The Dwyane Wade Decline
With his white “NBA Champion” t-shirt soaked with celebratory champagne and red confetti stuck to the bottom of his sneakers, Dwyane Wade emerged from the raucous celebration amongst his teammates and appeared before the NBA’s assembled media.
It was the night of June 20.
He sat before it all.
“My name is Three,” he said, an obvious ode to having just won his third championship.
He declared it, unprompted and with a beaming white smile shining brightly.
Moments earlier, Wade completed a 21-point, 10-rebound double-double in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs and helped the HEAT abscond with a championship the Spurs nearly won 48 hours earlier.
In all of his glory and in dramatic fashion, Wade was now thrice crowned.
But in a moment of blunt candor, with the Larry O’Brien trophy neatly perched to his right, he opened up. The words he spoke confirmed the earlier stated proposition that the hourglass of his career—though not yet completely empty—was steadily running out.
He told the world that we have already seen the best of him.
For stretches of the 2012-13 season and during the HEAT’s playoff run, Wade consistently shrugged off questions about his ailing knees and his compromised performances. All too often, he looked a step slow, devoid of his explosiveness.
But with the weight of the world off of his shoulders—and knees—he opened up after that fateful Game 7.
“I talked to my knees today and we had a conversation,” Wade said. “I said, ‘Listen, both of you guys, if y’all can give me one great game, we’ll have a great summer.’”
And for at least one night, his 31-year-old knees—those knees that had endured the punishment of a sliver less than 700 regular season games and 130 playoff games—obliged.
Giddy and excited, he continued.
“I’m gonna treat my knees very well this summer and rest them,” Wade assured everyone.
What he did not assure everyone, though, was that he could continue to put these types of performances together every night.
Now, five months later, Wade’s knees are still a topic of discussion, despite copious amounts of rest and therapy over the long offseason.
As NBA players age and as champions begin the season only concerned about the months of May and June, they begin to pick and choose their spots. Like Shaquille O’Neal once upon a time and the Brooklyn Nets’ Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce today, Wade will be paced over the course of the season and be called upon for his superhuman-like performances once in a blue moon during the regular season.
Some refer to that as “playing it safe” or “being smart,” and it is. It just so happens to also be the hallmark of a great player’s descent.
Today, Wade is no longer a spry 25-year-old looking to make his mark and leave a legacy in this league. With his place in history solidified and his team on the cusp of a dynasty, there is nothing left to prove, only championships to potentially win.
In the NBA, consistency is key. Performing well on a night-in, night-out basis is what separates the true superstars from the pretenders.
Similarly, sporadic greatness is a sign of the times along the continuum of a career. It is often the sign of a player whose healthiest days are behind him.
At this stage, that is Wade.
Five months after winning his third NBA championship, before the HEAT battled the Garnett and Pierce-led Nets on November 1, Wade calmly dressed and casually walked around the visitor’s locker room after it had been revealed that he would play. The fact that he was in the lineup was noteworthy since he sat out the team’s previous contest against the Philadelphia 76ers two nights prior.
“We have a big picture here,” Wade said after expressing excitement to be returning to the floor for the match-up with the Nets. “So we’re just going to take it day-by-day.”
And from day to day, the minutes, the performances and even the effort put forth by Wade will likely mimic the magnitude of the game in which the HEAT happen to be involved on that given night.
Against the likes of the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and Nets, Wade will play and give what he has for his team. In those big moments, he will appear.
But between them, with one eye cast toward the future and thoughts of a dynasty, the HEAT will rest him and keep him on ice as much as possible, because 31-year-old knees do not typically improve over the course of an 82-game season.
That is true whether Erik Spoelstra, his staff or Wade admit it or not.
With his excellent midrange shooting, three-point range, superior shot blocking ability and explosive athleticism, Wade became an NBA champion without James and was regarded by some as the superior player between the two.
With his Allen Iverson-like competitive fire and a prideful diligence assisting the development of his all-around game, Wade is one of the best players to enter the NBA since the turn of the millennium. A certain first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, there is nothing left for him to prove.
Wade’s greatness is unquestionable, but eventually, all good things must end.
On that night against the Nets, Wade performed well, but noticeably had trouble accelerating and turning corners on defenders. He refused to go into specifics about his knee ailment, but obviously was not at 100 percent over the course of the game.
At this stage, it is difficult to believe that he will be at 100 percent for lengthy stretches. He will be rested regularly, but as it relates to knees, rest does not cure, it preserves.
There is a huge difference.
Similarly, there is a huge difference between being well-rested for a playoff run and ensuring that one’s team is clicking on all cylinders and playing with the requisite chemistry to win a championship.
With the concerns over Wade’s health, that is the HEAT’s chief dilemma.
After dropping that game to the Nets by one point, 100-101, in a private moment, away from the spotlights and TV cameras, Wade spoke to HOOPSWORLD about the difficult task at hand. When asked how he and the HEAT will balance the want to stay healthy and be fresh for the playoffs while ensuring that the team is clicking on all cylinders, he was not sure.
“I can’t really say that there’s an answer to that,” Wade told HOOPSWORLD.
His head shaking and shoulders shrugging, he clearly understands the challenge that lies ahead not only for the HEAT, but for himself as well.
“You just gotta try to read the game, read your body, kinda see how things are going with your team,” Wade said. “There’s not really a definite answer to that. The only thing you can do is what you feel is best for your body and for your team at the same time.”
Back on that June 20th day when Wade reveled in his championship glory, he could not assure everyone that he would revert to his old form. And now, as the HEAT begin the 2013-14 season, his knees and health continue to be the focus.
Ever the fighter and prideful competitor, Wade would rather make plays than excuses. Admirably, he carries on, despite the apparent beginning of his descent.
“It’s unfortunate that I have to deal with certain things,” Wade said in reference to his creaky knees back on June 20. “But I never question God. I never ask ‘why?’ I just try to figure out how I can be better, how I can do whatever it takes for my teammates.”
At 31 years old and with enough mileage on his odometer to make a used Toyota Camry jealous, Wade has begun the slow decline that perimeter players in this league inevitably experience.
But with gas left in the tank and James and Chris Bosh by his side, there is still some tread left on his tires.
“Everybody has an opinion and in this world we live in today, everyone can use that opinion,” Wade said after Game 7 of the Finals. “Without doubt, maybe I’m not here today… As I’ve said many times, my belief is stronger than your doubt and I’m always gonna believe. When there’s a big game, number three is gonna show up and do something to help his team win.”
But when the games are not big? Expect the HEAT to play it safe with Wade and rest him as often as possible.
With the capability of everyday dominance behind their shooting guard, the HEAT will play it smart with Wade. In the interim, Wade will play it cool.
If all goes according to plan, together, they will play it, again, potentially right into June.