Now, with James having left his latest kingdom for the one that first raised him, the Heat’s reins have been returned to the franchise’s longest-standing and most decorated player.
So what, exactly, does a player with three titles, 10 All-Star appearances and a pair of Olympic gold medals really have left to prove?
A heck of a lot, as it turns out.
Dwyane Wade on the doubt that he can still handle a bigger load: "I need it. I need it." Sees it as an energizing challenge.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) August 1, 2014
Despite losing the greatest player on the planet, Heat president Pat Riley was somehow able to mine a few diamonds from a burnt-out abandoned building.
Not surprisingly, the first order of business was to convince Wade and Chris Bosh—the rough-and-ready Robins to LeBron’s Batman—that Miami still offered them the best chance at authoring their own blockbuster spin-off.
With that action out of the way, Riley then turned his attention to the rest of the roster. Before long, the Heat had Luol Deng, however flawed a facsimile, to slide into LeBron’s place.
Throw in Danny Granger, Josh McRoberts and handful of secondary Heat holdovers, and Miami had gone from surefire basement-dweller to legitimate postseason player in less than a week.
That's assuming, of course, that Wade can somehow summon a late-career renaissance.
In James’ absence, the biggest burden—from a production standpoint, anyway—will undoubtedly rest on Bosh’s shoulders. At just 30 years old and with nowhere near the physical wear and tear of Wade to his detriment, Bosh’s skill set and expected longevity all but demand it.
But in order to make the leap from first-round prey to playoff predator, Miami must be able to count on having a healthy and engaged Wade in the fray.
Unfortunately, that’s far from a given, as Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley pointed out in a column penned a few weeks before James’ landscape-altering decision:
Despite a carefully managed health maintenance program, the 10-time All-Star still limped to the final stretch. He was a non-factor in the championship round (15.2 points on 43.8 percent shooting), numbers that haunted Heat fans, as Wade said they were unrelated to his health.
"I just struggled a little bit," he told reporters, via Michael Wallace of ESPN.com. "As I told you guys, I'm never going to point at anything physically. I felt fine."
Assuming Wade was doing nothing more than declining any excuses—the game film suggested he was far from fine—that opens an ominous door into Miami's future. If keeping him out of 28 games couldn't save his body, what possibly could?
For reasons why a healthy, 32-year old professional athlete of Wade’s cut and caliber would succumb so swiftly to the scourges of age, one need look no further than any of the dozens of YouTube mixtapes chronicling the slashing guard’s death-defying basketball theatrics.
Indeed, few players of this or any other NBA generation have had such little regard for their own physical safety as Wade.
While such displays helped make him the first-ballot Hall of Famer he’ll undoubtedly be, it was only a matter of time before the medical devil came calling for his due.
Wade understands all this, of course. The question now becomes whether this old dog will deign to teach himself some new tricks—to aid the cause not only of his basketball team, but his body as well.
The first, most obvious directive would be for Wade to spend the summer honing his three-point stroke. Unless he transforms himself into a replacement-level threat in that department, though, Miami could stand to lose more than it gains.
SB Nation’s Jonathan Tjarks highlighted precisely this paradox in a piece from last October:
In the last two years, Wade adjusted his game, embracing efficiency and taking the long-range shot out of his arsenal. He took only 66 three-pointers in 2013, a far cry from the 206 he attempted in his first year with LeBron. But while slashing to the basket is the foundation of his offensive attack, being able to convert open shots from 25 feet would make his life easier. Taking less contact in the paint also would put less pressure on his knees and extend his career.
Based purely on his shooting mechanics, Wade should, with the right guidance, prove a quick three-point understudy.
To what extent he can hone his hand from distance while still doing everything possible to prepare for the upcoming season—all without further jeopardizing his tenuous health—that’s the balancing act indeed.
However he shoulders the increased burden next season, Wade has his work cut out for him to prove to his peers that he still deserves their respect.
Take, for instance, an interview Kevin Durant gave to CineSport’s Noah Coslov prior to the start of last season, wherein the reigning MVP sounded off on an SI.com players ranking that featured Wade a full three spots ahead of Durant’s former teammate, James Harden.
“I think you’re missing on James Harden,” Durant told Coslov.
Asked whom Harden should’ve leapfrogged, Durant replied with barely a second’s hesitation: "Dwyane Wade.”
The surprise here isn’t that Durant felt the way he did. Poll a million NBA fans, and chances are a majority would agree with him.
Rather, it’s in the mere act of saying it—in a forum he knew would be made public—that Durant underscored just how far Wade has fallen in the NBA hierarchy.
One year later, the haters and doubters are bound to be louder. They know Wade’s game benefited greatly from having a playmaker of James’ caliber marshaling the offense. They saw street clothes on the second night of back-to-backs and beheld the limps and gimps and grimaces.
No one believes Wade can somehow rediscover the form that made him—aside from Kobe Bryant—the game’s unquestioned best shooting guard. Except, perhaps, for Wade himself.
This is why, for all that the public will demand D-Wade to prove next season, there’s only one thing over which he can have as close to full control as possible: getting off the floor until he can't anymore.