During the final moments of last Thursday's TNT match-up between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat at Miami, Chris Webber sounded giddy. This is how he usually sounds during broadcasts; the audible delight he takes in the game distinguishes him from, say, Turner colleague Reggie Miller, who uses his airtime mostly to make militantly lame jokes about the studio crew and snicker like a middle school stinkbomb artist about the subterfuge he employed during his playing days. But Webber's voice had a special lilt this evening. He knew what was coming.
"There may be some misdirection, but there's no question: the ball is going to get into Dwyane Wade's hands," Webber predicted before Miami brought the ball in from the sideline with seven seconds left on the clock and the score tied at 95. One possession earlier, Wade had executed an off-balance, slaloming drive that resolved in a perfectly calibrated floater over the reaching arm of Serge Ibaka, good for his 25th and 26th points of the night. After a quiet first half, Wade had been Miami's focal point through the second, playing all the hits of his extended post-prime: knotty forays to the rim, sugar-footed stepbacks, demonstrations of old-man back-to-the-basket guile. Webber, who like most ex-jocks ended his career negotiating with his own decomposition, clearly relished Wade's form. He wanted Wade to take the superstar's prerogative, the final shot.
Wade did, driving baseline, drawing a foul, and making two free throws to secure a Miami win. Webber celebrated the triumph of the relative fogey—"Dwyane Wade, one of the smartest players in this game, is definitely not scared of the contact"—but he did not use the occasion to speculate about Miami's ability to reach the Eastern Conference's summit, to challenge old friend LeBron James at season's end.
This was appropriate. The Heat have won games like that one against the Thunder and, after a beating a Cavs team resting James a couple days later, achieved a tenuous perch atop the East's standings. But Miami cannot reasonably expect to contend for a title. They are an aging, top-heavy bunch that looks fated to surprise on some evenings, disappoint on others, and lose in a middle playoff round. Even with its unavoidable ceiling, though, this Heat team provides a worthy service, if only by allowing its tenured leader a continuing relevance. Wade is well into the downslope of his career, but thanks to his own honed style and the aid of the franchise he resuscitated over a decade ago, he is aging with uncommon grace.
Given the chance to experience the career of any of the NBA's post-Jordan stars, is there anybody's you would prefer Wade's? Kobe has his five titles and, now, a retirement tour that flatters his grandiose Kobe-ness, but he also endured a sad run alongside Smush Parker and Kwame Brown and a split from and reunion with Phil Jackson, and life within the alienating crucible of his own obsession doesn't look like much fun. The unprecedented expectations that have always been LeBron's lot are exhausting. Tim Duncan's 18 years and counting have been lovely, with accomplishment and disappointment and redemption parceled out according to some sort of divine pattern. If you have reached a certain level of intellectual enlightenment, if you are the type to keep your dinners healthy and your carpet well-vacuumed, maybe his is the career you'd pick.
Wade's, though, is a close second. He was a Finals MVP in his third year in the league and a champion twice more in his eighth and ninth. In the seasons between those titles, he led middle-tier teams to playoff berths and put up numbers that surpassed those of most anyone not named James. A personal favorite is his 2008-09 campaign, with its line of 30 points, 7-and-a-half assists, 5 boards, 2 steals, and a block per game. During that season, he often seemed to have practiced origami with the temporal laws of a basketball game, so that he seemed to be capable of simultaneously coming from the weak-side to swat some unsuspecting power forward's shot into the second row and coaxing home a triple-pumped layup on the other end. He enjoyed the fruits of the Heatles era without receiving the vitriol of his imported cohort. Last year was only the second of Wade's professional life that didn't produce a playoff berth, but even it was not a total loss, as the Heat traded for Goran Dragic, saw the emergence of putty-limbed center Hasaan Whiteside, and attained the lottery pick that became Justise Winslow.
This year's team is, for Wade, a particular kind of good fortune. One of the fundamental puzzles of the current NBA is what to do with aging superstars, and most organizations solve that puzzle with forgivable inelegance, starting a full-scale rebuild once the player in question loses his ability to lead annual charges in the direction of the Finals. The Heat have opted instead to maintain a relevant squad. Dragic, Luol Deng, and Chris Bosh provide varying degrees of veteran production. Whiteside and Winslow, the only members of the Heat rotation with much of a chance to be in Miami the next time true contention comes around, presently shore up the defense and take some strain off the old legs populating the rest of the roster. If this set-up runs counter to conventional wisdom, which might advise surrounding the promising kids with other young players and collecting lottery picks for a few years, it also lets the team's longest-serving player spend his remaining time chasing something more noble than a tank job.
There remains a thrill to watching Wade, and it is not just simple nostalgia. Despite his annual bouts with injury, no other current player—save, again, for Duncan—has recalibrated his game to fit the effects of aging as enjoyably as Wade. Where he once daggered to the rim in straight lines, he now works in series of linked semicircles. It's as if he retired to a cabin one offseason and sandpapered the hard angles off of his catalog of moves. He runs in a permanent glide. He splits traps with a pinching of the shoulders and a sleight-of-hand dribble. His layups graze the fingertips of shot-blockers but still drop; his baseline fadeaways knock around the rim a bit before falling.
Wade has always been a kind of curio, a shooting guard who can't really shoot. When he was younger, he made up for this deficiency with muscle and hops and audacity. Now, he compensates with wiles and cool, and with a quick release and a perjurious pump-fake.
His game will not take well to further deterioration, when it comes. Wade won't be able to stand in a corner and deposit open threes or come off the bench and provide some reliable, low-usage shot-making. When he stops being able to play like Dwyane Wade, he'll have to stop playing. For now, though, he's still a passable head honcho on a passable team. If Chris Webber can smile about it, then we should too.