With LeBron in Rearview, Dwyane Wade Has Become 'Benjamin Button' of Miami Heat

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2016

Dec 20, 2015; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (3) dribbles the ball against the Portland Trailblazers at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Robert Duyos-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Duyos-USA TODAY Sports

MIAMI — Unless the Miami Heat find a championship stride that seems possible but far from likely, this won't be the most productive season of Dwyane Wade's Hall of Fame-caliber career.

But it might be the most gratifying one the soon-to-be 34-year-old has ever played.

"The [games] I've played in, they haven't all been amazing," he said, "but I've enjoyed them from the standpoint of just being able to physically play and do the things I want to do on the floor. ... I always go back to how I felt two, three, four years ago now when I was in a lot of pain."

With nagging knee problems dating back to a surgery he had in college, it felt as if that pain—and the games lost to it—would be an uncomfortably persistent character in his final basketball chapter. Rolling back his odometer was impossible, and new miles proved tough to add with all the time he spent in the body shop.

Dwyane Wade's Diminishing Floor Presence
SeasonMinutes Per GameGames Missed
2015-1630.01 (in 35 games)
Source: Basketball-Reference.com

But the narrative has changed in this, Wade's 13th NBA season.

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He's taken the floor in 34 of Miami's first 35 games. And his lone absence wasn't injury-related—he was by the side of his then-hospitalized youngest son.

"These things don't happen by accident," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "I've said before, it's three-to-one. He's putting three hours (of training) to one hour of competition. And he was healthy going into the summer, which allowed him to do that for the first time in a long time."

That wasn't the only thing different about Wade's offseason, as ESPN.com's Michael Wallace explained:

He switched trainers, ending a 13-year partnership with Chicago-based Tim Grover to instead work with Miami-based Dave Alexander, who also has trained [LeBron] James in the offseason.

The new regimen called for Wade to focus on strengthening his core through a rugged series of resistance training and stretching routines. He lost 10 pounds during the offseason to drop below 220 for the first time in years and reported to training camp without requiring injury rehab or being limited on any level.

It's hard to argue with the results (for now, at least).

Not only is Wade playing, he's turning back time with the type of aerial acrobatics so many people thought his body could no longer pull off.

"He's our Benjamin Button," Spoelstra said.

Wade's occasional flashback finish can't threaten Father Time's unblemished record, but the tweaks he's made over the years can help extend the fight.

He'll go around or even under defenders he used to finish over, emptying his bag of tricks and utilizing every inch of his self-dubbed "old-man game." His dunk tapes might not surface like they used to, but his highlight reel keeps growing with brilliant ball fakes, razor-sharp handles and a feathery mid-range jumper built to withstand the test of time.

"He's constantly redefined his game, stuck with his strengths, did the things that have given him success over the years and added a couple things," Chris Bosh said.

Adaptation is key for any long career, but Wade's transition has been different than most.

He played the Batman role for his first seven seasons, then took on Robin duties when LeBron James arrived in 2010. Once James headed back to Cleveland in 2014, Wade and Bosh formed a two-headed monster atop the organization, co-starring as both leaders and primary scorers.

This isn't the heaviest offensive burden Wade has ever carried, but he has more per-minute responsibilities than he did when James was around.

"I am just trying to be aggressive, sometimes to make plays and sometimes to score," Wade said.

He's doing significant amounts of both, still at elite levels. He's second on the Heat in points (18.5 per game) and assists (4.5), and one of only 10 players in the entire league averaging at least 18 points, four assists, four rebounds and one steal.

"He's taking care of his body and he's healthy and here you go, you've got the result," Goran Dragic said. "He's unbelievable, and he's mentally strong. Everything he's thinking to do, he can do it."

The discussions surrounding Wade are all about basketball again. He made it that way.

It's been two seasons since his name was attached to a health maintenance program. It's been months since his body prevented him from playing, years since he looked this fresh this often.

It's been exactly what Miami has needed to navigate the last leg of a two-year journey from NBA finalist to draft-lottery participant to potential shadow contender.

The Heat don't need the old superstar Wade. They have other scoring options and a top-five defense to rely on. But they still need an excellent version of him who's just as dependable for regular appearances as he is near-elite production. So far, that's precisely what he's providing.

Whether this run of good health continues is anyone's guess. He'll admit that himself.

"From 30 to 33 is a whole other body you have to take care of," Wade said. "I'm learning this new body right now and trying to figure it out."

His body is giving him a chance to compete. That's all an aging athlete can ask for.

All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and current through games played Jan. 6.