It’s ironic that losing Chris Bosh to an injury in last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinals signaled an end to the LeBron/Dwyane Wade overlap many believed would prevent them from ever climbing the mountain. Wade shifted to sidekick, James asserted himself in the post, and the Heat’s two big stars ran the Pacers right off the floor in three straight to advance to the conference finals. Bosh’s return at the end of that Eastern Finals series coincided with a tough Game 5 loss that had the Heat facing elimination in Boston. We all know what happened next: LeBron. Went. Off. Then a couple of late-game threes from Bosh during Game 7 in Miami sealed the Heat’s return to the NBA Finals after a year spent stewing over their loss to Dirk‘s Dallas squad. Lost in the shuffle during their race to a ring in the strike-shortened 2011-12 season was the continued play of Wade in his new role as the second option. But what happens if this Heat team spends the majority of its season without their adopted son, and two-time NBA champion?
Wade has been injury prone since he won that title in 2006 with Shaq. In fact, he’s never played a full 82-game season in his career. At the time, you could’ve made a pretty compelling case Wade’s performance against Dallas in the 2006 Finals series put him on the short list – with Kobe Bryant – for best player in the world. But after his first title, Wade missed half of the next two seasons, and he’s had trouble staying healthy since. He also turned 30, embraced fatherhood and landed two All-Stars as teammates, including one of the best players in the history of the game.
So why is his health so important to the Heat’s success? Because the way the Heat play small ball requires an athletic off-guard to tenaciously defend shooters and fly around the court like very few people can. That’s Wade, and they need him at his best if they hope to repeat.
Going small only works if Miami’s wing players can rotate fast enough to cut off salivating three-point shooters any time Miami cheats into the paint to help Bosh and Shane Battier (their small ball starting power forward) defend larger frontcourt players. Wade’s athleticism and speed allow him to swipe at the ball in the post and aggravate opposing bigs, but still recover in time to limit a shooter’s look when the ball rotates. The new pickups this season (Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen) don’t have the speed or the legs to run at an endless array of shooters behind the arc; Mike Miller still moves like he’s played middle linebacker for a decade; Norris Cole is a backup point guard in just his second season, and we doubt James Jones cares enough to get a hand in a shooter’s face when he’s only imagining all the shots he’s gonna take when he gets to the other end of the floor. In short, the Heat need Wade’s defense against three-point shooters just as much as his spells relieving the onus on LeBron to facilitate the offense.
But the Heat have been notoriously bad at stopping opposing three-point shooters. Through this weekend, they’re giving up the fourth-highest percentage of three-pointers in the league, via Hoopdata. The same thing happened last year, where they finished in the top five for highest opposing three-point shooting percentage at 36.3 percent, before buckling down in the playoffs and lowering that number to around 30 percent.
But the Heat are reverting to their old ways, and Wade’s absence in the Heat’s victory over Denver might be a harbinger of things to come. His aggravated left foot is attached to the same leg he had surgery on this offseason, and he’s already regretting rushing back.
Even though Wade isn’t facing any long-term injuries, and as of now, he’s not going under the scalpel, his body’s wear and tear is evident every time he picks himself up off the floor. Remember that Converse commercial that had an endless loop of Wade being knocked to the ground, then picking himself back up and playing on? Yeah, that was a few years ago.
Wade’s helter-skelter jaunts into the amoeba-like mass of an interior defense is essential to his game, but how much longer can his 30-year-old body hold up? If Wade breaks down more permanently, the Heat will struggle to keep up their season-long experiment with the smaller lineup that won them a title in June. If he’s out permanently, the Heat might stop looking like such a lock for their third Finals appearance in as many years.
Should Miami fans be concerned with Wade’s health?
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