- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- First, Dwyane Wade’s body basically gave out on him in the NBA Finals.
Then, his buddy and four-time league MVP essentially gave up on him to return to Cleveland as a free agent. And soon after that, Wade balked after opting out of the remaining $42 million on his previous contract to sign a deal for nearly $10 million less.
No doubt, the losses certainly piled up on Wade during the most humbling and tumultuous offseason of his career. But now, Wade tends to focus more on what he’s regained as the Heat enter their first season in five years without LeBron James as the franchise anchor.
It starts with a newfound perspective.
And it was discovered, in part, during a random visit to the Heat’s practice facility earlier this month during what was otherwise a day off for the team. Wade came in for a workout, but soon found himself standing off to the side in a gym buzzing with activity on the main basketball courts.
It happened to be the day the Heat were holding workouts for their NBA Development League team prospects, a group ranging from local rec league ringers to former Division 1 college rotation players.
Wade didn’t really know any of those battling just to get invited back the next day for the remote chance to start a career somewhere. But it was a reminder of Wade’s own identity.
“I sneak up here every now and then to let people know I’m still around,” said Wade, 32. “That’s just it. I’m motivated by the game of basketball, being able to come out here and still play it. This is a lot of people’s dream. All you have to do is come in and see these guys trying out for the D-League team and look around and say, ‘OK. I’m in a special place.’”
Sobering moments like those have motivated Wade and the Heat, who open the season Wednesday night at home against the Washington Wizards. There’s no longer the luxury of LeBron’s greatness to carry the largest share of the load. The path that led Miami to two championships and the last four NBA Finals is now paved with potential potholes throughout a reloaded Eastern Conference.
And the combination of high roster turnover and far lower expectations has rendered the Heat as anonymous as many of the players pushing through drills during that D-League workout. At one point during the height of LeBron’s four seasons with the Heat, there were as many as 90 media members who crammed into a gym just to watch Miami’s training camp workouts.
By contrast, at one point during this preseason, the horde consisted of two local newspaper reporters. Although change has been difficult throughout this process for the Heat, Wade refuses to allow this team to focus on what they were the past four years or to look too far ahead into this season.
“It’s going to be like that [all season],” Wade said. “We don’t have the team right now where we can look forward. We have to focus on every day. It’s the only way we’re going to be successful, whether we win six or seven in a row or lose six in a row. Come in and focus on getting better. We don’t have the team where we have that confidence where we can look forward. We have to build that in ourselves.”
And that’s going to require Wade to first rebuild from within.
Although Chris Bosh is expected to become the primary option in the offense after re-signing on a maximum contract worth nearly $120 million over five seasons, the Heat’s prospects in the post-LeBron era largely rest on Wade’s health and productivity.
Many aspects of Wade’s role on the team have changed from the previous four seasons, when LeBron averaged 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists to lead the team in multiple statistical categories. However, many of the questions Wade faced in recent injury-riddled years persist.
That’s what makes both Wade and the Heat difficult to gauge this season.
Wade shot a career-high 54.5 percent from the field and averaged 19 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds in 54 games last season. But he also missed 28 games, mostly to manage knee issues, before enduring a turbulent postseason. After increasing his productivity in each of the first three rounds of the playoffs, Wade essentially flatlined during Miami’s five-game series loss to the Spurs in the Finals.
Wade refused to say whether his health was a factor in the Finals, when he shot just 43.8 percent and averaged 15.2 points and nearly four turnovers a game. A sluggish start to the preseason only raised more concerns about Wade, but he dismissed his sporadic play over the first four exhibition games as a case of coach Erik Spoelstra tweaking the offense and focusing on getting offseason acquisitions such as Luol Deng, Danny Granger and Shawne Williams more comfortable in the system.
Some encouraging signs came over the final week of the preseason, when Wade scored 26 points with six assists in 29 minutes during an Oct. 21 win against Houston. Over the final two exhibition games, Wade averaged 21 points and shot 18-for-26 from the field.
Questions about his health this week were cut off abruptly and answered succinctly.
“It won’t be a problem at all,” Wade said. “My impact will be what my impact is going to be. I’ve put the work in and you go on the court and try to put forth your best effort. And that’s all you can do.”
Wade said the Heat’s new offense is unlike any system he’s played in during his previous 11 seasons in Miami and is predicated more on ball-movement, attacking from the wings and exploiting mismatches at any position on the court. It has called for Wade to shift from strong-side decoy to facilitator to clear-out option from one possession to the next.
It’s an intricate scheme change from the past few seasons when LeBron was heavily relied upon to dominate the offense through either scoring or setting up the Heat’s bevvy of spot-up shooters. But marksmen such as Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Shane Battier and James Jones are now replaced by rookies Shabazz Napier and James Ennis on the perimeter along with versatile veterans in Deng, Williams, Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts, who sat out the preseason to recover from toe surgery.
Wade’s attitude in camp was a key factor in helping the Heat get through a challenging transition.
“I think it’s been invigorating, a new challenge,” Spoelstra said of Wade. “Having a new team, new players, a new role; he’s really stepped up from a leadership standpoint. I’ve really enjoyed watching him step into this role, being more vocal, showing players what we stand for, what our culture is, what our philosophy is, and backing it up with his actions. He had a very good training camp. He came in with a mindset to lead with his voice as well as with his work ethic, and he’s been doing it every day since.”
Heat forward Udonis Haslem, the only other holdover with Wade from the Heat’s first championship team in 2006, said the tone was set from the opening day of camp a month ago when every player passed the team’s conditioning test on the first day of practice.
“I’m not sure if that was the case the last few years,” Haslem said, coyly. “All the things we’ve been working on behind the scenes, we’ve had more than enough time behind the scenes to kind of put things in place and get a feel for different things. I don’t know if the identity has changed.”
But Haslem is certain about what’s been clearly restored.
“It’s his team again,” he said, referring to Wade. “Not to say it wasn’t, but you know, he’s been here. He’s the guy. He’s got the most championships, besides myself. Guys are looking to him and myself because we understand the Heat culture and embody what it’s all about. We’ve been here from the start, and hopefully we’ll be here until it’s finished. Everybody understands that.”
This is not an unfamiliar predicament for Wade, who embarked on a similar journey entering the 2008-09 season after the departure of another larger-than-life teammate.
Only then, Wade was a 26-year-old superstar in his prime, battling back from two major surgeries, regrouping from Shaquille O’Neal’s recent trade to Phoenix and regrouping from a 15-67 season that matched the worst finish in franchise history.
Wade won the league scoring title that next season and finished third in MVP voting.
No one expects that version of Wade to show up again this season.
So how does Wade at this stage of his career go about picking up himself and his franchise again? The pride is there. So is the passion. But why should anyone other than diehard Heat fans believe the necessary production will be there as well?
Just file those questions right along with all of the others facing the Heat these days.
“Obviously, it’s a little different when you talk about how you’re older now than you were then,” Wade said. “But we haven’t gotten into the throes of the season yet, so I can’t really say. But we’ll see when the wins and losses start piling up, how great it really is. But it feels renewed.”
Change -- sprinkled with a three championship runs -- has been the only constant in Wade’s career.
After riding a four-year wave of success and stability on several fronts, Wade has had to adjust to another shakeup. The same offseason highlighted by his marriage to actress Gabrielle Union also featured a costly and dramatic low point: his breakup as teammates with LeBron.
Diving into a new challenge has served as a coping mechanism.
“I don’t really know if it’s a secret to it. That’s life,” Wade said. “Life never stays the same. If it does, it gets too boring. You would call it Groundhog Day. You have to make the adjustment or you’ll get left behind. That’s all I’ve been able to do when change comes, whether it’s on the court or off the court. I’m not saying that I always do it right. But you just try to make it the best way you know how.”