Commentary

Dwyane Wade's final chapter begins

With LeBron gone, longtime Heat star must find his place in the NBA once again

Originally Published: July 13, 2014
By Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

James/WadeSteve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsNBA superstar. Oft-injured running mate. With LeBron James gone, which Dwyane Wade will show up?

Let's see if we can summarize Dwyane Wade's four years as LeBron James' teammate into a few paragraphs:

Wade was routinely credited for bringing the Big Three together in 2010, then could've won his second NBA Finals MVP nine months later if he'd had a little more help (he averaged 26.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.5 blocks and shot 54.6 percent from the floor in the six games against Dallas in 2011).

The next season, Wade willingly handed full control of the team to LeBron, then played through pain, but still won his second title.

On the way to his third championship, Wade was labeled a dirty player and unreliable and again played through a problematic knee to do just enough to win a title.

This past season, Wade was on a maintenance program that allowed him to play only 54 games, which quietly annoyed James. Then in a reversal of their first NBA Finals together, Wade couldn't do enough to help LeBron against the San Antonio Spurs, picking an inopportune time to go a combined 7-of-25 for 21 points in Games 4 and 5.

And in his final official act as LeBron's teammate, Wade opted out of his contract in the hopes of keeping LeBron as his teammate. Turns out Wade lost those $42 million guaranteed for nothing.

Yet Wade took the expected high road in wishing James well in his return to Cleveland.

"As a friend and a teammate, I am sad to see my brother LeBron leave to begin a new journey," Wade said in a statement. "We shared something unique and he will always be part of my family. LeBron made the right decision for himself and his family because home is where your heart is.

"As an organization, a community, and as individuals, we achieved the goals we set when we first signed on together. We are champions."

No one said winning championships was easy, but Wade took quite the beating in his four years chasing rings with LeBron, both physically and in the public eye. He's perceived now as being washed up at 32, this despite shooting a career-best 54.5 percent when he did play in the regular season, and 50 percent from the floor in the postseason.

But don't expect Wade to live down to these diminished expectations.

His biggest challenge, of course, will be playing a full season without breaking down, something he hasn't truly been able to do since the 2010-11 season.

Wade, however, spent time this past season picking Ray Allen's brain about how best to extend his career, including nutrition. That would help explain this Instagram post in late June of a healthy meal with the comment "Day 1 of the new challenge," with Allen and James both tagged on the post. At the time, Wade didn't know James would no longer be his teammate. But the challenge of getting leaner and lighter to take pressure off his knees actually takes on more importance now.

Wade will no longer have the luxury of sitting out games knowing the best player in the league would be doing the heavy lifting. He's back in position of being the Miami Heat's most important perimeter player, and his challenge now includes taking on a heavier workload again, potentially playing through more discomfort than he had to last season, and most important, trying to keep the Heat among the elite in the NBA.

When Wade discussed handing full control of the Heat to James in 2012, he spoke plenty about the difficulty of it.

"You've got to be able to talk to your ego and see if your ego is OK with that," he told ESPN.com in 2012. "We all have egos."

There were times over the past couple seasons when Wade lamented not having more opportunities in the offense. But assuming he re-signs with Miami, Wade will once again assume the role as the team's primary scorer and playmaker.

The question is, will Wade's body and his game allow him to pick up anywhere near where he left off in 2010, before he was ever a teammate of James? Can he age gracefully and effectively, like a Kobe Bryant, or will father time shove him off a cliff, more like Allen Iverson experienced?

If you've listened to Wade over the years, he's OK with the idea of reinvention. But that doesn't include just shooting a bunch of jumpers and abandoning the part of his game that made him great.

"When I walk away from the game, I want to walk away playing the game that I want to play," Wade told me last season. "I think every year you make minor adjustments. But it's in my DNA, my attack nature is just in me.

"I could shoot three jump shots in a row, or I can take a couple 3s, but I'm an attacker. When I can't attack anymore and I'm just not doing it, then that's when I've got to give it up."

We know Bosh still has faith in Wade, not only because he agreed to return to Miami, but because Bosh said during the Heat's most recent playoff run that Wade was a 32-year-old in his prime. That may be a bit of a stretch, but Wade will certainly be a 32-year-old with prime responsibilities again.

However much Wade has left, his competitive instincts will drive him next season, because being just another playoff team in the East won't sit well. He now also has the added motivation of being left behind by LeBron. Despite the kind words Wade articulated in that statement, it has to bother him that he gave up significant money to continue his time with James, only to be informed late in the process that LeBron's loyalty to Northeast Ohio would end their run after just four seasons together.

The Heat will restock in the coming weeks, but no matter who takes the floor with Wade on opening night next fall, next season is a referendum on whether Wade and the growing perception that he's in the twilight of his career.

But if Wade can dredge up any anger from being scorned by LeBron James (Udonis Haslem can probably help him with that), and if Pat Riley can put some quality pieces in place, and if a leaner Wade can maintain some bounce on two healthy knees, he'll get the chance to write his own ending.

Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.

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