By Dylan Barmmer
Dwyane Wade wasn't always at his best last season.
A sore and at-times swollen left knee challenged him often, especially in the postseason. But the face of the franchise still played a vital and irreplaceable role as the HEAT claimed their second NBA title, averaging 22.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks while shooting 46.2% from the field over 23 playoff games.
So last July, arthroscopic knee surgery was performed. Wade even bypassed the 2012 Summer Olympics to get his body and mind properly prepared for the rigors of his 10th NBA season.
And when the 2012-2013 NBA season started and began to flow into its groove, Wade didn't always appear to be finding or staying in his. HEAT head coach Erik Spoelstra even opted to hold Wade out of three games in November, a month that saw him average 17.1 points, 4.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks while shooting 46.6% from the floor over 10 games.
At the time, there were whispers and even some public proclamations about Wade's alleged loss of athleticism and overall decline as a star player.
Now? Not so much.
Dwyane Wade is back. And always on the attack. On both ends of the court. In all phases of the game.
Same as he ever was.
Ever since he entered the NBA as a fresh-faced rookie out of Marquette in the 2003-04 season, "attack" has been the word Wade seems to use most to describe his own attitude and style of play.
Now, a decade into a career that has seen him win two NBA titles and an NBA Finals MVP -- as well as 9 All-Star selections, 2 All-NBA First Team selections and an NBA scoring title in 2008-09 -- the 31-year-old Wade is attacking as hard and relentlessly as he always has.
And smarter and more efficiently than ever before.
As the HEAT have compiled a remarkable 47-14 record that includes a franchise-record and NBA-season-best 18-game-and-counting winning streak, Wade has shot a career-best 52.3% from the field -- well above his already impressive 48.8% career average. His 21.8 points per game rank second on the HEAT behind reigning MVP LeBron James' 26.8 and ninth in the entire NBA...and just off the 22.1 regular-season average he posted while helping James and Chris Bosh lead the HEAT to the NBA title last season.
Wade's 4.9 assist-per-game average ranks second on the HEAT behind James' 7.1, and is his highest since he averaged 6.5 assists a game in 2009-10. He's even posted 15 games with at least 7 assists so far this season.
Wade's work on the boards has been equally impressive. His 5.0 rebound-per-game average puts him fourth on the HEAT and is just off his career average of 5.1 -- and above the 4.8 average he posted last season. Wade has grabbed at least 6 rebounds in 20 games, including a season-high 12 in a 99-94 win over Charlotte on Feb. 4.
But Wade's game has always been about excelling in all areas -- on both ends of the court. Spoelstra has praised Wade's relentless and disruptive defensive work several times this season, and it's easy to see why.
Long recognized as one of the most accomplished, instinctive, prolific and clutch shot blockers at his position, the 6-foot-4 Wade is averaging 0.82 blocks per game, third behind the 6-foot-11 Bosh's 1.26 and the 6-foot-8 James' 0.85 averages. There are some longtime NBA observers who believe that Wade is the best shot-blocking guard in the history of the NBA, and when you consider he is the only guard in NBA history to average 1 block per game throughout his career, it's easy to see why.
Even as he fought through all that knee pain last season -- and played a career-low 33.2 minutes per game -- Wade averaged 1.3 blocks per game. That was more than four times the typical NBA shooting guard's average, and on a per-minute basis, Wade actually swatted away more shot attempts than not only Bosh, but fellow big men Kevin Garnett (6-foot-11), Pau Gasol (7-foot) and LaMarcus Aldridge (6-foot-11).
As per usual, this season has seen Wade grab a handful of game-shifting and game-saving swats...and steals.
Wade's knack for taking the ball away from the opponent remains firmly intact. His 1.79 steals per game this season lead the HEAT and rank seventh in the NBA, and are right around his career average of 1.8. Wade has snared 3 or more steals 13 times this season -- including a season-high 6 in a 105-91 win over the Indiana Pacers on March 10 -- and has recorded at least 1 steal in each of the past 22 games, helping guide the HEAT to a 20-2 record during that remarkable run. That streak has also put Wade within striking distance of Sherman Douglas' franchise record of 27 straight games with a steal.
Lately, Wade has seemed particularly spectacular. And at times, nearly unstoppable.
Wade poured in a season-high 39 points in a 141-129 double-overtime win over the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 26. He also racked up 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks in 45 monumental minutes of action -- draining 19 of 28 shots from the floor in a rousing win that kept the HEAT's winning streak alive at 12 games.
The next game out, Wade scored a HEAT-high 22 points, handed out 8 assists and grabbed 4 rebounds and 2 steals as the HEAT knocked off a physical Memphis Grizzlies team 98-91 on March 1. Wade shot 9 of 16 from the floor and came up big in several key moments as the HEAT snapped the Grizzlies' own 8-game winning streak.
Two days later, in a nationally televised battle with the nemesis Knicks, Wade pumped in 20 points, lobbed 8 assists and grabbed 8 rebounds under the hot lights of Madison Square Garden. The near-triple-double helped the HEAT post a 99-93 win and avenge two earlier losses to the Knicks. Wade shot 8 of 16 from the field and grabbed 1 steal to stretch his steals streak to 18 games...and the HEAT's winning streak reached 14 games.
Wade then scored 32 points, grabbed 7 rebounds and dished a season-high 10 assists in a 97-81 victory at Minnesota on March 4. He sank 15 of 23 shots from the floor in ruthlessly dissecting the Timberwolves defense...and 14 of his 15 field goals were layups.
Two nights later, Wade scored 24 points on 10-for-16 shooting in a thrilling 97-96 comeback win over Orlando. That put him at a remarkable 62% clip over his previous seven games -- a stretch that saw him net at least 20 points in each game -- including 30 or more 3 times. Wade also grabbed a game-high 4 steals and 6 rebounds, and his big game was instrumental in the HEAT rallying to extend their win streak to 16 games -- a mark that surpassed the previous franchise record of 15 consecutive wins.
Wade's averages during that 7-game run looked like this:
27.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 0.9 blocks.
And on March 11, the NBA announced that Wade had been named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for games played from March 4-10. It was the 16th such honor earned by Wade in his stellar career, tying a franchise record. As the release announced, Wade shot 50% or better from the field in all 4 games that week, and has now hit at least 50% of his field goal attempts in 10 straight games -- 1 game shy of tying his career-best streak. He also scored at least 20 points in each of the week's 4 games, and is in the midst of nine consecutive games with 20 points or more.
Wade's averages over those 4 games looked like this:
25.3 points, 5.0 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 3.5 steals -- while shooting 60.6% from the field and 88.2% from the line.
Those are numbers that normally affix themselves to James' name these days. And statistics that have proven absolutely vital in the HEAT establishing yet another franchise record during this electrifying 2012-13 season.
But even his stat-stuffing statistics don't tell the full story of Wade's value to this HEAT team.
Asked to defer some of his marquee billing and surrender shot attempts since James and Bosh joined the HEAT prior to the 2010-11 season, Wade has graciously accepted a somewhat reduced role on offense...and learned to optimize efficiency without compromising aggression. He doesn't furiously launch his body into the fray as much as he used to in past seasons, and doesn't make quite as many appearances at the free-throw line as a result -- though his 346 attempts from the line rank second to only James' 414 on the HEAT and ninth among all NBA players.
Wade still racks up his fair share of slam dunks, and many of them remain highlight-worthy. But there is oh so much more to Wade's offensive game these days, and his ever-burgeoning and polished skill set means maximum and at times eye-popping efficiency -- for both Wade personally and the HEAT as a team.
From his lethal Euro Step to his dazzling array of flip and scoop shots to his baseline-blitzing layups and reverse layups to his sweet midrange jumper, Wade can savvily and coldly dissect an opposing defense in a wide variety of ways. And he seems to always do it with an extra touch of creative flair, routinely making almost everything look cool and easy. At times, it's like watching an inspired artist go to work on a blank canvas. With a seemingly infinite palette of colors to paint with.
And then there are Wade's many talents as a leader. His Chicago-born and -bred toughness speaks for itself, and seems to often set the tone for the HEAT as a unit. His willingness to praise his teammates, especially James, who he dubbed "off the planet" good recently, mirrors his eagerness to share the ball on the court -- where his pinpoint-perfect lobs to James have resulted in dozens of dunks that seem to defy the lays of gravity and have often rattled not just the rim, but also the will and focus of opposing teams.
Wade has developed an amazing synchronicity and chemistry with James in their three seasons together, with seemingly each game providing at least one or two amazing moments of basketball poetry between the superstar teammates -- especially on the fast break, which is frequently triggered by a Wade steal. It's almost as if each man knows exactly what the other is going to do, well before he does it.
And the way Wade is playing in his 10th NBA season, HEAT fans can rest assured knowing that whatever he does on a given evening...it will be something special to behold.
Same as it's ever been.