When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in 2010 to form the Miami Heat's Big Three, it was assumed that it would take the star trio some time to figure out how to play with each other. While that process took longer than many expected, they (and particularly James and Wade) settled on a system and hierarchy that has helped them to two consecutive NBA titles. Whatever difficulties presented themselves at the start, the Heat got through them and thrived.
This season, however, has presented new challenges. With the Heat set on conserving the aging Wade for the postseason, the team has sat him in various situations, including the second game of back-to-backs, on his way to playing in 48 of 65 games. Due to those planned absences, LeBron has had to move between playing with and without Wade with foreseeable but nonetheless irregular patterns.
James remains the most talented player in the NBA, but it appears that he has had to adjust to playing with and without Wade. This past weekend, LeBron admitted that he has had to learn how to play with Wade again, which has led to a lack of rhythm for himself of late. From Shandel Richardson for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (via SLAM):
"It will be better," James said. "It's all a rhythm thing. For me, I've been out of rhythm the last few games. … It's me, too. [Spoelstra] will put me in positions to be successful but it's for me to go out and make it happen, too."
The biggest factor in James' lack of rhythm is the recent play of Wade, who is averaging 20.8 points, five assists and four rebounds the last five games. After being in and out of the lineup most of the season, Wade is apparently healthy enough to avoid missing games for "maintenance" reasons. [...]
"He's played so well of late," James said. "He's been handling the ball a lot as of late. I've kind of gotten out of rhythm. I've got to figure it out."
The Heat expect a quick fix. This isn't like their first season together in 2010-11 when they were still growing familiar with playing alongside each other.
"It's a challenge," James said. "When [Wade] was in and out, I knew exactly what I had to do and exactly how to attack the game. His health has gotten better. It's going to be better for the team but it's kind of got me out rhythm as an individual. It's not like our first year playing together. It's something that we figured out in Year One. You can't take it for granted. You still got to try to figure it back out and that's something I'm going through right now."
It should go without saying that Wade playing at a high level figures to end up as a net positive for the Heat, and the team certainly has plenty of time to sort things out over the final month of the season and what should be at least one formality of a playoff round in the top-heavy East. It's also likely that this issue seemed like a bigger deal on Saturday, when the Heat had lost five of six games. Now that they've won two in a row, includingSunday's late victory over the contending Houston Rockets, it's not such a big problem.
But there's still reason to consider LeBron's lack of total comfort next to Wade to be a notable development. First, while the Heat looked excellent in crunch time to defeat the Rockets, LeBron was not a major factor in their game-closing run. And even if he came back with a vengeance in Tuesday's 100-96 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, that performance had its own complications. James starred with a career-high 25 first-quarter points on his way to 43 for the night (on a very efficient 14-of-19 from the field), but this came with Wade sitting out and Bosh doing most of the damage with the result on the line. Despite improved fortunes for Miami, it's not yet clear that LeBron is any more comfortable playing with a healthy and top-form Wade.
Again, there's really no reason to think the Heat won't figure things out eventually, because Wade and James have no real philosophical disagreements and understand what's necessary to get the franchise a third-straight title. Still, most contenders like to have such major issues as the mutual comfort of their two top scorers settled in mid-March. The Heat have some familiarity not playing their best when most teams need to -- even within playoff series! -- but there's no guarantee that approach will always work. The Heat's sky isn't falling, especially when LeBron James is the player in question. But that doesn't mean they're not giving us some reason to wonder.
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