As the Miami Heat scored the first sixteen points of the second half of last night’s NBA game against the rival Indiana Pacers to all but seal the number one playoff seed, one face was conspicuously absent – or more accurately, conspicuous by his attire. Dwayne Wade, the local face of the Heat franchise for the past decade and the MVP of its first championship run, sat courtside decked out in a suit and bowtie. If need be, Wade could have played. But as has been the case for nearly half the nights this season, Wade sat out in order to rest. He’s expected to be back in the starting rotation when the postseason begins next week, taking back the starting role he’s often been ceding of late to the less talented, but more consistently healthy, Toney Douglas. With the Heat gearing up for an attempted Finals three-peat followed by a transitional offseason, all eyes will be on Wade’s knees over the next two months.
While LeBron James is the brightest shining star in the NBA, there is a reason why his teammate Wade is still introduced last at Miami Heat home games. It was Wade who single handedly made a drifting franchise relevant when he was drafted in 2003. It was Wade who led the Heat (without LeBron) to its first Finals victory in 2006. And it was Wade who recruited James and Chris Bosh to come to Miami the last time they were all free agents. Win or lose in June, and the three are about to have the option to become free agents again. And Wade’s knees may play into those decisions as much as any other factor.
On paper there’s little reason for any of the three to opt out this year and sign with another team. Since coming to Miami, LeBron and Bosh have seen their reputations transformed from that of scorers to that of winners. It’s possible LeBron could return to Cleveland at the end of his career in order to make peace there, and it’s feasible that Bosh may at some point decide to try to take a lesser team to a championship on his own. But it’s difficult to picture either player wanting to step off the current Miami Heat championship-fest quite yet, as the team is built to win now.
But there will be at least some change to the Heat’s makeup this offseason. Shane Battier will likely retire. Ray Allen could do the same. Allen was brought in to split minutes with Wade in order to prolong both their careers, but of late those minutes have fallen to Douglas instead. That will of course change in the playoffs. But Wade is thirty-two years old, four years older than LeBron, and his knee issues are likely to be a factor for the remainder of his career. The question becomes how much more team president Pat Riley can do with minimum salary additions in order to keep Wade fresh for the postseason, and whether LeBron and Bosh are willing to accept that their fellow “big three” teammate may only be a part timer going forward.
At some point Riley will have to decide what to do with an aging face of his franchise. But if the Heat can win another ring this year with contributions from a well rested Wade, it may prompt his star teammates to stick around for the remaining two years on their contracts, punting any difficult decisions for Riley to 2016.