What Do Miami Heat Need from Dwyane Wade in Three-Peat Bid?

Tom Sunnergren@@tsunnergrenContributor IFebruary 28, 2014

MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 19: Dwyane Wade #3, LeBron James #6, and Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat smile while on the bench during the game against the Atlanta Hawks on November 19, 2013 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice: Copyright NBAE 2013 (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
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In order to claim a third title in as many seasons, or even to advance to a fourth consecutive NBA Finals, the Miami Heat will have to ask something of Dwyane Wade they never have before.

Not a whole lot.

Now, “not a whole lot” here is a relative expression. Miami still needs Wade. A crippling injury, or a flare-up of the knee issues that have long dogged him, would deliver a devastating blow to its hope of a three-peat. In the strictest sense, no Wade means no title. This is uncontroversial.

But it still stands that the Heat’s success, at this point in the franchise’s evolution, is less contingent on the guard dominating than at any point in recent memory—at least since he, like a bizarro Nick Fury, recruited a superteam to join him in South Beach.

Feb 8, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade (3) reacts to referee Ed Malloy (14) during the first half against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

And, fortunately for the hoops-happy denizens of that lovely community, Miami hasn’t been relying on him. Not like it used to. The guard isn’t the player he once was, and he hasn’t been for some time. His decline has been deep and broad. Across the board, his performance has ebbed. And yet LeBron James and company roll merrily along. 

Consider last season’s title run. Wade was not himself. His play inspired a plethora of what were effectively obituaries, mournful paeans to the end of a great career. 

“We’re watching the Miami Cavaliers right now, playing this series,” TNT analyst Reggie Miller quipped after watching Wade and Chris Bosh struggle during Miami’s Game 6 loss to Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In a rarity in sports punditry, much of the said grousing was warranted by what the guard did on the court. Or, rather, didn’t do.

In 22 games in the 2013 playoffs—which ended, again, with the Heat hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy—Wade hit a nadir, posting numbers that, if they were extended over the course of a season, would be the poorest of his career by a fair margin.

He scored 15.9 points a night on 45.7 percent shooting, good for a true shooting percentage of 49.8. All, if stretched over 82 games, would be career-worsts, per Basketball-Reference.

MIAMI, FL - February 27: Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat handles the ball during a game against the New York Knicks at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida on Feb. 27, 2014. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadi
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Meanwhile, his rebound, assist and steal numbers slipped a notch from what he produced in the preceding regular season and coincided with a disconcerting lack of aggression. After attempting 6.2 free throws per game, he mustered just 3.6 in the playoffs. 

Even teammate James conceded, by acknowledging his own increased responsibilities, that Wade was off his game.

"Yeah, I kind of just went back to my Cleveland days at that point and just said, 'hey, let’s try to make more plays and be more of a scoring threat as well,' and just try to figure out a way that I can—I don’t know, just see if the guys would just follow me, and just lead them the best way I could. I was just in attack mode in the third quarter, look for my shot,” James said after a Game 5 victory in the same series.

The advanced stats were more directly critical of Wade’s performance. Wade’s win shares per 48 minutes during the 2013 postseason, according to Basketball-Reference, was .108. His PER dropped to 18.7 from a mark of 24 in the regular season.

And yet, of course, Miami repeated. Granted, it took the Heat a pair of seven-game series to sneak by Pacers and Spurs teams that, if the regular season was any indication (and it usually is), were manifestly inferior, but the plain fact remains. 

They won a championship with a suboptimal Wade. 

And, by all indications, they can do it again.

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 20: LeBron James #6, Head Coach Erik Spoelstra and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat poses for a portrait with the Larry O'Brien Trophy after defeating the San Antonio Spurs in Game Seven of the 2013 NBA Finals on June 20, 2013 at American
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

In the first four months of the 2013-14 season, a similar dynamic has unfolded. Wade flounders—relative to his standardswhile the Heat cruise along. Through 53 games this season, with a limited Wade, the Heat posted a 39-14 record. This is, incredibly, precisely the same record the team had through 53 in each of 2012-13, 2011-12 and 2010-11. (Say what you want about the Heat: they’re consistent.) That doesn’t paint a picture of a squad that’s especially reliant on its No. 2.

Now, none of this is to say the Hall of Fame shoo-in is a non-entity at 32. He isn’t. Wade is still arguably the best guard in the Eastern Conference—though this speaks more to a dearth of quality backcourt play than it does the preservation of Wade’s (once numerous) abilities. He's second among all shooting guards in Player Efficiency Rating, according to ESPN,and 17th overall. Furthermore, his ability to score at a ridiculously efficient clip makes him a key component of Miami’s league-best offense. 

But it does mean he's less important than ever before, a superstar who's had the "super" stripped from his title. 

Dwyane Wade is likely to put together a 2014 postseason similar to what he's provided thus far in this regular season and offered in the 2013 playoffs. He’ll look a hair slower and creakier than usual, a bit more measured in the deployment of what's left of his athleticism and a little less like a game-changing talent than a solid-if-unspectacular shooting guard who does a lot of things well and a few others less so.

Here's the good news for Miami: If the recent past is any indication, that will be plenty.