Dwyane Wade wasn't supposed to be doing this.
As recently as December, Charles Barkley came out and told the world, "He’s starting to lose his athletic ability. He’s not the same guy. The toughest thing for Dwyane Wade is understanding that he’s starting to lose his talent and now he has to learn how to play below the basket. The toughest thing when you’re a great player or very athletic, when you can’t jump over a building anymore, you have to learn how to play."
"Right, of course," we thought back in December.
We've been expecting this drop-off for a few years now.
Wade took enough punishment over the years that we've always assumed his slashing game would fall off a cliff one day and there would be no going back. Kind of like what happens to NFL running backs. Dwyane Wade spent eight years as LaDainian Tomlinson from the Chargers, and we've all been quietly waiting for him to turn into LaDainian Tomlinson on the Jets.
2013 felt like as good a time as any for Wade to become that neutered version of his old self, a hobbling reminder that hundreds of hard falls take their toll, people get old, and eventually greatness fades. If not basketball LaDainian, then maybe Miami's version of Allen Iverson in Denver, the overrated superstar swallowing possessions whole.
But it just hasn't happened.
The Heat have turned into an unstoppable death machine over the past two months, and there are a lot of explanations you could use for what's happening with Miami. LeBron James is the best player on the planet and there's no one even close. Sure. Chris Andersen and all his awesomeness gave them exactly what they needed on the front line. Definitely. The rest of the roster fits LeBron, Wade, and Bosh better than any supporting cast Miami's ever had. And it's all falling into place at the same time. No question.
But there's also Wade, who's mastering the transition from dominant superstar to deadly second option as well as maybe anyone, ever. Tom Haberstroh hit on Wade's numbers at ESPN Insider last week, and we need to be freaking out more about what's happening here. Over the course of Miami's 22-game streak, Wade's only had five games where he's shot under 50 percent. He's shooting an outrageous 57.5 since the All-Star break, averaging 24 points per game to go with nearly 6 assists and 6 rebounds. What more could you possibly want?
He's scoring in different ways than he used to -- more jumpers and fadeaways in the lane, less colliding into a forest full of defenders at the rim -- but the end result is the same murderous sidekick we all expected when LeBron signed with Miami two years ago. And maybe even better, since this version of Wade allows LeBron to dominate at the same time.
It's been easy to miss all this. Where LeBron leaves everyone foaming at the mouth ten times a game, Wade works quietly in between those moments. Even his highlights on Sunday against the Raptors -- a behind-the-back dribble in traffic and a pull-up in the lane, leaning to draw the foul before hitting an impossible fadeaway, a twisting lay-up in transition -- weren't exactly YouTube-worthy. There are no more Anderson Varejao moments. At this point, Wade's more annoyingly effective than amazing.
But while the whole world starts freaking out about what the Heat are doing right now, we should be clear: If there's anything actually "surprising" about what Miami's been doing to the rest of the NBA this year, it's Wade.
LeBron's a constant at this point. He's so good that Miami will be great more often than not just by default. But if you're looking to understand how 22 wins in a row happens, Wade deserves plenty of credit. LeBron (and the team's defense) will make the Heat dominant regardless, but throw in a healthy Wade playing this well as a second option, and suddenly that dominant team becomes pretty much unstoppable.
We've seen it over the past two months and we'll see it over the next three if Wade stays healthy and keeps this up. He's evolved exactly the way Barkley said he needed to. Even if Miami loses to Boston Monday night, Wade's dominance should make the rest of the league very afraid.
It's all pretty incredible. With aging, suddenly mortal superstars, the same stubborn attitude that made them unstoppable for upwards of a decade usually becomes a weakness when it's time to acknowledge limitations and evolve. We saw some of that last year when Wade was hobbling through the playoffs, bickering with Erik Spoelstra and the refs, petulant with the media and opponents, and still learning how to defer to LeBron. He was obnoxious, less fun than ever, and it was all part of the awkward transition from Wade-as-superstar-1B to, officially, superstar no. 2.
Nobody was sure how this was going to work out over the next few years.
But, uh -- [glances at the Heat for the past two months] -- it's working out.
We're seeing Wade on the other side of that transition. Or, we're seeing how great Miami looks and maybe forgetting to notice how incredible Wade's been.
Either way, Charles Barkley was right.
Wade's "not the same guy" he used to be. He's not as explosive, he's not crashing toward the rim every other play, and he's not taking over games all by himself. But next to LeBron and this Heat team, the new Dwyane Wade might be even more terrifying.