MIAMI -- Despite the nagging knee aches, the frequent absences from the lineup on game nights and a 32nd birthday approaching next month, it’s still way too soon to roll out the rocking chair for Dwyane Wade.
But there are times when the Miami Heat veteran guard steps on the porch, takes a long gaze across the NBA landscape and wonders how 11 years have flown by so fast.
It’s during these reflective moments when Wade’s mind and body are at odds, with his spirit caught in the tug-of-war. Then, the flashbacks place matters in perspective.
As the Heat prepared to open a five-game homestand Saturday against Cleveland, Wade recalled those Heat practices from a decade ago when his youthful exuberance and health were balanced by methodical veteran savvy.
“I remember coming in and seeing Eddie Jones when I got here, and he would dunk every once in a while, and guys would be like, ‘Oh,’” Wade said as he suddenly rocked back to mimic the excitement of his early Heat teammates. “And I’m like, ‘Why is it a big deal because he dunked? But now it’s like, ‘Well yeah, it’s a big deal.’ When I dunk now, they’re like, ‘Oh, (crap!).’ It’s just part of it.”
The "it" Wade was referring to is the aging process in the NBA. It is the process of processing one’s mortality. And it’s the stage all stars eventually get to in their decorated careers; the stage when you realize you’re no longer what you once were but still good enough to be effective. And all the while, there are ongoing negotiations with Father Time to delay the inevitable decline for another season or two.
Wade’s troublesome knees have sped up this process the past couple of seasons. He’s now in his third consecutive season of having to deal with soreness, inflammation, swelling, bruising or the aftereffects of surgery or extensive shock-wave therapy with one knee or the other.
Wade has already missed six games this season while simultaneously playing and rehabbing the bruised right knee that slowed him throughout the Heat’s run to a second championship last season and required the OssaTron treatment over the summer. With the Heat having benefited from three days off since they returned from a four-game trip, all signs from the extended rest and light practice session the past two days point to Wade being back on the court for Saturday’s home game against the Cavaliers.
But Wade’s availability can no longer be taken for granted. Before each game, Wade goes through a meticulous process -- treatment sessions with trainers, evaluations from the medical staff and conversations with coach Erik Spoelstra's staff before his game status is determined.
Although the Heat will not hold a morning shootaround before playing Cleveland, that general process will be no different Saturday. Wade recently explained in detail how the decision-making process works in determining when he plays and when he takes a night off to rest amid the team’s maintenance program designed to preserve his knees.
“It (starts) when I come in and see my trainer,” Wade said. “We talk about how I’m feeling, then kind of go from there. Sometimes Coach has made a decision (moments) before a game. Sometimes, I've told him at shootaround when I haven’t played. It’s really no perfect way to feel it out. It’s really no schedule; just kind of feeling things out.”
There were at least two occasions this season when Wade anticipated playing but was held out by the staff as a precaution. Then there was the Nov. 16 game in Charlotte, where Wade pushed through a second game in two nights, aggravated his knee and was sidelined for a week.
Initially, both Wade and Spoelstra dismissed the incident in Charlotte as Wade simply testing where his knee stood. But as time went on, Wade has acknowledged it was a full-blown setback and a mistake for him to play both nights of a back-to-back set, something he avoided in the preseason.
“Obviously, when you think about the biggest thing we talk about, it’s back-to-backs,” Wade said. “I continue to tell Coach that I’m a player, so it’s going to have to be your decision more than mine. But I will let him know how I feel after we play -- not really looking at the calendar saying, ‘I don’t want to play this team or this team.’ It’s just more so how I’m feeling, because I know when I’m on the court, I help give my team the best chance to win.”
The results obviously bear that out. Miami is 3-3 in games Wade has missed this season and 13-3 with him in the lineup. It’s likely Wade will need about another month of conditioning and rehab before his knee responds the way he hopes, barring any additional setbacks along the way.
Until then, his default status will continue to be day-to-day.
“Some days are worse than others; you can’t predetermine it,” Wade said. “You just have to stay consistent with your work, and you never know when that moment is going to come, when you continue to do your work, that it’s going to feel amazing, that it’s going to feel great.”
Wade pointed to one such reprieve late last season. After initially sustaining a bone bruise on his right knee in March, the condition gradually grew worse through June.
Wade dragged that knee through three rounds of playoffs and into the first three games of the NBA Finals against San Antonio before he caught a bit of relief. With the Heat trailing 2-1 in the series, Wade had 32 points, 6 rebounds, 6 steals and 4 assists in 40 minutes during a 109-93 victory in San Antonio to even the series at 2-2.
Over the final four games of the series, including the Game 7 clincher in Miami, Wade averaged 23.5 points, 6 rebounds and 4.8 assists to help secure a second consecutive title and third overall in 10 years with Miami.
“Last year, from April my knee was bothering me all the way and then I got a breakthrough in Game 4 of the Finals, and I finally felt good,” Wade said. “It’s been frustrating all this time, but I felt I stayed consistent with my work and I got my breakthrough when we needed it most. I was able to finish the Finals and have a strong game. You just never know. You just have to stay consistent with your work.”
It’s drawing from those lessons that allow Wade to stick with his plan this season, despite the urges to play. He tries to avoid getting too caught up in what he’s called a lose-lose battle with perception. When he sits out, there will be critics who suggest he’s in sharp decline and no longer a player LeBron James can rely on consistently. If he pushes and plays on nights when he’s uncomfortable and struggles, there will be skeptics who question why he didn't sit out and save the mileage until the playoff push.
But it’s always ultimately about the long-term view.
“It’s a fine line,” Wade said. “Obviously, we have the team that gives us the ability to be able to do that, to plug guys in and help us be successful. So that makes it easier. But it’s still difficult, you know, because it hurts … Obviously, we want everyone healthy all the time. Every team does. So your team chemistry isn’t as great as it could be. But at the same time we, in here, understand. We’ve been to the Finals three years in a row. We understand what the bigger picture is all about. That’s what we’re striving for.”
Meanwhile, Wade’s stride has carried him through some sporadic steps over the first quarter of the season.
On the surface, Wade is averaging 18.4 points, 5.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds while shooting a career-high 52.3 percent from the field on about 14 shots per game, which is his lowest attempts average since his rookie season. Upon further inspection, there have been doses of his familiar, attacking and explosive play mixed in with stretches of struggle and absences. Twice, Wade has scored at least 20 points over four consecutive games. But after playing in nine of the first 10 games this season, he has missed five of 12.
Wade has sat out of three of the past five games heading into Saturday’s matchup with Cleveland. It’s been a steady balance of breakthroughs, breakdowns and buildups with those balky knees -- a classic definition of day-to-day.
“We all have to play through some kind of pain,” said Wade, who has also seen James battle through back soreness all season without missing a game. “There’s some that you can play with and some you shouldn’t play with, depending on the nature of the injury. Sometimes you wake up after so much pain, but you continue to do your work, you continue to do your rehab and therapy, and you’re like, 'Man, I’m not as limited today.' But you just never know when that time is going to be.”
There were no limitations last Saturday in Minnesota, where Wade asked to remain in the game well after the Heat took a commanding lead down the stretch because he wanted to work on his conditioning and rhythm. Spoelstra granted Wade’s request and watched him finish with 19 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 32 minutes in Wade’s first game back after sitting out nearly a week.
Another rest stop came the next night in Detroit, with Wade skipping the second game of the back-to-back set. And there also weren't many limitations in Tuesday’s marquee matchup with Indiana. Both Wade and James struggled in the second half on the way to a loss. But an encouraging moment came when, in transition, James found a streaking Wade, who handled the pass and then took off from just outside the lane for a soaring two-handed dunk.
Wade held onto the rim, swinging from one side to the other, for extra emphasis before dismounting. His teammates jumped out of their seats on the bench.
It was one of those Eddie Jones moments.
“Every now and then, you show a little something,” Wade said of the play. “You don’t do it often. As you get older, you have to save it a little more.”
The aging process isn't transpiring quite as gracefully as Wade would like. In fact, he said, "it sucks."
He’s accepting that his knees won’t ever allow him to be 100 percent healthy again. But Wade also isn't ready to let the up-and-coming perimeter stars completely pass him by.
“You want to be able to be like the young guys in the league, but you’re not,” Wade said. “But you still have to understand you’re good enough, and you’re effective enough. It’s just about growing and being smart and understanding your body is different than your body (was) at 23. I laugh now, but I see these young guys, the Paul Georges, and all these guys. And I’m like, 'Man, those were the great days, the good old days when you felt that way.’”
Then the years add up and another reality sets in.
“When you get on that other side, when you get about 28, you start reaching that other side,” Wade said. “Then by 30, it’s another side. These guys will see it one day.”
For now, old man Wade is confident he’ll have enough fight to keep them off his lawn when it matters most.