Dwyane Wade has not been the NBA-defining superstar he once was for at least several seasons dating back to the middle of LeBron James's time with the Miami Heat. This statement is not exactly controversial, because the Heat's handling of Wade's playing time has confirmed as much. Wade has missed 48 games in the last two seasons, primarily as a function of the team intentionally sitting him at logical points (the second game of a back-to-back, on a long road trip, etc.) but also due to various minor injuries. The 33-year-old guard has put a lot of wear on his tires over his career and is still at his best as a ball-dominant player, so the best way to maintain his effectiveness is to keep him fresh.
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It's surprising, then, to hear Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra say that Wade will not be restricted for the 2015-16 season. From Jason Lieser for the Palm Beach Post:
Coming off a season in which his health seemed to modestly improve, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said today that Wade goes into his 13th year intent on playing as much as possible.
“Dwyane has to be our leader,” Spoelstra said. “He’s grown in that role and with new veteran players, everybody naturally turns to Dwyane as the cornerstone of our franchise and they turn to ( Chris Bosh) and they turn to ( Udonis Haslem). He’s fully accepted that responsibility.
“Dwyane is coming into this season ready for whatever challenges it brings, and I’m not coaching him with restrictions in mind. We’ll adapt and be aware of anything that may come up as the season goes on.”
It's possible that Spoelstra is merely referring to the games Wade plays rather than his total appearances over the course of the season. On the basis of just these comments, though, it seems as if Wade will play as many minutes as he can for as long as possible, at least until his body tells him otherwise.
It's an odd approach given that Wade has not proven he can assume that kind of workload at this age. His stats are still quite good — 21.5 ppg in a career-low 31.8 minutes per game with a 21.4 PER — but those numbers are still low relative to his prime and perhaps only achievable because of his rest schedule. It's easy to imagine those stats taking a dip if he plays more minutes over more games.
However, it's possible that both the Heat and Wade are less concerned with prolonging his effectiveness than taking advantage of the time he has left in the NBA. The story surrounding the contract opt-out and negotiation process that led to Wade's new one-year, $20-million deal focused largely on the fact that the franchise icon holds his place of prominence in Miami due more to past production and reputation than what he is capable of now. As the Heat prep for another run at free-agent superstars and hand much of their playmaking responsibilities to point guard Goran Dragic, Wade may be preparing himself for retirement despite not being particularly old by NBA standards. If that's the case, then it makes sense that he would choose to go out in a blaze of big-minutes glory.
This is obviously just speculation, especially when we're not entirely sure what Spoelstra's comments were supposed to mean. But there is a certain logic to the idea. While Wade is still very good, his inability to develop a strong perimeter game as he has become less athletic suggests things will only get tougher for him as he gets older. Many superstars take poorly to their finals seasons for this very reason — they still want to play like their young selves when they are incapable of doing so. Perhaps Wade will decide to solve this conundrum by choosing not to face it at all.
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