries followed him from Marquette into the NBA. This could be the first season he connects on more than 32 percent of his three-pointers. He's been forced into a Robin role while welcoming in a Batman (James). Issues have proved inescapable for him, but he's still managed to cement himself as one of the greatest guards to ever play the game.
Why? Because his ability is undeniable. Even at his lowest point—last year's playoffs—you knew the talent was there. And you know his regression, if you can even call it that, is the result of injuries, not deteriorating skill sets.
All along, the problem has been his health, and whether he could adjust enough to combat its dwindling reliability.
In the face of injuries, Wade changed. It's been an evolution through devolution, if you will. Although it's been gradual, the fruits of his labor and flexible ego are paying more dividends than ever this season.
"He’s in a great rhythm right now," James said, via Wallace. "It starts with his health. He’s not 100 percent, obviously, but he’s got his legs under him and a bounce to his step."
That bounce is still everything to the Heat, who won't be dethroned by anyone in the Eastern Conference if Wade is even close to full strength. He'll probably never be 100 percent again—assuming he ever was—but the Wade we're seeing now, the Wade the Heat have now, makes Miami unbeatable.
The potential problem? Keeping the Wade Miami has now.
Some of Wade's most disappointing games this season have come off extended stays on the sidelines or premeditated rest. Recapturing the rhythm James speaks of hasn't been easy vacillating in and out of the lineup. The more Wade plays, the better he is.
If that wasn't obvious before, it is now.
Wade is averaging 23.5 points on 62.1 percent shooting over the last four games, all of which have been wins. Incidentally, he's also averaging 32.3 minutes during that stretch, below his season average (33.1), but markedly north of some of the 24- and 25-minute outings he's had this season.
"I think as you get older, your game has to change," Wade admitted, per Wallace.
More than a decade into his career, Wade's game has change. So has Miami's roster. But the end goal remains the same: Win a championship at all costs.
Wade is still irreplaceable in that regard. The Heat won't win a championship without him. They have James and Bosh, but they need Wade. And as long as they have Wade, as long as they have this Wade, chances of making a three-peat reality are alive and well.