MIAMI -- Before Dwyane Wade and LeBron James faced off against each other as regular-season opponents for the first time in 58 months on Thursday, Wade set up his former teammate with an assist after the Miami Heat’s practice on Christmas Eve.
"It's tough in this league,” Wade said when asked about all the scrutiny James received for his initial decision to leave Cleveland and then all over again, albeit to a lesser extent, when he decided to return there. “When a player makes a decision, there's always backlash. But when an organization makes it, it's [perceived as] the right thing for the organization to do. And it's fine. Josh Smith got cut by the Pistons, and it's fine. It's the right thing for the Pistons to do. But LeBron James makes a decision in free agency, then it becomes a different situation."
James and the Cavaliers arrived in Miami on Wednesday not long after Wade made that statement. A reporter asked James what was the one thing on his agenda he “had to do” when he returned for a visit after four years living in South Beach.
“See D-Wade,” James responded before the Cavaliers’ 101-91 Christmas Day loss to the Heat.
Wade must have made the same point to James that he did to the media when they hung out on Wednesday, because during James’ postgame talk Thursday, he offered up an unprompted diatribe that was nearly word-for-word what Wade had to say.
Both Wade and James were right to point out the double standard that exists, but they are asking for fans to set aside their blind passion and become better critical thinkers.
It’s more fun to support the team you root for than criticize it. It’s more convenient to turn your back on a player who used to play for your team than continue to back him, because doing so dilutes your allegiance.
But if Wade and James can teach fans anything, it’s that it’s OK to be nuanced in your fandom. It’s all right to recognize that not everything is black and white. It’s human to acknowledge the layers.
Coming off an embarrassing loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, when the Heat squandered a 23-point lead in the third quarter, Miami needed to win Thursday’s game. Wade played like that was the case, scoring 31 points to go with five rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block.
And coming back to Miami, James and the Cavs needed a win just as bad, in their mind, as they are still in shaky territory with every game becoming a referendum on the status of the team as a whole. And again, James played like that was the case, racking up 30 points, eight assists and four rebounds.
They might be genuine friends, but they’re also very real competitors. They’ve figured out how to wear both hats.
It’s OK for James and Wade to hang out the night before the game. It’s OK to see them sitting next to each other on the sideline, conversing as they wait for the second half to begin. It’s OK that James lingered on the court a solid five minutes after the game ended as Wade was finishing a walk-off interview with ESPN’s Doris Burke, just so he could talk to Wade again, hug him, say so long to his friend.
It doesn’t cheapen the rivalry or make either of them any less of a macho man because he does it. It’s just real.
“Coming into the league, I haven't had really a rival opponent, and the closest thing I've had to that is the years when we went against each other when he was in Cleveland the first time,” Wade said after the game. “Our four years was amazing [together in Miami], and we won't take anything away from it. But it was good to see him on the other side of the court, as well, because he's going to bring out the best in you. And you hope you do the same, so it was good.”
That’s what it will be from now on between the Heat and the Cavs, and Wade and James -- the two greatest players in each of those franchises’ histories playing for pride when they go up against each other, but also playing with the empathy that comes from all the shared experiences they’ve had. Not just Olympic medals and championship rings, but marriage, fatherhood and the wisdom of age, too.
“It brought back old times and the battles that we had,” James said afterward. “Once again, we put up 30 again against each other, and it’s always fun competing against such a great friend.”
While James covered his face with his jersey when he met Wade on the court postgame, like a pitcher covering his mouth with his glove during a meeting with a catcher to shield lip-readers from discussions, Wade was more open about it.
“We always talk,” Wade said. “We're two guys that enjoy the moments that we get on this stage, and to look around us at that moment and see how everybody was kind of looking down on us, it was like, 'Look at the moment we've been a part of creating, whether we've been together or apart.' And it's just being thankful for it.”
They’re thankful for each other, thankful to be able to understand where they’re both coming from. Maybe their example will get more fans to understand athletes in general. They’re performers, but they’re people. They’re competitors, but they’re friends. They’re human.
MIAMI -- While many outside the boundaries of this LeBron James-Miami Heat holiday reunion were concerned about ovations and tribute videos and tension and awkwardness and friendships, the Heat were simply hoping for a flashback.
They already knew having James back in AmericanAirlines Arena just 206 days since he played his last game in the building would provide the necessary atmosphere. The Heat just needed to live up to it -- the way they had for the previous four seasons, embracing the moment and transforming it into their moment.
It’s a lot more difficult to do just that when the former No. 6, now No. 23 again, is in the road team’s uniform.
But somehow, Miami did just that Thursday in front of a Christmas Day audience that temporarily brought big-game basketball back to Miami.
Outside of having a healthy Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts available and playing well, this hyped holiday gathering couldn’t have gone any better for the Heat.
Not when you consider Dwyane Wade spent the first half in full 2008 mode, scoring 24 points by the break, including a couple of 3-pointers (one of them squarely over the outstretched arm of James, drawing a quick, playful glance from Wade toward his former teammate) and a one-handed, putback, spike dunk that Wade was clearly proud of.
And when you consider Danny Granger, whose play has been largely cringe-worthy since arriving in Miami because of lingering knee issues that were expected to trouble him through the early portions of the season, not only played 22 minutes, but did so rather effectively with seven rebounds and nine points, the final seven coming in the form of fourth-quarter daggers.
Toss in the play of Chris Andersen, who looked as good as he has in two seasons, and you have a result that made Miami’s 101-91 win feel less like a single victory and more like a triumphant event.
Like they used to experience regularly.
“Even in the huddle, we said, ‘You’ve got to feel the energy, you’ve got to soak this up, you’ve got to love this,’” Granger said after his best game in a Heat uniform. “Because this is the type of game that doesn’t come around all the time. After all that, you just want to go out and play well. And we did.”
Granger’s performance was all the more impressive when you consider that just five days ago he was coughing up blood and could barely talk as a result of an illness doctors told him was simply “going around.”
But even Granger was most impressed by the play of Deng, who unfairly has to carry both the labels of James' replacement as well as an attempted James stopper.
Thursday, Deng could lobby Pat Riley to be paid time and a half, and not because he was working on a holiday.
Deng was responsible for picking up James full court, making the four-time MVP work for every possession, every shot, every dribble.
Tirelessly, Deng crowded James, swiped at countless dribbles and rarely allowed him a comfortable moment. Of course, James still managed 30 points on just 16 shots, but it took some of his best work (emphasis on work) of the season to reach those totals.
And on the offensive end, Deng remained responsible for making James labor by repeatedly running him off baseline screens, which largely resulted in Deng doubling his season-high assist total as he curled toward the lane, drew defenders and dished off to open teammates.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Deng is great at “completing tasks.” His task, seemingly upon signing on the dotted line with Miami, was to have good games against James.
Clearly, that’s an unreasonable expectation. But so far, he’s 1-for-1.
“Lu was fantastic with his energy, his endurance, picking up 90 feet,” Spoelstra said. “He got us into relief baskets on the other end. I can think of four or five [possessions] off the top of my head where we got caught to the last five or six seconds of the shot clock and he was able to generate some offense.”
Toss in the fact that this performance came after Deng scored seven points in a bewildering home loss to the Sixers in which the Heat held a 23-point, second-half lead, and it’s even more remarkable.
But outside of perhaps a handful of die-hard Heat fans, no one watched this game to see Deng and James match up.
This was about James and his good buddy Wade reuniting (let’s just pretend that preseason game in Brazil never happened) as opponents with four years of fond memories and two championships behind them.
From the pregame preparations to the postgame celebrations, the two acted like brothers reuniting for a holiday rather than just former teammates.
And they both appeared oddly invigorated by the concept of playing against each other again. Those who were expecting awkwardness must’ve been surprised by this level of obvious joy and comfort.
“Man, it was great,” said Wade, who managed to join the crowd in applauding James following a first-quarter tribute video while still discussing strategy with teammates. “Coming into the league, I haven't had really a rival opponent, and the closest thing I've had to that is the years when we went against each other when he was in Cleveland the first time. Our four years was amazing [together in Miami], and we won't take anything away from it.
“But it as good to see him on the other side of the court ,as well, because he's going to bring out the best in you.”
That certainly was the case Thursday, with the Heat taking James' return and making it their own.
Bosh said Thursday he was disappointed that he wasn't healthy enough to play in the Christmas Day 101-91 win over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers but was advised to take more time to recover. The Heat’s plan is to test Bosh in a full practice session before he’s cleared to play in a game.
The Heat’s next two games are Saturday against Memphis and Monday against Orlando. With coach Erik Spoelstra giving the team the day off Friday, Miami's next practice opportunity isn't expected until Sunday.
“I’m looking forward to practicing and going at a good pace on it,” Bosh said. “I thought I would be back, but it really didn't work out like that. It’s just something I have to cope with. To play on your home court, Christmas in a big-time game, I just hate missing it. But you can’t do anything about it.”
Bosh has been sidelined since he sustained the injury in a Dec. 12 victory in Utah. He played through the discomfort during that game and finished with 22 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in 36 minutes. But Bosh said the pain grew worse the next few days, and the Heat decided to hold him out indefinitely.
About two hours before Thursday’s game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said there was no definitive update on Bosh’s status but that the 12-year veteran had been gradually intensifying his work with the training staff the past few days. Bosh participated in some shooting drills after Wednesday’s practice.
The Heat have struggled recently without Bosh, who was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder when he got injured. Bosh has averaged 21.6 points and 8.2 rebounds in 23 games during the most productive start of his five seasons with the Heat.
Seeing the Heat struggle without him has been difficult, especially after Bosh sat on the bench and watched his team squander a 23-point lead in Tuesday’s home loss to Philadelphia.
“It’s very tough -- that’s the hardest thing to do is watch on the bench,” Bosh said. “We’re still trying to figure this thing out and bring everything together. I think in that last game, everything kind of came to a head a little bit. It just went south. It’s not much I can do. I just stand by. I try to do something, clap it up, tell guys something and just be a part of the game in some way.”
Bosh took matters a step further Thursday when he addressed fans at center court after pregame introductions with a holiday greeting. His being on the verge of a return is the most encouraging development in weeks for the injury-riddled Heat, who have already lost forward Josh McRoberts for the season to knee surgery and were without star guard Dwyane Wade for seven games last month.
Sitting out Thursday meant Bosh could only watch the emotionally charged environment that saw James return to Miami for the first time since his surprising departure in free agency this past summer to rejoin the Cavaliers. Although Wade has spent the days leading up to the game detailing the depths of his friendship with James, Bosh suggested that some of his comments in the offseason about James were mischaracterized.
Before the Heat’s preseason game in October against Cleveland in Brazil, Bosh told reporters he had not spoken with James since July. Bosh also said, as a competitor, he wouldn't go out of his way to be on friendly terms during the preseason trip with his former teammate.
On Thursday, Bosh said there was no bitterness between the two after a four-year run that saw the Heat win two championships and advance to four straight NBA Finals. Bosh was one of several Heat players James hugged and embraced after the game and exchanged a few pleasantries.
“I haven’t said anything about him personally,” Bosh said. “He’s a good guy. We've been through a lot, and we've played on other teams before. That’s just how it is. It was taken out of proportion. It’s not fair to anybody. It’s not fair to him and his family. It’s not fair to me and mine. But it’s just the nature of the business. But at the time, I guess that’s just how it was going. I’m a competitor. I’m trying to win.”
The Post-Up Podcast
MIAMI -- Apparently, Dwyane Wade can shake off a stomach virus with a few vintage performances but there's little he can do to remedy the headache that's become of this Miami Heat season.
Wade scored a total of 70 points over two games played in a span of 48 hours, and all he had to show for it Wednesday night was an injury-riddled, confidence-rattled team that squandered one of his best games in four years in yet another demoralizing loss at home.
After scoring 28 points in Tuesday's victory in Brooklyn, Wade battled through illness again Wednesday to put up a season-high 42 points in a 105-87 loss to the lottery-bound Utah Jazz. Despite the effort, the Heat were beaten badly again at AmericanAirlines Arena, where they are 4-8 this season and have dropped four straight at home by double-figure margins.
It's growing more difficult by the game to determine whether the Heat are this bad because they're hurting or whether they're hurting because they're this bad. Either way, Wednesday was a bit of a waste for Wade. The only thing that kept this from feeling like a Los Angeles Lakers game was the high level of efficiency from Wade, who was 12-of-19 from the field and 16-of-21 from the free-throw line.
But otherwise, this essentially had Kobe's fingerprints all over it.
By the time Wade left the game with less than two minutes remaining, he had scored 42 of his team's 84 points. Wade simply kept shooting, kept attacking, kept pressing because he was on a roll -- even as the Heat were getting steamrolled by a Jazz team that came in having lost nine of its past 10 games.
"You want to win games like that so you can feel good about yourself," Wade said after his first 40-point game since the 2012 playoffs and highest total since he scored 45 against Houston in 2010. "It's hard to feel good about yourself when you lose, even when you have a good individual performance."
It's the sort of disconnect that's beginning to painfully define the Heat's season, one that on Wednesday forced Wade to take solace in his game within the game. He needs help, but it likely won't come again at all this season from Josh McRoberts, who is scheduled for knee surgery next week. It may not come for a few more games from Chris Bosh, who missed his third game to recover from a strained calf.
And consistent help has yet to come from Luol Deng, Danny Granger, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole or any of the primary players coach Erik Spoelstra has shuffled through on his way to using 11 different starting lineups this season, largely because of injuries. But this was a statement game from Wade.
Wade refused to bite on numerous questions after the game about whether there is enough adequate help on the roster to help avoid squandering one of his few remaining productive seasons. Instead, Wade steered his answers toward a focus on patience and perseverance.
What Wade no longer has time for are stretches in games when he sees waning effort.
"We don't have as much as other guys; we are depleted," Wade said. "We could put a better effort out. I can't say we're going to win every game or we are more talented than every team we are playing, but our effort can be there. This kind of effort as a group is just unacceptable for us. That is our problem."
That lack of effort has contributed to the Heat having trailed by at least 18 points at one stage or another in three consecutive home games. The lack of continuity has played a role in an offense that has sputtered along for most of the season with very little spark. And the lack of defensive disposition has led to the Heat stumbling from an elite unit to one that now ranks among the worst in the league.
There is no shortage of problems facing the Heat right now.
Answers, however, are another story completely.
"I don't have that right now," said Spoelstra, with the Heat off to their worst start in his seven seasons as coach. "That's what we're trying to figure out. It's not for a lack of want."
Only Wade got everything he wanted Wednesday. Well, aside from a victory to reward his effort.
"I don't have an explanation -- it's just disappointing," Wade said. "We wasted so much energy just trying to get back into the game. We just didn't have enough to get over the hump."
That hump presents a massing uphill challenge for the Heat in their current state.
This was hardly the way they wanted to start their climb back toward stability at the start of a seven-game homestand that continues Friday against the surging Wizards and is highlighted by a Christmas showdown with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Wade insists he's healthy and completely over the strained hamstring that sidelined him for seven games earlier this season. He's since shown he can deliver a few breakout performances.
But they'll have little impact if the Heat continue to break down around him.
Pat Riley isn’t one to panic in a situation like this.
But it is time to ponder.
The Miami Heat team president must take a long, hard look at the roster he assembled on the fly in the wake of LeBron James’ abrupt free-agency departure to Cleveland last offseason and seriously reconsider if the proper pieces are in place.
This was never going to be a smooth transition for the Heat, no matter how many crafty and convincing video messages Riley and the team produced entering the season to assure fans that Miami would still be one of the top teams in the East and remain in championship contention.
Videos and catchy slogans about loyalty can only carry a team so far. Eventually the games begin and the product on the floor each night starts to speak for itself. And right now, the Heat are sending a troublesome message with their play.
At 9-11 entering Tuesday’s game in Phoenix and Wednesday’s trek to Denver, Miami got off to its worst start through 20 games in Erik Spoelstra’s seven seasons as coach. And it’s usually about 20 games into a season when executives take stock of the team they assembled in the offseason and reassess matters.
With the NBA trade season essentially opening Dec. 15, when teams can start to rid themselves of players signed during last summer’s free-agency period, there’s a pressing question Riley is facing with a Heat team that added or reworked 14 contracts in the offseason.
Should Miami tinker or trust this roster?
We all know it's difficult, especially for the guys who've been here. We're not used to losing, and we're losing right now. We're not used to playing bad defense, and we're playing bad defense.” -- Chris Bosh
Right now, there’s very little evidence to suggest the Heat won’t be anything more than what they’ve shown through the first six weeks of the season. There’s still plenty to learn about this team.
But here’s what we already know.
We know they’re one of the worst defensive teams in the league, having emerged from the weekend with only Minnesota allowing opponents to shoot a higher percentage from the field.
We know they’ve been horrible at home, having dropped six of 10 at AmericanAirlines Arena before leaving for a five-game trip that opened with Friday’s embarrassing 24-point loss in Milwaukee and continued with Sunday’s rout in Memphis, the Heat’s eighth defeat by double figures this season.
And we know they’re never healthy, having started six different lineups through six weeks of regular-season play, with Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Chris Andersen and Norris Cole all missing time with injuries or illnesses. It’s way too early to be in midseason form with this level of despair.
The Heat staggered into Phoenix having allowed four consecutive opponents to shoot at least 54 percent for the first time in franchise history. They posted the fewest rebounds in team history when they managed just 20 against Milwaukee. That explained their first four-game losing streak since 2011.
“We’ll get our breakthrough at some point,” Spoelstra said. “At those moments of truth, we’re banging on the door for it. We just haven’t been able to respond and get over the top.”
LeBron isn’t walking back through that door.
Bailing this team out of sluggish starts and defensive lapses is a job that now falls on Chris Bosh, who got a $120 million contract and was the biggest benefactor of Riley’s rushed offseason makeover.
Bosh is putting up All-Star numbers so far, but he’s being paid and counted on to deliver an All-NBA impact. So far, Bosh’s trip has been defined by an unintended co-starring role in the Greek Freak’s highlight dunk in Milwaukee and a scoreless fourth quarter in Memphis.
While Bosh cashed in contractually, Wade was forced to take a discount after opting out of $42 million in guaranteed money to sign a team-friendly two-year deal. Yet while his scoring and overall offense have been impressive, there are two areas where he’s failed to erase concerns. Wade is already a quarter of the way to matching the 28 games he missed last season.
And defensively, Wade has been indifferent at best. It’s not yet to the point where folks can initiate drinking games for every time an opposing swingman scores when Wade opts out of transition defense. But it’s getting close.
Are Bosh and Wade totally responsible for the Heat’s erratic play? No. But circumstances don’t improve for this team unless Bosh is accountable and Wade is available. It’s as simple as that. Entering the season, they talked about embracing the chance to get back into respective comfort zones.
But there’s an obvious burden attached to that blessing.
“It’s interesting,” Bosh says now of the transition. “It gives you appreciation for what you have when you had it. It’s a different challenge. We all know it’s difficult, especially for the guys who’ve been here. We’re not used to losing, and we’re losing right now. We’re not used to playing bad defense, and we’re playing bad defense. You have to get used to it -- and do something about it.”
A bit earlier this season, there was a time when some still-scorned Heat fans would comfort themselves after a loss by taking a bit of satisfaction in LeBron’s rough start in Cleveland, which stumbled through losses and team turmoil through the first three weeks of the season.
But LeBron’s no longer facilitating that luxury anymore.
And, honestly, filling LeBron’s void isn’t the Heat’s primary problem.
Ray Allen and Shane Battier both still live in Miami, but they’re not walking through that door either.
Mario Chalmers has had his moments this season, but depth at shooting guard behind Wade is an area Riley failed to address, which has left this team vulnerable. And maybe the defense wouldn’t be as poor with rotations and assignments if there were a Battier-like presence to draw a charge or two.
Clearly, journeyman Shawne Williams lacked that intangible on his résumé and Danny Granger, long slowed by leg and knee issues, is a liability when required to move laterally these days.
The thing we're looking for on our road to development is are we doing things the right way?” -- Dwyane Wade
There was plenty to like about the Deng signing, because he’s built a career as one of the NBA’s best two-way players. But peel back a layer or two and the reality is that Deng has been on a steady, injury-riddled decline the past two years.
On a good night, Deng can get you 30 points, seven rebounds and two steals.
On a bad night, he can get completely invisible and occupy empty minutes that might as well be invested into the development of rookies James Ennis and Andre Dawkins. A combination of injuries and chemistry issues have led to Deng and McRoberts -- the Heat’s top two free-agent additions -- starting together just twice this season, and those came over the past three games.
Naturally, it’s created an atmosphere where there are more questions than answers.
“The thing we’re looking for on our road to development is are we doing things the right way?” said Wade, who is averaging 24.2 points in his past nine games. “Are we sticking to the game plan? Are we making adjustments throughout? Improvements are being made -- just not as fast as we want them to be.”
Wade and Bosh, as expected, provide the equilibrium for this teetering team.
On one end of the emotional gamut is Bosh’s brutal honesty addressing problems.
“It’s not shocking; it’s disappointing,” Bosh said of the defensive struggles. “We’ve had speeches. We’ve had demonstrations. We’ve had walk-throughs. We’ve had practices. And still nothing happens.”
At the other end is Wade’s measured bigger-picture approach amid growing pains.
“It’s frustrating from the standpoint if you want to win -- it’s about six of us who have been here,” Wade said of a core that won two titles in four straight trips to the Finals. “So it’s frustrating from that standpoint, but not from the standpoint of knowing this is what we’re going to have to go through. You just want to see you’re getting better. You want to feel you’re getting better.”
Instead, it’s only gotten worse recently.
And it might slip further downhill before there’s an upswing.
The Heat are a sub-.500 team that just started its first Western Conference road swing. They had lopsided losses to the Bucks, Hawks and Wizards. They haven’t even played the Cavaliers or Bulls yet. Of course, there are always the Knicks, Pistons and Sixers to look down on in the standings.
Riley did the best he could with the bad hand he was dealt in July. But it’s now December, and the calendar presents a new set of potential options starting next week. Bosh, Wade and McRoberts are probably the only players on this roster the Heat wouldn’t trade under their current philosophy. Beyond that, it may be time to consider your best deal if the lethargic defense and losing persists.
If the Heat are to remain the contenders Riley insisted they would be in those preseason promotional videos, he’ll have some decisions to make relatively soon.
We know Riley’s got too much pride to panic 20 games into a season.
We’ll see how long he maintains the patience to persevere amid some early discouraging signs.
"It's been a tough process," Deng said. "But I'm not panicking or dropping my head or anything."
As Deng nears the end of a succession of turbulent transitions the past 10 months, he's encouraged by the opportunities ahead as he settles into his latest job as the Miami Heat's starting small forward. It's a role better known as being the guy occupying the position held the past four seasons by LeBron James.
Some might buckle under the weight of those expectations.
But just when the load seems a bit overwhelming for Deng, he responds with a breakthrough performance that serves as a reminder of just what the Heat envisioned when they made the 11-year veteran a top target in free agency amid LeBron's departure last summer.
“Deng has been a microcosm of Miami's up-and-down start to the season, but looks to build on one of his best performances when the Heat (8-6) face Golden State (10-2) Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
There are times now I find myself out there thinking too much. Over the long run, I think it will go away as guys get used to me and I get used to the guys. I can then just play off instincts.” -- Luol Deng
In his third game back from a wrist injury, Deng finished with a team-high 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting along with eight rebounds, three assists and a block in 38 minutes during Sunday's 94-93 win against the Charlotte Hornets. But sustaining that level of play over consecutive games has been problematic for Deng.
He's not being asked to be LeBron, the four-time league MVP who guided the Heat to four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and to two championships. But Deng is tasked with being a stabilizing force, needing to again prove he's among the NBA's best two-way perimeter players.
But much like the Heat, Deng is essentially in rebuilding mode again.
A combination of nagging injuries, constant rotation changes due to injuries among other players and early difficulties adjusting to his third team this calendar year have made it far from a seamless process. It has led to an uneven start for Deng, who is shooting at or near career-high levels from the field (50.3 percent) and 3-point range (39.0 percent), but is averaging at or near career lows in points (14.7), rebounds (4.7) and assists (1.5) through 13 games this season.
It has been 11 years since Deng opened a season as the new guy who had to find his way. But in Miami, he is one of as many as six newcomers being worked into a rotation that returned anchors in Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade but has also shifted the roles of several other holdovers.
It's created an environment where everyone is a work in progress. And that includes Wade, who has missed the past six games with a hamstring injury and could also sit out Tuesday against the Warriors.
"All of us are going through different processes," Deng said. "There are some things I knew to expect, starting the season with a team that's new to me. I was part of a place where I was familiar, so I didn't think much. There are times now I find myself out there thinking too much. Over the long run, I think it will go away as guys get used to me and I get used to the guys. I can then just play off instincts."
Deng vows to maintain patience and big-picture perspective through the balancing act. With a two-year, $20 million deal in Miami from a team that has admired his play from a distance for a decade, Deng can rely on at least some semblance of stability he lacked before he arrived.
There was distrust in Chicago.
The Bulls and Deng lost confidence they could agree on a contract extension after he spent his first nine seasons with the team. Reports had also surfaced that detailed tension between Deng and the Bulls medical staff over his injury treatment and recovery.
Then there was dysfunction in Cleveland.
Deng was traded to the Cavaliers in January from Chicago and stumbled from the outset because of a lingering Achilles injury. Cleveland was also beset by reports of locker room turmoil among players on the way to a fourth consecutive losing season. Coach Mike Brown was fired for a second time, and Deng departed as an unrestricted free agent after the season as the team cleared the way for LeBron's return.
And there was even disaster in Atlanta.
As Deng was being courted by teams in free agency, the Hawks emerged as a potential suitor. But after Deng signed with the Heat, he was the subject of a controversy in Atlanta for racially insensitive comments made by then-general manager Danny Ferry in a conference call with front office staffers. Ferry has been on leave from the team since the recording surfaced in August amid an internal investigation that also centered on an inflammatory email sent by Hawks owner Bruce Levenson.
Those episodes along the way make Deng's initial discomfort in Miami seem minimal.
"We're all here. We're all hard workers, and we believe we'll get there," Deng said of the Heat's collective quest for cohesion. "It's all about patience. There will be progress. I think everyone in the locker room believes in what we can be. There is going to be ups and downs, but it's just about everyone coming in and working every day."
Right now, Deng and the Heat are in a modest upswing. They've won consecutive games over Orlando and Charlotte and are looking for their first three-game win streak since opening the season 3-0. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has already used five different lineups, and the rotation could take another hit if reserve center Chris Andersen is forced to miss more time with an ankle injury he suffered Sunday.
Bosh is also leading the NBA in 20-point games, with 11 entering Tuesday. And rookie Shabazz Napier is making the most of the extended minutes he has seen recently by averaging 12.8 points over the past five games. The downs, however, include a trend in which the Heat seem to suffer an unsettling-to-downright-embarrassing home loss at least once each week.
Last week, the Los Angeles Clippers jumped out to a 20-point lead and cruised to a win. The week before that, it was the injury-depleted Indiana Pacers who pounded Miami on the boards in a stunning victory.
"That's why defense is so important -- offense is going to take some time," Bosh said after the Heat rallied for Sunday's win. "We haven't had many close games down the stretch. We've been down at home, and to get out of that situation you're going to have to face it. Our guys did a really good job of putting things in the past and focusing on the possessions that we had. It worked out for us. We really took a step forward as far as having that mental stability we always talk about having."
Ask Spoelstra about personnel -- or the lack thereof any given night -- and he answers with talk of perseverance.
"It's more about the resolve and mental toughness you build as a team," Spoelstra said. "Regardless of who's out there, are you playing consistently to your identity? Are we defending and sharing the ball?"
Deng benefited from that sharing in his last game. He missed his first shot against the Hornets, but then made his next eight attempts to score 19 of his 26 points in the first half. He stretched the floor with his 3-point shooting. He sliced his way toward the basket to score in the paint. He defended and rebounded on the other end.
It has taken a while, but it was a hint of what Deng can offer when he's in a familiar and comfortable role.
"I got a rhythm," Deng said. "We did a good job of moving the ball. It is really about being patient. There are going to be games where it doesn't look great or you don't get the looks you want and then there will be games that you do. It really is about sticking with it and trying to find that consistency."
Eventually, that consistency leads to confidence.
And, ultimately, that confidence provides the comfort Deng has lacked almost all year.
MIAMI -- With one towel wrapped around his waist and another draped over his shoulders, Miami Heat center Chris Bosh emerged from the showers after a recent game, carved through reporters waiting at his locker and noticed neighboring teammate Shannon Brown scrambling to get away.
Brown hurried to dress and clear out of the way so Bosh would have all the space he needed.
“Why are you rushing? It’s just the media,” Bosh said. “They’ve got questions. We’ve got answers.”
If only it were that simple for the Heat this season.
Within a span of seven days, Miami has displayed the best of its progress and potential with impressive victories at Dallas and Brooklyn. And the Heat have also shown just how painstaking the process of rebuilding on the fly can be in demoralizing home losses to Milwaukee and a depleted Indiana team.
One week, the Heat are riding high after an impressive 5-2 start in which Dwyane Wade flashed his newfound health and durability by playing six games in nine nights. And the next week, the Heat stumbled through three straight losses and a rash of injuries to three starters that included Wade missing time with a strained hamstring.
Every time it seems the Heat (6-5) are on the verge of providing answers, more questions arise.
“I guess it’s just part of what we have to go through, I guess, because we’re right in the middle of it,” Bosh said of the erratic start to the season. “You knew it was going to be a little difficult. But it comes in ways you don’t expect. You just have to stay with it until it turns. Just get on course and do better.”
There’s a significant chance to turn again with Thursday’s visit from the Los Angeles Clippers as Miami looks to distance itself from consecutive embarrassing home losses. But even that opportunity comes with its own set of questions, specifically regarding the health and availability of three key players.
After missing the past three games, Wade didn't go through shootaround Thursday and is doubtful to play against the Clippers. Luol Deng, who sprained his wrist in Sunday’s loss to the Bucks, was held out of Monday’s win against Brooklyn. Heat forward Josh McRoberts practiced Wednesday after missing Monday’s game with a bruised foot.
At a time when the Heat had hoped to gain traction and establish some early continuity, injuries and inconsistent performances have instead forced them to use four different starting lineups in 11 games.
Add in Bosh’s week-long shooting slump, and it presents a buffet of excuses that could have led to a poor performance on the second night of a back-to-back set entering Monday’s 95-83 win against the Nets. Yet, the hard-to-figure Heat turned in perhaps their most encouraging effort of the young season.
Amid Wade’s recent injury history, questions have been raised about the Heat’s depth at shooting guard after an offseason in which Ray Allen and James Jones both departed. But Mario Chalmers, who has transitioned from starting point guard the past several seasons to Wade’s primary backup this season, has thrived in his new role. He’s shot 53 percent from the field and averaged 21 points and seven assists in the three games Wade has missed.
The Heat have also relied more heavily on rookie guards Shabazz Napier and James Ennis and hope they can build on their efforts from Monday, when they combined for 21 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and two steals and saw extended time in the fourth quarter. But those productive moments guarantee absolutely nothing moving forward. So far, the trend has seen that the Heat take one huge step forward only to lose their balance the next time they’re on the court.
Maintaining progress and patience has been a challenging balancing act for the Heat.
“You have to embrace that as a competitor, really,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The NBA season turns like this for you, for whatever reason. The ball isn’t bouncing the right way. You’re not getting the calls you think you’re going to get. There are injuries. Guys are in and out of the lineup. That’s when you reveal yourselves as a basketball team. That’s how you grow -- [through] these mini points of adversity.”
That adversity has produced some uneven moments for a team that is working with as many as six new rotation players who were around for Miami’s two championships and four straight trips to the Finals.
Settling in means there are going to be some flashes of phenomenal play, which was the case when Miami efficiently carved through Dallas on Nov. 9 with beautiful ball movement that led to a season-high 31 assists and 55.3 percent shooting in that 105-96 victory. But getting acquainted also means there will be miscommunication and frustration, which were prominent when the Heat were outrebounded by 25 boards on Nov. 12 against the Pacers and consistently blew coverage assignments two nights after in Atlanta, where the Hawks shot 56 percent and scored 114 points.
No player on the Heat’s roster understands the challenge of change more than Deng, who is with his third team this calendar year after he was traded from Chicago to Cleveland last season before he signed with the Heat as a free agent over the summer.
“It’s definitely tough ... we’re having different lineups out there,” said Deng, who fills the starting small forward spot vacated by LeBron James. “The last couple of games, there have been games we showed how good we can play together. But it’s a long season. And this is definitely a learning process. We just have to come together, see the things we’re doing great and stick to that. And the things that are beating us, we have to learn to avoid those. Hopefully we can benefit from all of this in the long run.”
Bosh has been here before.
He knows it’s impossible to endure the long run by being short on patience. That, in part, is why he isn’t too perplexed by his recent shooting woes. After getting off to one of the most productive starts of his career through the first seven games, Bosh has shot just 28.3 percent from the field in his past four outings. He’s missed 11 of 14 attempts from 3-point range and averaged just 13.4 points in that span.
Bosh held himself and his teammates accountable with a harsh message after Sunday’s loss to the Bucks -- a setback that included his 2-for-17 shooting performance.
“We’re starting to see the same mistakes over and over and we’re just going to have to have a serious talk about it,” Bosh told ESPN.com after that game. “We’re not talking on defense; we’re not even running our set plays. It just can’t happen. If we’re going to go down, let’s go down executing and playing our game. We’re going down making mental lapses and mistakes at opportune times. I can understand missed shots. That comes and goes. But if we’re not even running plays ...”
About 24 hours later, after the relative breakthrough in Brooklyn, Bosh praised Napier and Ennis for showing some resilience and talked about the boost veteran Danny Granger provided in his debut after sitting out the first 10 games with a hamstring injury.
“We’re going to need them,” Bosh said.
The next step is to put two consistent weeks together.
Playing two consistent games would be a start.
“We just have to continue discussions about where guys are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do,” Bosh said. “We can do this. We just have to pound away until it sticks.”
Maybe that’s when the answers will start to overshadow the questions facing the Heat.
The Post-Up Podcast
MIAMI -- The worst part was the uncertainty.
Chris Bosh remembers all of those times he would enter the Miami Heat’s training facility three hours before tip-off, see teammate Dwyane Wade’s troublesome knee being poked, prodded, tested, diagnosed and then reevaluated again by the medical staff before the final word arrived.
The Heat’s starting lineup would be written up on the team’s dry-erase board. There were plenty of nights last season when Bosh and his teammates wouldn’t learn of Wade’s availability until just before the game when they realized his name wasn’t among the five listed.
“He might make a wrong move in warm-ups, and then that would be it,” Bosh recalled Tuesday of Wade. “It was just that much of a delicate situation. Before, it was giving him trouble and even he didn’t know what was going to happen. He was stressed out because he didn’t even know how he was going to wake up in the morning, whether he was going to be fine that day or hurting from the start.”
It’s a far different sort of start that has Wade and his teammates far more encouraged about his prospects now. Coming off a season in which he missed 28 games largely due to knee issues the team tried to address through a proactive maintenance program, Wade’s availability and production have been the most surprising aspects of the Heat’s 5-2 start entering Wednesday’s game against Indiana.
Among the biggest accomplishments of the Heat’s young season is that Wade, 32, not only pushed through a recent stretch of six games in nine nights, but thrived while doing so. Wade has already played in every game of Miami’s three back-to-back sets, which matches his total from all of last season.
Wade finished with 20 points and 10 assists in Sunday’s 105-96 win at Dallas a night after he had 25 points, eight assists and two steals in 30 minutes during a 102-92 home victory against Minnesota. Wade still deals with some uncertainty. He joked in Dallas that he woke up in the team hotel amid the dizzying recent schedule and didn’t immediately know what city he was in.
For now, health seems to be the least of his worries, although conditioning remains his top priority. That’s one reason why Wade, a perennial All-Star with three championship rings among other accolades, was proud Tuesday to count his recent stretch of production as a significant personal accomplishment.
Even after the Heat absorbed back-to-back losses last week to Houston and Charlotte, Wade approached coach Erik Spoelstra with a bounce in his step, having totaled 44 points on 16-of-29 shooting in 64 minutes over those two contests.
“I told Coach, obviously coming out of four [games] in five nights, we lost two of those -- I said, ‘Well, I had an individual victory, playing my best on the last night of those,” Wade said. “The same thing with the six [games] in nine [nights], playing my most minutes in the biggest stretch. It’s all good from the standpoint of the work I put in this summer. It’s very, very early, but I’m happy where I’m at right now.”
Neither Wade nor Spoelstra would venture into great detail how Wade’s conditioning and maintenance program has evolved from the process they went through last season.
But Spoelstra has been fond of saying that Wade is “putting in a typical American workday” in terms of showing up for eight-hour shifts. That time incorporates practices and games, in addition to the conditioning routine Wade goes through before practices or after game-day shootarounds as well as the treatment sessions after games.
Wade and Bosh have shared the additional burden created by LeBron James’ return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in free agency after the trio guided the Heat to two titles and four straight trips to the NBA Finals.
Bosh has scored at least 20 points in all seven games this season, which is his longest streak with the Heat, and is the only player in the league averaging at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and three assists a game. And Bosh’s four double-doubles this season are only two shy of his total for all of last season.
For Wade, the transition has allowed him to serve as the team’s primary facilitator and he’s averaging 19.7 points, a team-high 6.9 assists and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 51 percent from the field. He’s had two games with at least 10 assists, which match his total from 54 regular-season games last season.
“What you’re seeing now is the residual of all the work Dwyane has put in -- I keep saying he’s working a full American day,” Spoelstra said. “He’s not shortcutting any part of the process. It’s not easy. But it’s what he has to do to keep himself at a high level. We’re all happy with the process, his commitment.”
Wade has advanced from a trial-and-error process to a more stable and reliable routine this season. Two years ago, Wade entered the 2012-13 season recovering from knee surgery. He came into last season coming off a shock-wave therapy procedure to address extensive bone bruises in his right knee and spent much of the season in and out of the lineup as he played through the rehab process.
The wild production swings last season led to Wade’s strong performance against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals but his confounding struggles in a five-game loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. This past offseason was all about conditioning, which included reshaping his body and losing enough weight to require a smaller size in his game-night jersey and shorts.
“Every year is different. Last year was last year,” Wade said. “My body went through a different thing and we went through a different program. It worked at certain moments and it didn’t at others. Right now, this year is different and we’re starting off different. You can’t control it. As long as you put the work in, hopefully you’ll see the progress you make from the process.”
Teammates as well as opponents have already witnessed the progression.
Bosh said Wade shouldn’t be expected to play in every back-to-back and will likely take some games off this season even if healthy. The difference between this season and last season, Bosh said, is that his teammate seems rejuvenated and determined to lead by example on and off the court.
It starts with Wade being healthy, reliable and available.
“It’s smart to have that balance with him,” Bosh said. “But we have to be a little smarter with the balance this year. We had the luxury of having a super veteran team in the past, and he knew that guys would pick up the slack. But we have a younger core now, and we have to all do a little more. He’s responded well to that. It’s just something you deal with, and for him it’s a lot of motivation.”
Wade sort of forgot how good all of this attention felt, especially from opposing defenses.
As the Heat were on their way to racking up a season-high 31 assists and carving through the Dallas Mavericks for their most impressive win of the season so far, Wade noticed the additional company he commanded each time he touched the ball.
There were nights last season when Wade would have been a forgotten man in a suit on the bench as his team trudged through the second game of a back-to-back set.
He’s now back to being the center of attention, commanding a double-team.
“It felt good to get that back,” Wade joked Tuesday. “It’s a sign of respect. I have to make the plays I’m making to get off the ball. I’m comfortable at understanding the game and knowing when to get guys shots and when to get my own. It’s back to my comfort zone I’ve had pretty much my whole life.”
MIAMI -- Among the baskets Dwyane Wade scored against the defense of Andrew Wiggins in the final four minutes Saturday were a 19-foot baseline jumper that took some of the tension out of a surprisingly close finish, and a clean split of the pick-and-roll that ended in a two-handed dunk that sealed Miami’s 102-92 win over the Timberwolves.
The No. 1 draft pick could’ve learned plenty just watching Wade close out the young Timberwolves, finishing with 25 points, eight assists and two steals.
“He asked me if I wanted to be great,” Wiggins said of his postgame exchange with Wade. “I said yes. He said I’ve got all the tools to be great, just keep working.”
Wiggins had his second double-figure scoring effort (10) but was 3-of-9 with one rebound and two assists. It was consistent with Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders’ description of Wiggins pregame, when he said the rookie can be “spectacular” at times but too often has “wasted minutes.”
It didn’t help that Wiggins, 19, wasn’t even the youngest starter on his team Saturday. Zach LaVine, younger than Wiggins by 15 days, started in place of Ricky Rubio, who suffered a severe sprain to his left ankle. Saunders said he started LaVine ahead of Mo Williams because LaVine projects as an important piece to the franchise’s future.
As is Wiggins, of course. And those few seconds he spent with Wade after the final whistle were hardly a waste.
“Those words at the end of the game just motivate me,” Wiggins said. "Already I'm thinking about what he said, and it’s going to carry through for a long time now.
“He’s one of the people I watched growing up, one of the people I idolized. That guy right there is great.”
MIAMI -- For the better part of the past four years -- even as LeBron James racked up regular-season and postseason MVP awards during four straight runs the NBA Finals -- Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra repeatedly referred to Chris Bosh as the team’s most important player.
And each time, the muffled scoffs and eye-rolling would follow from those within earshot.
But Spoelstra always felt there was a clear distinction between LeBron’s value and Bosh’s impact.
“I don’t expect everyone to always understand it,” Spoelstra would say at least once every couple of weeks. “But in terms of what we do, how we want to play, what we need to happen on the court on both ends for us to be successful, C.B. is our most important player. That’s how we see him.”
What Spoelstra saw then is becoming abundantly clear to many now.
Bosh is off to the most productive three-game start of his Miami tenure, and the Heat have emerged from the first full week of the regular season as the lone unbeaten team in the Eastern Conference after Sunday’s 107-102 victory against Toronto.
While Bosh refuses to buy into the notion that LeBron’s departure to Cleveland in free agency is solely responsible for his initial statistical outburst, the 12-year veteran believes his development is part of a natural progression in his game that was inevitable, regardless of Miami’s personnel.
In other words, after four straight seasons of seeing his scoring and rebounding numbers decline as he settled into a role as primarily a spot-up shooter, something had to give.
“It’s just time,” Bosh said after he finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes against the Raptors. “I knew I couldn’t settle into that same position I’ve been in the past four years, floating outside and shooting a couple of jumpers. I know I had to switch it up a little.”
This represents the fastest start for Bosh since his final season with the Raptors to begin the 2009-10 season, when he tallied 93 points, 44 rebounds, made all three of his 3-pointers and shot 45 free throws. Bosh has been fond of saying that even though his overall numbers dropped off once he arrived in Miami, that he is a much better player now than he was during his previous All-Star years in Toronto.
Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan was a rookie during Bosh’s final season in Toronto, and said there are aspects of his former teammate’s game that have expanded despite being featured far less in Miami.
“He was scoring 40 and doing all types of amazing things back then,” DeRozan said of Bosh, who averaged career-highs of 24 points and 10.8 rebounds for the Raptors the season before he opted out of his contract to test free agency in 2010. “It’s a tough question, but I think [Bosh is a better player now]. He’s still the same type of [dynamic] player, but he’s a lot better now than he was, a lot more mature.”
Bosh pointed out some specific areas where he felt his game has grown this season.
It starts with conditioning and consistency.
“For me, that’s what this year is all about,” Bosh said. “Before, I’ve had good starts or whatever, but I couldn’t keep it up. I ran out of gas. I’m just focusing now on playing it one game at a time and making sure I can sustain what I’m putting out there.”
Another facet of Bosh’s game that hints at expansion is his ability to make plays with the ball. He now gets many of the initial touches in halfcourt sets and has multiple options. His shot has comfortably extended out to 3-point range the past few seasons, but he also maintains a quickness advantage in majority of his matchups at center that allows him to get by opponents with his first step.
“More than anything, I’m a facilitator now,” said Bosh, who combined with Wade for 40 points, 22 rebounds and 11 assists Sunday. “I can find open guys a lot better. I can develop chemistry a bit better. I can work off catch-and-goes. I can work off the ball. All those things make me a bit more complete.”
But there’s nothing Bosh takes more pride in so far than his ability to get to the free-throw line, where he’s averaging nearly 10 attempts through the first three games. Still, Bosh and the Heat know better than to exude overwhelming confidence. The sample size is too small and a bit flawed at this point.
The Heat won their season opener against a Washington team that was missing two of its best three players, with guard Bradley Beal sidelined with a broken wrist and center Nene having served a one-game suspension. Miami’s second win was against a Philadelphia team that could be contending for the NBA’s worst record for a second consecutive season. Sunday’s game saw Bosh face a Raptors frontline that was without injured shot-blocker Amir Johnson.
But the Heat’s offense seems well ahead of schedule, with Miami averaging 109.3 points per game to rank second in the league behind Golden State. After finishing with 33 assists on Saturday against the Sixers, the Heat added 22 more to complete the back-to-back set Sunday. It has been an encouraging blend of ball-movement, back-to-back availability from Wade and bigger boosts from Bosh to begin the season.
“The best part about it is it hasn’t been strenuous,” Bosh said of the additional burden. “It feels natural.”
The schedule will bring tougher tests, with five of their next six games against teams that made the playoffs last season, beginning with Tuesday’s visit from the Houston Rockets.
“We’re three games into this, so it could quickly go the other way if guys start to feel comfortable,” Spoelstra said. “That’s not a referendum on our personnel. Guys see how we have to play to be successful.”
Continuing to play through Bosh is a start.
Especially considering the way he has started the season.
Sustaining it is the next test for Bosh and the Heat. But even a team that’s advanced to the NBA Finals the past four seasons and has won two titles in the span isn’t too proud to be pumped by opening 3-0.
Bosh insists it means something.
“Absolutely, we humbly take it,” he said. “We’ve been saying we want to get off to a good start. It’s about to get tougher. But it’s important for us to get going, hit the ground running. We just have to keep our head down, even though [critics] will come out and start saying how surprised they are. We just have to keep focusing on that day’s work and making sure we’re being the best team we can be.”
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.
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.”
Filling the four-time league MVP’s vocal leadership void is proving to be just as difficult for the Heat player who now commands the primary role in the offense as well as the team’s biggest contract.
Heat center Chris Bosh said Monday that in addition to adjusting aspects of his game entering the season, he’s also had to tweak major parts of his personality to effectively smooth the franchise’s transition into life after LeBron. Stepping up his production likely won’t be a problem for Bosh.
But speaking up more along the way? Well, that’s another ordeal altogether.
“It’s a challenge. I can’t duplicate what he did,” Bosh said of rallying the Heat around his voice the way LeBron has the past four seasons. “He’s a great leader. Guys followed him easily. And I’m trying to put my own spin on it and bring my own personality to it. That’s been a difficult journey for me, but I’m learning every day. I’m trying to make sure I personally talk to guys all the time and just take pointers from other people and see how I can bring all that to the table.”
Bosh quickly moved to the forefront of the Heat’s rebuilding process. Just hours after LeBron announced in July he was heading back to Cleveland in free agency, Bosh agreed to a five-year contract worth nearly $120 million to remain in Miami as the Heat’s building block for the present and future.
The Heat also brought back Dwyane Wade on a two-year, $33 million deal. Bosh and Wade each had a strong voice in how the Heat operated on and off the court in recent seasons. But even they fell in line beyond LeBron, who guided Miami to two championships in four consecutive trips to the Finals.
Along the way, there were plenty of moments when LeBron drew attention for the way he communicated with his teammates -- from yelling at point guard Mario Chalmers during games to leading teammates through a viral Harlem Shake video in the locker room.
While James’ style is louder and more demanding, Bosh is more laid-back and cerebral in his leadership approach. Still, there were moments when Bosh didn’t hesitate to be brutally honest and aggressively communicate with teammates in the past. It just wasn’t always a comfortable process.
“Naturally, no,” Bosh said after Monday’s practice as the Heat prepared for Wednesday’s season opener against the Washington Wizards. “It’s easier for me [to lead by example]. I like spending time by myself. [I have to] force myself to talk every day. It’s not easy. It’s something I will always work on. My wife pushes me every day to work on that stuff, so there’s no hiding for me. I might as well just get it over with and talk and be social. I’m comfortable doing it.”
It wasn’t just LeBron who left the Heat’s leadership circle. Miami’s overhaul also included the departures of veterans in Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis and James Jones. That has left Bosh and Wade to pick up the slack along with other long-term roster holdovers in Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers.
Bosh insists he’s not nervous or overwhelmed with the transition.
“I don’t do anxiety much anymore,” he said. “I just make sure I do enough to carry the responsibility.”
It’s a heavier load on multiple fronts.
But it’s less about what Bosh says, and more about what the Heat show as a collective unit.
“It doesn’t matter what we say ... in other people’s perception, we’ll be an underdog,” Bosh said of expectations facing the post-LeBron Heat in the East pecking order. “But for us, we’re trying to be an elite team. It’s going to take work. On paper, [other teams are] ahead. Chemistry-wise, I think Chicago is ahead. Talent-wise, Cleveland is ahead. But, you know, we have what it takes here. We have a chance.”