Wade: 'It's been a long road back'

MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade for MVP? Admit it. You're starting to consider it, after another stunning performance Monday night when Miami's rejuvenated star pick-pocketed John Salmons in the final seconds of double overtime, then hoisted a running 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded for the win over Chicago. Wade finished with 48 points, 12 assists and 4 steals and so thoroughly controlled the game, his friend LeBron James sent him postgame props in a text message.

Wade continues to nearly single-handedly coax the Heat into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, a remarkable turnaround from last season when his team won just 15 games and it would have been a cruel prank to suggest Wade belonged among the league's elite.

When Wade is feeling right, he is one of the most devastating pick-and-roll players in the game, bursting to the basket, as Kobe Bryant described it, "like a bat out of hell that nobody can catch.''

But Bryant wasn't talking about Wade in January 2008. Nobody was. The Miami Heat, less than two years removed from their first NBA championship, had faltered so quickly and so thoroughly that even their mounting losses were no longer noteworthy. As Wade struggled to overcome a dislocated shoulder and arthroscopic knee surgery, which stripped him of his trademark explosiveness, the Heat dropped 15 in a row, then 26 out of 27. The NBA merely yawned.

Miami -- and D-Wade -- had become irrelevant.

"I can't believe how quickly we don't matter,'' he told then-assistant coach Eric Spoelstra.

On Christmas Day last season against Cleveland, Wade maneuvered through the key and tried to elevate over LeBron James, his trusted friend and ardent rival. But Wade couldn't manufacture the lift he needed, and James swatted Wade's shot away like a nettlesome house fly.

"You all right?" James asked Wade as they ran down the court.

"I don't have it,'' Wade said. "I'm hurt.''

"You gotta sit out, man,'' James told him.

"I can't,'' Wade said.

After the game, James texted him with three words of advice: Shut it down.

"He wasn't D-Wade,'' James said. "You could tell by his game.''

James paused to consider what has transpired in the 15 months since that holiday encounter.

"Let me tell you something,'' he said. "I wouldn't want to test him now.''

Ask the Toronto Raptors whether Wade is feeling better. He dropped 42 points and eight assists on them Friday, then 24 hours later submitted 25 points, 12 assists and four steals in a loss to James' Cavs. The week before, he had rallied the Heat from a 16-point deficit against the Knicks by torching them for 46 points -- 24 in the fourth quarter. Factor in his 31 points and 16 assists against Detroit on Feb. 24 and his 50 points against Orlando two days before that, and no wonder the league's top scorer has aroused the interest of the same fan base that ignored him a season ago.

Wade isn't delusional. He knows the league MVP award has been handicapped as a two-man race between LeBron and Kobe, but after promising he wouldn't campaign for his own remarkable resurgence, he finally said last week he felt he merited consideration.

"It's been a long road back,'' Wade said. "I'm just grateful people are recognizing what I've done.''

Count James among the growing number of NBA observers who believe Wade belongs in the MVP conversation.

"To me,'' James said, "the way you judge an MVP is if you take a guy off their team, who struggles the most? Like last year. If you took Kobe off the Lakers or Chris Paul off the Hornets, who's struggling the most? It's the Hornets, right? But everyone has their own set of rules. Other people look at it as an individual thing. They go for numbers. Now, if you were looking at strictly the team last year, then that means either Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett should have won it.

"So I don't know what the [MVP] voters want. But whatever they're looking for, I'm pretty sure D-Wade has it.''

"I'd make the same case for Dwyane that people used to make for me when I was on a team that didn't have a lot of talent and we still managed to get to the playoffs,'' Bryant said. "People don't realize how difficult it is to do literally everything to get your team in.''

In Wade's case, that means leading his team in scoring, assists, steals and minutes. It means corralling a young nucleus of Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers and Daequan Cook (with Joel Anthony and Chris Quinn in smaller roles) that averages 22.8 years old and flounders without him on the floor.

The night before the Heat's Feb. 21 game with Philadelphia, Wade was watching game film and noted his energy level had slipped a little. The tendinitis in his knee tends to flare up with heavy minutes, so he texted Spoelstra, now Miami's head coach, and asked the coach to consider paring his minutes back to 36-38 a game.

Here's why that's close to impossible. After Wade helped Miami build a 20-10 lead over the Sixers, he took a well-deserved breather. When he returned 3 minutes and 53 seconds later, Philly was winning 26-22.

"Hey!'' Wade admonished his young teammates as he returned to the court. "Get your heads on straight.''

Wade willingly left all the speeches and the noise and the motivational stuff to Shaquille O'Neal, Antoine Walker, Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning during their 2006 championship run, even though he led the team in points, assists, steals and 3-point shooting and was second only to O'Neal in blocks during the NBA Finals.

That title team was built for the moment, and when Spoelstra walked into the gym the following September to check on the progress of the team, there wasn't a single player there.

"We celebrated our championship a little too long,'' Spoelstra said.

Wade was not immune to that. He basked in the glow of his new celebrity, frequenting the most exclusive Miami hot spots and enjoying the buzz that comes with being the Finals MVP. He was 24 years old, and he had it all: a championship ring, a beautiful wife and the instant respect of his NBA peers.

I don't know what the [MVP] voters want. But whatever they're looking for, I'm pretty sure D-Wade has it.

-- LeBron James

The thrill was gone as quickly as it had come. He injured his shoulder and couldn't shake the nagging tendinitis in his knee. Miami "defended'' its title by getting swept by the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs the following spring. Then, in 2007-08, the team unraveled as coach Pat Riley questioned O'Neal's commitment and conditioning, and the big fella claimed Riley used him as a scapegoat for an aging, crumbling nucleus.

Wade attempted to straddle the thin line of pledging solidarity to a teammate and of loyalty to the coach who had drafted him. It was an optimal moment to exert some leadership, to take a stand, but Wade deferred.

"I wasn't comfortable with it,'' he said.

By March 2008, O'Neal was gone, the Heat were still losing and Wade's knee was still aching.

The Heat shut him down, then flew in an OssaTron shock wave treatment machine to increase the blood flow to his ailing knee. They hooked him up to the machine, which, according to Quinn (who had the procedure done on his foot), "is like putting your finger in an electric socket and leaving it there for 30 minutes.''

In late spring, Wade went to see acclaimed conditioning expert Tim Grover, Michael Jordan's former trainer, who immediately began bending and extending Wade's knee in ways that made him anxious. Grover, who had worked with Wade in his rookie season, was startled by the change in the kid's demeanor.

"He seemed to have lost quite a bit of his confidence,'' Grover said.

For five weeks, Wade toiled with Grover, doing basketball skills, conditioning drills and rehabilitation treatment. In the sixth week, he called James and Paul and asked them to join him in Chicago.

"I need to see where I am,'' he said.

The trio of NBA stars scrimmaged with some of Grover's other clients. Wade was initially cautious, but when Paul threw an alley-oop lob to him near the rim, he did what came naturally.

"He went up and got it,'' Paul said.

"OK, he's back,'' James declared as D-Wade jammed the ball through.

The final test required Wade to stand on top a 4-foot box. When Grover gave him the signal, Wade jumped as high as he could, pulled his knees up to his chest, then landed on the floor. By Grover's calculations, the force with which Wade landed was akin to being dropped in a free fall from 10 feet in the air.

"I knew if the muscles in his legs were strong enough to stick the landing, he'd be fine,'' Grover said.

Wade flew to Beijing, happily served as a super sub and led the U.S. in scoring on the way to Olympic gold. He observed Bryant and James carefully, knowing that when he returned to Miami, he would be expected to exhibit some leadership of his own.

Bryant shared his knowledge by pulling players aside and quietly discussing it one on one. Then there was James, the most vocal leader Wade had ever seen, barking out orders on the defensive end of the floor like a middle linebacker in the NFL.

"I don't have that in me,'' Wade fretted.

"Then don't fake it,'' Bryant told him. "You can't be someone you're not. There are different ways to lead. I'm not LeBron. I'm not going to run around at 100 miles per hour. I have to do it my way, and so do you.''

When Wade returned to South Beach, Spoelstra noted a subtle shift. Wade always had been the first one in line for drills, but now he was calling out players who didn't toe the line. The young guys responded. Their enthusiasm was contagious, refreshing.

"They bring so much spirit,'' Spoelstra said. "At times we need a bowl of Ritalin, but there's no doubt Dwyane has fed off their energy.''

Wade's future is connected to players like Beasley, who Riley (now the team president) says could be the most offensively gifted player he's ever seen.

"If Beasley averaged 30 minutes a night, he'd score 24 points a game,'' Riley said. "If he played 40 minutes, he'd lead the league in scoring.

"Now, he might give up 30 on the other end. There's a lot of things right there, but a lot of things wrong, too.''

When Beasley's defense faltered and his minutes dwindled, Wade quietly pulled him aside the way Bryant did with him in Beijing. The message: Be patient.

"I've been 'the man' my whole life,'' Beasley said. "I've never had to take a back seat to anyone.

"When D-Wade sees me getting discouraged, he tells me, 'I need you.' Sometimes I need to hear that.''

Here's the irony: Wade really does need them. Even with his gaudy stats and his new 225-pound frame with 6 percent body fat, this has not been a dream season. His personal life is in shambles, the result of a marriage gone horribly sour and embarrassingly public.

There have been accusations by his estranged wife, Siohvaughn Wade, of infidelity, sexual misconduct and drug use, prompting Wade to counter with a defamation suit. He remains in a bitter custody dispute over his two young sons. He acknowledges he's made mistakes, "but they are private things I shouldn't have to talk about with everyone,'' he said.

The effect it's had, Riley said, is obvious, but the mental resolve Wade has demonstrated has allowed him to play on. Being a franchise player, Riley reminded him, means owning up to your actions.

"He feels he's been wronged by a lot of what's been said," Riley said. "These kinds of stories can be insidious. But I told him he also needs to take responsibility for the things he is culpable for.''

Before Riley acquired veteran center Jermaine O'Neal from Toronto, he flew the player in for a private meeting and said he expected a commitment to the low-post game and a rededication to conditioning. Then Riley asked Wade what he thought.

"Bring him in,'' Wade said. "We'll make it work.''

"It was a great show of his leadership,'' Riley said. "Reminded me of Magic [Johnson].''

With Jermaine O'Neal in the lineup, the Heat present a more balanced offense that opens up possibilities for Wade that haven't been there since Shaq was at his peak with Miami.

A year ago, if you had elicited an honest response from Wade, he would have told you it was time to seriously contemplate a change of scenery when his contract expires in 2010. While he'd be foolish to eliminate that as an option, he clearly has been rejuvenated by his teammates. They are young and loose and free -- just like his game again. Along with being healthy, Wade has honed his midrange game and his ball distribution.

"It used to be, 'OK, let's take away his drive and let him shoot it,''' Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "Now it's, 'Hey, let's take away his drive and pray he misses it.'''

The young Heat players have helped Wade set up a return to the postseason, but the MVP hardware might have to wait until the Heat mature into contenders.

"It's all right,'' Wade said. "I've always said the only MVP I really care about is the one you get in the Finals.''

Wade already has been there, done that, yet he is no longer a wide-eyed kid content to lead by example.

"This time,'' D-Wade said, "it's on me.''

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPN.com.