With all due respect to everyone else who will be taking basketball’s biggest stage in the coming two weeks, I think Dwyane Wade is the most compelling figure of the NBA Finals. To understand why, you have to hit the rewind button and think about the trajectory of the 2013-14 season.
It’s perfectly natural and understandable, given the drudgery of the six-month regular season, that we hardcore NBA fanatics find ourselves scrambling for artificial storylines to make the January and February dog days bearable. In a league where championships mean everything, it’s hard to claim that those mid-winter games are worth anything. So… we make stuff up.
This year, one of the ongoing threads was the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. In theory, the Pacers were grasping at any edge they could get in their quest to take down the Heat in the postseason this year, and in theory, having the top seed and home court for Game 7 was their secret.
For months, we lived on that lie, and it carried us through the countless nights, keeping us engaged even when offenses sputtered and defenses coasted and games became borderline unwatchable. We stayed tuned anyway, because No. 1 was on the line, and we had convinced ourselves that meant something.
Now June’s here and the dust has settled, and we’ve all figured out the reality of it: It was never about getting that East top spot. While we were all focusing on Indiana trying to overtake Miami’s spot atop the East, Miami was looking past the No. 1 seed to its opponents in June. You can blab all you want about home court and everything it means, but the fact is that the Heat strolled into Bankers Life Fieldhouse and stole the advantage with a road win in Game 2, rolled at home to seize control, and decisively finished the deal in Game 6 without ever letting the Pacers taste that deciding game in Indiana. All that No. 1 seed talk was forgotten pretty darn quick.
We realize now what was really important. It wasn’t that top spot. The Heat didn’t want to go all-out through the winter and lock up first place – they were much more interested in pacing themselves and angling for a healthy, fiercely competitive spring. Looking back: Yeah. So far, so good.
So let’s talk about Wade.
It’s funny how we talk about the Heat’s veteran leader, given that he’s still only 32 years old and presumably still has plenty left in the tank, but he has been through a lot in his 11 years in the NBA. He’s been the backbone of the Heat franchise, both on the court and off it, for most of that time. During the seven pre-LeBron James seasons in Miami, he was asked to handle a lion’s share of the minutes, the scoring load, and the responsibility away from the hardwood of being the team’s spokesman. His role might be different with LeBron now by his side, but the impact continues to add up. Wade has played 26,331 minutes in his career – 32,040 if you include playoffs – and the burden just keeps accumulating. Not that anyone’s crying a river for Dwyane Wade, but I imagine it’s not easy to play four NBA Finals in a row with bad knees. The man never gets a full offseason.
So this year, rather than go for broke, the Heat let Wade sit out select road games and back-to-backs, letting his knees rest up. He played only 1,775 minutes this season, the lowest non-lockout-season total of his career. Less even than his rookie year (2,126), and less than the 2008 season when Wade’s knee was bothering him and Pat Riley shut him down, gave him the OssaTron treatment and spent the rest of the year tanking for Michael Beasley (1,954).
It’s tremendously important that Wade paced himself this year, because his style of play has demanded it. He’s always been an attacker – the strength of these Heat teams, especially in 2010 and ’11 when Wade was a bit younger, was the fact that all three of their stars could explode to the rim at any given moment. Now, in his evolved role, Wade has adjusted his approach. He can still explode from time to time, but more than ever, his contributions are built around crafty, sneaky ways of finding good midrange jump shots. He’s done everything he can to remain a prolific scorer while adapting to his physical changes. It’s been impressive.
He’s got a lot of people to thank. If I’m Wade, I’m ordering a gift basket this summer for Riley, who no doubt had a hand in this long-term vision; for Erik Spoelstra, who did a great job juggling the rotation with Wade at less than full strength; for LeBron, who carried a lot of the load with Wade out; and for a whole host of supporting guys, including Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Norris Cole and even Rashard Lewis, who pitched in just enough minutes to make this master plan work.
Because make no mistake – this was a master plan. This approach was carefully orchestrated and fine-tuned to perfection. There’s no convincing me otherwise, even if Wade and the Heat try.
Earlier this week, Wade opened up to USA Today about his approach this season, and his words were one of two things, depending on your level of skepticism – either they were candid, or they were a really well-polished attempt at such:
“It was very frustrating for all of us, the organization and players. No one really knew what we were doing, how we were doing it and if it was going to work. We all trusted in each other. But it was just stepping back and trying to be smart and saying, ‘OK, if this is what the powers that be say should work, then let’s give it a try.’ Up until this point, it’s worked.”
Love you, Dwyane, but save for the last sentence, I’m calling bullshit on every last word of that. I get why you’re saying it – it makes for a lovely story! – but c’mon. You didn’t know what you were doing? Please. You knew exactly what you were doing.
Wade and the Heat engineered this plan to get them to this very point. Their goal was a fourth consecutive NBA Finals, and it’s really, really hard to reach four consecutive NBA Finals without taking the occasional breather. To call this process frustrating is silly – especially when you consider that the team opposing them once again in the Finals has already proven it to work.
The Dwyane Wade approach this season has basically been the Duncan Rules used by Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, just repurposed for a physical, fast-paced shooting guard. Pop knew that to widen that window to win championships with his cornerstone player, he needed to tighten up his minutes (and build a deep team that would allow him to do so). Riley and Spoelstra have done the same thing with Wade.
In the Finals, though, that all goes out the window. This is what Wade spent all year saving himself for, so it’s time for him to unleash it. Now the rotation tightens, and it’s time to see the best play at their best. Chalmers, Allen and Cole played an average of 30, 27 and 25 minutes this season; all those numbers dropped in the playoffs, and they just might fall off even more these next seven games. This is Wade’s time – June is when basketball legends cement their legacies. Who wouldn’t want to watch that?
That’s what makes Wade so interesting heading into these Finals – it’s hard to know exactly what to expect from him. With a typical superstar like LeBron, we’ve seen him when he’s on, and we know exactly what it looks like. With Wade, there might be some potential deep within him, still waiting to be tapped. If he taps it, look out.
So that’s why Wade is the most compelling person in the game right now, player or otherwise. Respect to everyone else in that conversation – to LeBron, to Duncan, to Chris Bosh, to Tony Parker, to Pop, to Spoelstra, to Riley. This June, in this series, Wade’s why I’ll watch.