There was a small dust-up in Miami last week when Heat president Pat Riley questioned the efficiency and conditioning of Dwyane Wade, noting that the superstar guard's production was "down about 10 to 15 percent from what he was last year." Riley was quick to buffer the barbs with an unsatisfying mixture of pro-forma praise and tough love.
"I manage the team and there isn't anybody that loves Dwyane more than me and there isn't anybody that will be more honest with him than me either ... and I think he respects that," Riley said.
As long as Riley is preaching the virtues of accountability and honesty, a little context is in order. After Wade propelled Miami to a 43-39 record and No. 5 playoff seed last year via the best non-MVP season in recent memory, Riley sat on his hands in the offseason, preferring to stow salary-cap space in the hopes of signing a 2010 free agent, such as LeBron James or Chris Bosh, to pair with Wade for a future title run.
In other words, the Heat have hung Wade out to dry this season, relying on an extension of his extraordinary skills and effort to keep the team competitive and reap a little lucre for the franchise with some first-round playoff games.
And how has Wade responded? Through the first 25 games, the Heat are 13-12 and holding down the fifth playoff seed -- almost exactly the same arc as last year's winning percentage and postseason placement. As for Wade's personal impact, according to 82games.com, last year the Heat were plus-3.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents with Wade on the court and minus-9.7 points per 100 possessions worse when he sat, for a net benefit of plus-13.1 points. This year, the Heat are plus-2.1 points per 100 possessions better with Wade playing and minus-11.2 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits, for a net benefit of plus-13.3 points.
Meanwhile, despite questions about his conditioning, Wade is playing 79 percent of the team's total minutes, up from 76 percent last season. He's bearing that load despite a recent spate of injuries that, over the past 10 days, has included a sprained wrist, a cut eye, a sore knee, an aggravation of the wrist injury and a sore back. He's soldiering on, even though he could -- in a manner consistent with Riley's stockpiling of salary-cap space -- declare free agency after the season.
Riley is right that Wade's numbers are down, especially his shooting accuracy, which has plummeted to a career-low 43.2 percent largely because Wade isn't finishing at the rim as well as he did last season. But the drop-off could be partly due to his various nagging injuries. Or it could be, as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra suggested, that Wade lacks the same "freakish" conditioning that he accrued during the U.S. Olympic team's gold-medal run in the summer of 2008. Or it might be, as Riley said, that Wade's burning desire to reestablish himself as one of the NBA's preeminent performers last year has been sated.
Riley goes out of his way to emphasize that straight talk is the way the Heat personnel conduct themselves, with no delicacies or coddling allowed. "There isn't anyone in this organization -- believe me -- walking around on eggshells because of Dwyane," he said.
Catching this spirit of forthright divulgence, we feel compelled to point out that, in recent years, Riley's own level of desire to perform as head coach of the Heat seems closely correlated to his team's prospects of contending for a championship.
He resigned at the start of the 2003-04 and watched his replacement, Stan Van Gundy, take the Heat to the playoffs and Eastern Conference finals over the next two seasons. Six weeks into the 2005-06 season, Riley decided to postpone his pending hip replacement surgery and parachute back to the sideline while Van Gundy abruptly decided to spend more time with his family. He went on to bag his fifth ring as a coach that year, but when a slew of injuries cropped up and caused the Heat to stumble to a 13-19 start in 2006-07, that troublesome hip, untreated throughout the offseason, began to flare up again and he left the team for six weeks for treatment. His latest retirement came after the 15-67 season in 2007-08.
Maybe Wade should also tend to his aches and pains to better position himself for a big payday and the potential of a superstar teammate in Miami next season. Then again, maybe he should consider a move to Chicago or another franchise. Because without the nitpicking over Wade's decline to 26.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.2 assists, Riley and the rest of the Heat brass will have to concern themselves with such burning issues as choosing between Mario Chalmers and Carlos Arroyo as the starting point guard.