He’s gone. He didn’t retire to play baseball, and he probably won’t send a fax or a tweet to the Miami Heat two seasons from now saying, “I’m back” like Michael Jordan did when he returned to the Chicago Bulls in 1995. LeBron James’ departure from the Heat to the Cleveland Cavaliers has left Dwyane Wade and co. in the same predicament that Scottie Pippen and the 1994 Bulls were in when Jordan “retired” from the NBA.
No, Miami isn’t coming off a 3-peat high like Chicago was back in 1993, but in the James era, they had their chances to get it done, twice. Four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals was great, but now the real question is, can Miami make it to the NBA Playoffs without James?
When Jordan retired, a 28-year-old Pippen had to face this test. He responded by averaging 22 points per game, 8.7 rebounds per game, and 2.9 steals per game (courtesy of basketball-reference.com), which were all career highs. Pippen played in 72 games that year (a career low at the time), but he lead Chicago to a 55-win season; only two wins fewer than the year before with Jordan. The Bulls were ultimately knocked out of the second round of the playoffs in a controversial Game 7 against the New York Knicks. Without Jordan, I would call that a successful season.
Chris Bosh is currently the highest paid player on the Heat, but even when he was the top prize on the Toronto Raptors, he only managed to lead his team to the post season twice in seven years. Moreover, when he arguably had is best two “CB4” seasons for Toronto in 2008-09 and in 2009-10, CB4 still couldn’t get his team into the postseason. No wonder why he fled to Miami in 2010.
In terms of new faces, Miami added Josh McRoberts, Luol Deng, Danny Granger and Shabazz Napier to their roster, but they forgot one key ingredient — rebounding. This past season, the Heat finished dead last in the league in this category, and even 6-foot-10 PF McRoberts is known as a poor rebounder for his size.
So who’s going to step up for the Heat and ball out like Pippen did for the Bulls? Unfortunately, most of the pressure will fall on the degenerative knees of a 32-year-old Wade. Remember, Pippen missed 10 games for Chicago in his first season without Jordan. Over the last two NBA seasons, Wade has missed a combined 41 games.
This past season, Miami opted to rest Wade on many back-to-back game nights because they had the luxury of having James and Bosh to keep the ship afloat. However, with James gone, who’s going to rescue Wade if/when disaster strikes? Deng? Granger? McRoberts?
Recently, Wade started a paleo diet on advice from Ray Allen, but is he just trying to look good for his upcoming wedding, or will he be able to stick to this health plan for the entirety of the 2014-15 season?
Let’s be honest. The Eastern Conference got a whole lot better during this free agency period and the Bulls and the Cavaliers might be the least of Miami’s worries. When James was in Miami, the Heat dominated the southeast division. Now that he’s gone, the southeast looks a lot more daunting with the Washington Wizards retaining Marcin Gortat, the Atlanta Hawks getting Al Horford back to health, and the Charlotte Hornets acquiring Lance Stephenson in the offseason.
At 32, can Wade be what Pippen was to Chicago and fill the void left by the exit of the league’s best player? Can he handle the back-to-back nights that will definitely test his durability? Did Miami find legitimate insurance players in James Ennis and/or Granger just in case Wade goes down? Can Wade be in tip top shape by October’s end?
To reiterate the point one last time, Pippen played 72 games in 1993-94, which was a career low for him at the time. For the Heat to have any real chance at making it to the playoffs, Wade must strive to play 70-plus games. Heat fans, start praying. Wade has a lot of heart, but all the heart in the world hasn’t even been able to keep the “indestructible” 35-year-old Kobe Bryant on the court.
Wade’s new arch-nemesis debate isn’t over Bryant vs. James in Cleveland. Rather, it’s over D-Wade vs. father time.