Heat's Wade has plenty of motivation

MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade literally looked younger Monday than he did three months earlier when he was hoisting a championship trophy for the third time.

He's leaner -- the result of six weeks of training with famed Chicago trainer Tim Grover, emphasizing resistance training instead of the usual weights. His hair is trimmed a little shorter, reminiscent of his first few years in the league. He's refreshed after an offseason that also included plenty of rest for that badly bruised right knee that hampered him throughout the 2013 playoffs.

He appears as prepared as ever for the greatest challenge he's ever faced. For Wade that challenge is multilayered.

Not only does he want to help lead the Heat to a third straight title in a season in which the elite in the Eastern Conference have bulked up, but he wants to look particularly good doing it.

He wants to prove that last postseason's struggles (15.9 points on 45.7 percent shooting) were the result of an unfortunate knee injury and not some sudden decline.

He wants to prove not just that he's still a top-10 player -- Kevin Durant served up that motivation on a silver platter -- but that he's the best shooting guard in the league, still ahead of James Harden and Kobe Bryant.

And this last part isn't really on Wade's personal motivational checklist, but it'll be hovering over him all season whether he likes it or not: Wade's performance this season could play a significant factor into whether or not LeBron James re-signs with Miami once he does as expected and opts out of his contract after this season.

Let's get this much straight: It's not fair to put that kind of burden on Wade. As he plainly put it, "LeBron James' decision is LeBron James' decision."

But James has always been one to look ahead, and if Wade shows that he still has several years of elite basketball in him, then it would at least make James' decision to stay put that much easier.

As the guy regularly credited with orchestrating the union of Miami's Big Three, it's only fitting Wade would carry a large responsibility when it comes to keeping that Big Three intact past 2014.

He doesn't like being tagged with that kind of pressure, but since when have the storylines around this team been fair and reasonable?

"Don't try to put that pressure on me," Wade said seriously, but with a laugh. "Y'all could stop that right now."

It's not going to stop anytime soon, though. The conversation began well before Monday's media day.

It took place throughout last season's postseason, when his injured knee was looked at as a sign of his age, rather than an unfortunate circumstance.

"It was such a big storyline during the playoffs," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "What disappointed me was that people lost perspective of what he was actually doing. He had a very healthy year all the way up until the Boston game of the 27-game win streak, and he had a very inconvenient bone bruise."

It wasn't just a healthy year. It was a spectacular display of efficiency, once his left knee -- the one he had surgery on in the 2012 offseason -- was up to speed.

Wade worked his way to health, and when December rolled around he was the exceptional Dwyane Wade again, shooting 54.7 percent from the field that month.

He was even better (55.1 percent) after the All-Star break, on his way to a career-best 52.1 shooting percentage.

But all that was forgotten once his knee troubles became obvious in the playoffs and lasted throughout the Finals.

"The only way to cure that was not surgery -- he didn't get surgery this summer -- was just to take three weeks or a month of rest," Spoelstra said. "He kept on playing during that and wanted to sacrifice and be there for the team to help us win, knowing that it would have to be in a different way than people are accustomed to seeing.

"What disappointed me was that should be celebrated. Most players probably wouldn't have played."

Wade played, and won, only to be labeled as a suddenly unfit partner for LeBron.

So with the 2014 free-agency period looming, it's as if Wade has to remind everyone just how dangerous he can be.

"He thrives off motivation," James said of Wade. "And he's been given some more motivation. I'm looking forward to it."

If it were simply a matter of wanting to play high-level basketball, Wade would never face this issue.

But his body has succumbed to a handful of poorly timed injuries, and that part he's trying his best to avoid again, hence the different workout approach.

Wade, though, doesn't feel any need to prove he can avoid injury. Frankly, it's an impractical request.

"My body's going to do what my body's going to do," Wade said. "If it was up to me, I'd never have a sprained ankle in my life. But it's not up to me."

It's also quite possible his performance (healthy or otherwise) won't factor much into LeBron's decision at all.

Monday, LeBron reminded us of his overall goal.

"I wanna be the greatest of all time," he said. "That's my motivation. It's that simple."

You can look at that two ways in relation to Wade.

You could say that if LeBron wants to be the greatest of all time, and is good enough to be considered that, then it truly doesn't matter if Wade plays like the Wade of 2008 or the Wade who finished last season. Because the G.O.A.T. doesn't need that much help (oh yeah, LeBron also said he's better than he was last year, and if that's true, he might not need any help at all this season), and he'll probably stay in the same uniform to win all his titles.

Or you could say LeBron knows that championships matter greatly when assessing the greatest players ever, and if Wade struggles, perhaps he'll look to younger teammates in a different uniform to help him secure those additional rings.

Given the arc LeBron's career is taking, it would appear the former is more likely.

But with this team, the more dramatic option is always the most popular one.

"I think you have concern when you feel like people want to go elsewhere," Wade said. "I don't think anybody here wants to go elsewhere.

"This is a very good situation to be in. I think people enjoy being in it."

As for LeBron, he knows his teammate as well as anyone. He knows Wade is most comfortable being the underdog, which is difficult to do when you've won the past two NBA championships.

So between Durant's slight, last season's gimpy finish and next offseason's uncertainty, LeBron knows Wade has plenty of incentive from which to choose.

"It's the healthiest he's been probably since [2010] training camp," James said. "He's hungry to get back to form and to showcase why he's one of the greatest 2-guards ever to play this game. I hear healthy Dwyane Wade, I get excited."

Even on a team with a four-time MVP and two-time defending Finals MVP, it might be that more eyes are on Wade than any other Heat player this season.

Currently, he looks like a kid again.

If he looks this youthful in June, you can safely assume things are going quite well for the Heat, and will continue to for years to come.