Dwyane Wade got a taste of his own basketball mortality in last year's playoffs.
After having one of the more efficient regular seasons of his great career, he was hobbled by a knee injury in June. Unable to consistently get into the lane, Wade became a reluctant shooter who couldn't punish defenses for leaving him open. At one point in the NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs tried to hide Tiago Splitter on him.
As a result, headed into the fourth season of the Big Three in Miami, there are more questions about Wade's future than ever before. Wade is s a guard who makes a living in the paint, so he relies in large part on the unparalleled athletic ability that will inevitably slip as he moves deeper into his 30s. For most of Wade's career, defenders have not been able to stay in front of him, even when conceding the jumper. At 32, that will soon change.
Wade was a shadow of himself in the postseason, averaging 15.9 points a game on 45.7 percent shooting. While he still found a way to be productive, it was a far cry from the all-NBA standard he has set for himself. Against the Spurs, the Heat were better with a shooter on the floor in place of Wade, whose man would crowd the lane whenever LeBron James had the ball. Wade had a +/- mark of -54 in the Finals, the worst on the team, per NBA.com.
Needless to say, Miami is much different when their second-best player is ineffective. In the regular season, Wade ended 27 percent of the Heat's possessions when on the floor, the 10th-highest mark in the league. The team is designed to put as many shooters around LeBron and Wade as possible, sacrificing size up front in order to spread the floor. Their stars' ability to play block shots and rebound like bigger players is crucial, allowing the Heat to blitz teams defensively and push the tempo.
After taking the summer off, Wade should be in better shape at the start of the regular season. Even if he has lost a step, his huge frame (6'4 and 220 pounds with a 6'11 wingspan) and great feel for the game will make him an All-Star caliber player. As long as he stays healthy, it's hard to imagine him declining too far in 2014. Nevertheless, the trend is obvious: since posting a career-high PER at age 28, his play has slipped over the last three seasons.
When LeBron made his infamous prediction at the Heat's welcome party in 2010, it was based on the idea that the Big 3 would play at a high level into their mid-30s. If he can no longer count on Wade, it makes his free agency decision next summer that much more interesting. The specter of a possible "Decision II" will hang over everything the Heat do this season. Whenever Wade has a bad game, speculation about LeBron to Los Angeles or Cleveland will grow.
In the last two years, Wade adjusted his game, embracing efficiency and taking the long-range shot out of his arsenal. He took only 66 three-pointers in 2013, a far cry from the 206 he attempted in his first year with LeBron. But while slashing to the basket is the foundation of his offensive attack, being able to convert open shots from 25 feet would make his life easier. Taking less contact in the paint also would put less pressure on his knees and extend his career.
There's no better model for Wade than Jason Kidd, who just wrapped up a 19-year NBA career at the age of 39. A 6'4 guard with elite floor vision and athleticism, Kidd dominated in his 20s despite lacking a consistent jumper, but changed his game as he moved into his 30s. While Kidd didn't become a great off-the-dribble shooter, he developed the ability to set his feet and punish defenses when left open. From ages 31-39, Kidd never shot worse than 34.4 percent from three.
In his prime, Wade could dominate games without needing to shoot from deep. Unlike most NBA guards, he never had to develop a jumper. In that respect, the 2013 Finals were a brutal wake-up call for what could be in store for him in his 30s. Like all future Hall of Famers, Wade is a prideful player with a deep knowledge of the game. He knows what he needs to do if he wants to remain a top-10 player.
As the Big Three move into their second decade in the league, they'll need to change their style of play to succeed, in much the same way the Chicago Bulls changed between their first and second three-peat in the '90s. If Wade has to live in the paint in his 30s, he's going to have a hard time staying both healthy and effective.
In contrast, if he develops a three-point shot, 2014 could be closer to the beginning than the end of the grand experiment on South Beach.