To wit: Wade isn't necessarily an on-court liability gradually ebbing into oblivion. Suspicion of his present abilities has been met with resounding defiance by Flash himself, who remains, when healthy, statistically dominant.
Whatever decline you think you've seen from Wade doesn't exist. His regression has been grossly and haphazardly exaggerated, a manufactured art of fiction being passed off as fact.
Nothing about Wade's abilities or productivity has changed, though. His career-high field-percentage (54.6) isn't a mirage. His five rebounds and 5.2 assists per 36 minutes are right in line with his career marks of 4.9 and 5.9, respectively. His 20.6 points per 36 minutes aren't incredibly below his career average of 23.9.
Wade, statistically, is still Wade.
Availability is the biggest obstacle he faces, just as it's always been. Stats and overall effectiveness have never been the issue. They still aren't the issue.
Injuries are the issue. They're Wade's biggest issue.
Now, at the most pivotal point of their season, they're the Heat's most pressing issue too.
Same Story, Different Year, Unknown Results
Wade has missed 22 games this season due to various injuries, including the last three contests. Per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick, he's not ready to return either:
Knee and ankle ailments continue to plague the shooting guard, the former of which nearly derailed the Heat's championship campaign last year.
Throughout the playoffs, Wade averaged career lows in points (15.9) and minutes (35.5) per game, frequently disappearing when teammate LeBron James needed him most. Similar vanishing acts are something the Heat cannot chance this year.
Recent ineptitude not withstanding, the Pacers are still a threat. Miami can deliver a huge psychological blow by remaining perched atop the Eastern Conference, but that alone won't be enough.
Despite being an offensive laughingstock, the Pacers remain a defensive force to be reckoned with, a pace-killing, rim-protecting authority built for the wind-and-grind of postseason basketball. Their defense shut down the Heat in their last meeting, holding one of the league's most potent offenses to a paltry 83 points and Wade to a quiet 15.
Playing without the team's second-leading scorer would be detrimental in any series. Even a diminished capacity—more likely than a complete absence—hinders the Heat's chances. Not just against the Pacers either.
Meeting the surging, scrapping Brooklyn Nets at any point is equally discomfiting if Wade isn't Wade. Facing the resilient, Joakim Noah-led Chicago Bulls would be similarly problematic under those circumstances.
Ignore the Heat's success without him. While they've risen to the top of the East during his frequent absences, they still need him.
Playoffs bring a different brand of basketball. The margin for error narrows, the importance of every game increases dramatically.
Are we prepared to say that the Heat will be fine with a limited Wade because they're 15-7 overall without him this season, or 10-1 in his last 11 absences? Of course not. If anything, Wade is more important to the Heat come playoff time than he is now.
This isn't the same defensively dominant Heat team from last season. Glimpses into their potential have been provided; extended displays of preventive excellence have not. As one of their best inside-out defenders, they need Wade's scrupulous defensive edge.
|De to the Fense|
|Heat...||Def. Rtg.||Equivalent Rank|
For them to even come close to being the defensive power they were last year—they ranked seventh in defensive efficiency—Wade needs to be on the floor. Opposing field-goal percentages are down across the board when he's in, and the only time Miami creeps into the top-10 efficiency conversation is when he's playing.
Beyond that, the Heat cannot rely on anyone else. Other players, per the Miami Herald's Joseph Goodman, are dealing with an assortment of injuries as well:
In addition to Wade sitting out, Greg Oden missed his third game in a row and Ray Allen, who is battling an illness, was not with the team. Allen did not travel with the Heat on his recent road trip to Indianapolis, Detroit and Milwaukee and has missed four consecutive games.
Oden was out with a lower-back injury, according to the team. The injury occurred during the first half of the Heat’s loss to the Indiana Pacers last Wednesday. The 7-foot center started the game against Pacers center Roy Hibbert and was thoroughly dominated before being pulled in favor of Haslem.
Whether Ray Allen and Greg Oden can return to form or not, Wade's presence on both ends of the floor is paramount. Available personnel didn't get the job done last spring, when Chris Bosh even struggled during the postseason.
With Shane Battier wilting, Allen not at full strength, Oden injured and a cast of role players bogged down by question marks, Wade needs to be healthy.
Unlike many Heat players, his production is pretty much guaranteed. And this is the time of year Miami needs certainty.
Forget, if you can, what Wade does for the team.
Forget what he adds to a battered and struggling supporting cast.
Focus on what he does for James, on what James needs from him.
Nearly four years since uniting, familiarity between Pookie and King James shouldn't be a concern. But it is. Playing without Wade impedes fluidity. Their chemistry will not reach its peak potential if Wade is sidling in and out of Miami's rotation.
"You want to have a rhythm going into the playoffs," James said, via Goodman. "I’ve always wanted to have a rhythm going into the playoff with the lineups and the flow, but this is a different season. This season is very different than any other I’ve been a part of. So, you take it as it is."
James has openly admitted in the past that Wade's inconstant playing time forces adjustments. As the Heat gear up to defend their championship throne, they don't have time to accommodate radical changes. Now is a time for continuity, for fine-tuning nearly finished products.
Instead of sharpening their cohesion, the Heat are in limbo, waiting on Wade so they can start from almost scratch. The real work, as Skolnick explains, cannot begin until he returns, whenever that may be:
And that's when the next phase of the Heat's pre-playoff preparation will begin. He and James need some time together, to get some rhythm. Both James and Erik Spoelstra acknowledged as much on Monday, even if Spoelstra didn't mention the two stars specifically.
"It's a great point," Spoelstra said.
He predicted that rhythm would return, and would return "quicker," because of the deep postseason runs and all the minutes played together over the past four years. "But that doesn't mean that there won't be a process to it," he said. "There always is. We constantly have to work on it."
It's not that the two haven't been effective together, but their playing time alongside one another has dipped considerably:
This is the first time since joining forces they've averaged under 25 minutes per game alongside one another. So it's not just the overall absences; it's Wade's reduced playing time they're up against too.
James has also generally played better with Wade off the floor this season. Last year, meanwhile, Wade had the exact opposite effect on James:
|LeBron With and Without Wade|
|LeBron...||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.||eFG%||TS%|
|With Wade 2013-14||109.3||102.1||7.2||60.4||63.9|
|Without Wade 2013-14||113.2||104.3||8.9||61.6||65.5|
|With Wade 2012-13||113.9||98.5||15.4||62.1||65.5|
|Without Wade 2012-13||112.3||100.8||11.5||57.6||61.9|
None of this is reason enough to sound the alarm. By normal standards, they're still a formidable duo that on any given night can destroy any given team on their own.
But those dominant performances have come few and far between. James is at the point where his rhythm and flow are adversely impacted by Wade's presence. If that doesn't change soon, the Heat are going to have additional problems.
Issues that extend well beyond Wade's durability.
Figuring It Out
Most teams have bigger problems.
Cynics will see Wade's unpredictable status and his effect on James as the Heat worrying about their gold shoes being too tight or their sheafs of hundy-sticks being too big. For the Heat, though, this is an actual problem, something they have to worry about.
Wade continues to be that important. Not even James, the greatest player on the planet, can successfully stage a three-peat on his own.
In the interim, he can keep the Heat afloat. He can ensure they remain atop the Eastern Conference. He can guarantee they finish out the regular season strong.
After that, everything changes.
Maybe the Heat make it past their first-round foe with an injured Wade, whether he plays or not. Maybe they even make it into the Eastern Conference Finals. But from there, it cannot be a one-man show.
We saw the Heat come up short against the Pacers not long ago even though James poured in 38 points. We saw the Pacers push them to seven games last season when Wade wasn't Wade.
We saw how one moment, one mistake can change everything in the NBA Finals, when the Heat narrowly escaped Game 6 against the San Antonio Spurs.
Every superstar counts for the Heat. They're structured to contend as a multistar powerhouse, not a prestigious roster hamstrung by day-to-day dubiety.
"It is what it is," James said, per Goodman. "There’s nothing you can do about it."
That's not going to change.
There's nothing the Heat can do to diminish Wade's importance, to eradicate the uncertainty his injuries create. They can only hope that he's fully functioning soon, so that they, too, are ready when it matters most.