Dwyane Wade fit for Miami's future?

Dwyane Wade, LeBron James

Dwyane Wade considers it the ultimate freedom of mind and body.

Back in the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season and fifth time overall, Wade's mind is no longer cluttered with the frustrations, anxieties and fears of his body failing him again.

And considering where the Miami Heat guard stood in the Finals this time a year ago -- dragging one deteriorating knee through multiple bone bruises and another that swelled to the size of a grapefruit -- his body is no longer sending painful reminders that it's time to give in.

Wade doesn't consider himself overly superstitious. But he's approached questions about his relatively good health these days following a maintenance and rehab program that forced him to miss 28 games in the regular season the way one would a black cat who crosses his path.

He tends to stop, shift direction and steer the conversation along an alternate course.

But this newfound level of freedom feels different.

"That's huge for me at this point," Wade told ESPN.com. "Obviously, it doesn't guarantee that you're going to play better the rest of the way. But just having a clear mind ... when you play this game, this game is just as much mental as it is physical. It's probably more mental than physical. So when you can go in with a clear mind mentally, feeling good up here [points to head], and you're obviously feeling good physically, then you know you're capable of doing whatever your talents can bring."

Wade's primary focus for now is to do his part alongside LeBron James and Chris Bosh to bring the Heat a third consecutive NBA title, which would make Miami the first team to accomplish the feat since the Shaq-and-Kobe Los Angeles Lakers did so a dozen years ago.

But later this month, with Wade, James and Bosh all holding options to void the final two years on their contracts by June 30 to enter free agency, a deeper level of inventory could take place among the trio -- particularly the elder statesman of the Heat's Big Three.

Four years ago, in the summer of 2010, Wade was the anchor of the boldest and most expensive free-agency overhaul in NBA history when he sacrificed potential salary and successfully recruited James and Bosh to Miami. Now, at age 32 and having endured two seasons of knee problems, there is a notion that Wade's contract could be more of a hindrance than a help if the Heat plan to retool around their core in the next couple of seasons to extend their historic run.

Drafted fifth overall in 2003 by Miami and having evolved into the most accomplished player in franchise history, Wade is the epicenter of a legendary Heat team. But the combination of his age and injury history at the cost of $42 million remaining on his deal makes him a questionable bet moving forward -- even for a team with a deep record of loyalty and lifelong commitment.

Regardless of the outcome of the series, assuming he gets through the Finals healthy and at his standard rate of productivity, Wade presents a tough conundrum for Miami entering the summer.

Will the Heat's potential salary-cap flexibility be handcuffed by the declining superstar who missed more than a third of the season, with many of the absences forcing coach Erik Spoelstra to scramble through 21 different lineups en route to the team's worst record since 2009?

Or should Wade be measured as a player who increased his production across the board over each round of the playoffs and appears poised to peak in the Finals? Team president Pat Riley and owner Micky Arison must grapple with those questions when the Heat are done battling the Spurs.

Wade is certain he has the answer.

"For people to be so quick to want to split us up, it's crazy," Wade said. "Some of it comes with the collective bargaining agreement and how the NBA works differently nowadays. But it's a sexy story to talk about LeBron James leaving Miami, you know what I mean? I'm 32 years old. Once someone comes to expect something of someone or they don't feel that they're living up to that or they're not doing what's expected, they immediately say that it's over for him. Why is it over? It's over if you can't play the game no more. I have no reason to feel I can't play at this level for more [years] to come."

Riley has repeatedly said his intention is to keep Wade, James and Bosh together for a decade, much like a  San Antonio Spurs team that has won four titles and remained in championship contention the past 15 years, with Tim Duncan surrounded by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili most of that time.

Arison told a Miami radio station last month that he was "100 percent" confident Wade, James and Bosh would be back next season and has historically shown a willingness to pay the NBA's punitive luxury tax on excessive team salaries as long as the Heat were competing for championships.

Although Wade has expressed his desire to retire with the only NBA team for which he's ever played and Bosh has said he'll definitely stay with the Heat and would consider a lower salary if necessary, James has not voiced his commitment as strongly this season.

Contractually, Wade, James and Bosh aren't obligated to do anything and could simply bypass their options and roll over into their 2014-15 salaries -- each in excess of $20 million -- but with Wade continuing to earn slightly less than his star teammates based on the original deals they signed.

But, unlike four years ago, when James, Wade and Bosh were all under age 30 and in their athletic and productive prime, the three are at three uniquely different stages of their careers. And the 2011 NBA lockout coming a year after they signed produced a far more restrictive collective bargaining with stiffer luxury-tax penalties that make it more difficult to build teams around three maximum-salary players.

James, 29, might be reluctant to opt out and lock himself this summer into a max deal worth about $120 million over five years without knowing how much longer Wade can play at an elite level or at what point Riley, 69, might decide to retire. It's also expected that James will get a max deal at any point he wants over the next two seasons.

However, Bosh, 30, is viewed by many executives and scouts as being at the peak of his prime and at a point where it might be most prudent for him to opt out this summer and seek a five-year, max contract from the Heat. Contrary to some theories, Wade stands the least to gain by opting out this summer because, at this stage in his career, his long-term value on the open market relative to James and Bosh is less.

An NBA rule that restricts teams from signing players to multiyear deals beyond age 36 would limit Wade to a four-year contract. And assuming James and Bosh return at or near their slotted salary already on the books for next season, even a new four-year, $60 million contract wouldn't necessarily give the Heat enough salary-cap space to add a significant upgrade beyond their own free agents.

According to ESPN salary-cap guru Larry Coon, the Heat have a projected $70.2 million in salary commitments for next season when accounting for James, Wade, Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Norris Cole, Chris Andersen and Justin Hamilton. That number places Miami well over the projected $63.2 million salary cap for next season but about $6.6 million below the expected $77 million luxury-tax line.

One assessment from Coon would make it possible for Miami to use that remaining $6.6 million, in addition to another $5 million within the first tier of tax penalties, to potentially re-sign Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen, along with a late-first round draft pick and as many as three veterans at minimum salaries.

Essentially, a Heat roster set at roughly $82 million in salary would cost Arison a relatively reasonable $7.5 million in luxury-tax penalties -- a tab well worth paying to keep a championship core intact while also making room for the development of a draft pick and flexibility to add veterans at midseason.

In other words, if Wade can stay healthy, the Heat can let it ride.

While the current roster prepared for the Finals, the Heat's front office spent last week hosting initial rounds of draft workouts, with a focus on prospects who could play on the wing behind either Wade or James.

Riley told ESPN.com in a recent interview that the new collective bargaining agreement presents more difficult challenges to navigate that weren't anticipated back in 2010, but he also offered no indication that he's inclined to ask Wade, Bosh or James to opt out and take less this summer.

Having coached the Showtime Lakers during the 1980s and the New York Knicks in the early 1990s, Riley said his expectations are set to see great players sign contracts to play together and "run out the string."

"But today there's a different environment," Riley acknowledged. "And a lot has to do with the collective bargaining agreement, a lot has to do with the tax, so the situation can change. There's more restlessness now than there's ever been in the league."

But when -- or if -- the Heat decide to address their big-picture goals and financial picture with Wade to keep him alongside James and Bosh moving forward, there will be a collective and consensus approach.

"We're all on the same page. We communicate that," Riley said of a front-office staff that also includes team CEO Nick Arison and general manager Andy Elisburg. "We collaborate with one another. There's really one voice that will say yes or no, and that's Micky. As much as Micky is enjoying what's going on, he's very involved in day to day [business]. Nick is becoming one of the best young executives in the league. I've known all these guys for 19 years. That continuity helps you stay at the top as an organization. You may go through your ups and downs, but the fact that we've been together for so long, we can speak our mind on anything. But somewhere at the end, there will be a consensus to what we're going to do."

Wade insists that any speculation about the Heat's future won't disrupt the team's task at hand against San Antonio. Perhaps he's come too far physically and mentally this season to get sidetracked now.

Spoelstra told a story recently about how far Wade has come since his chronic knee issues in the playoffs last season. The coach wasn't certain Wade would even play in Game 7 of the Finals last season, because he required a significant amount of fluid to be drained from his left knee before the game.

Wade scored 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as the Heat finished off the Spurs for the title. During the offseason that followed, Wade underwent a shockwave therapy procedure to regenerate his right knee and would spend most of this season working with longtime personal trainer Tim Grover.

Wade packed three hours of treatment and rehab a day around games and practices throughout the season. Grover described his program with Wade -- which started with 8-10 weeks of offseason training before camp opened in October -- as a Tour de France because of its varying stages of difficulty.

Benchmarks gauging Wade's progress were set at the start of the season, the beginning of the calendar year, the All-Star break in February and entering the playoffs. There were setbacks but also breakthroughs. Wade admitted that he never thought he would end up missing 28 games during the season.

But Grover knew Wade had plenty of issues to address after all of the mileage accumulated through annual trips deep into the playoffs.

"It wasn't just the knee[s]. There were a lot of other areas in the body that just weren't working the way they were supposed to be working," Grover told Bleacher Report in March. "And that's because he's played so many games over the last four years. So certain things have a tendency to wear out. When one thing wears out and isn't working, you start to overcompensate with something else. And somebody at his age, sometimes you need somebody to pay attention to you and your needs."

Between Grover and the Heat's staff, Wade essentially has had a Secret Service detail of trainers around him throughout the season. That team got Wade through the nine consecutive games he missed near the end of the regular season to deal with knee, hamstring and Achilles issues at the low point.

The entourage remains by his side after seeing him help put away the  Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals with his strongest series since 2012. Wade entered the Finals against the Spurs averaging 18.7 points, 4.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 52 percent shooting in 2014 playoffs.

James, once frustrated by the frequent injury absences of Wade and other veterans on the team, is confident that the player he's seen in the No. 3 jersey in the playoffs isn't slowing down anytime soon.

"I think he's very determined to prove a lot of people wrong," James said. "For the last three years, he's had people tugging at him and wanting him to decrease and decline. I don't see that. I see he's there when we need him. That's what motivates him. It's up to him how much he wants to continue to go."

Should the Heat beat the Spurs, James suggested Wade might be the most underappreciated superstar to have four championships and a Finals MVP award in his collection.

"That's for sure," James told ESPN.com. "But when it's all said and done, [critics] will realize what he's been able to accomplish. He's one of the best 2-guards to ever play the game, and he's going to be one of the best wing players to ever play the game. Look at his numbers, his accomplishments, Finals MVP, possible chance to win a fourth ring, MVP of All-Star Game, multiple All-Star Games, Olympian. Obviously, the list goes on. You can't find too many résumés like that."

Those closest to Wade don't believe he's done adding to it.

"Tell people Dwyane is a fresh, young 32 years old. He's not old," Bosh said recently. "I don't know why people keep acting like he's 47 out there playing. You'd think it's [Heat assistant Bob] McAdoo out there playing or something. He's 32 in the prime in his career. He's good. We can rely on him. He's our guy."

There are questions around the league about the Heat's ability to sustain this roster and add quality pieces with two top-salary, supporting-cast players in their 30s surrounding James. But Wade is trying to ward off some of those doubts with a strong finish to a turbulent season.

"From the outside looking in, all you can say right now is that it's worked," a rival Eastern conference executive said of Wade entering the Finals. "They had a plan with him, and only they knew exactly what they were dealing with day to day. If that's what it takes during the season to get the player you're seeing right now, then it's worth it. You trust it. You find a way to ease the load in January and you evaluate those guys based on April, May and June."

If that's the case, then a late-spring Wade is a spry Wade, and, barring a setback these next couple of weeks, Wade will enter the summer for the first time in three years without needing surgery or a major procedure.

He certainly doesn't sound like a player eager to opt out of $42 million.

There's no precedent of an elite NBA player pushing away from that kind of money. Riley has long held Wade in the same regard as Lakers treasure Kobe Bryant, who at 35 signed a two-year extension worth $48.5 million midway through an injury-riddled season.

Cases have been made that Duncan and  Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Garnett took less money on recent contracts that allowed their teams to add quality free agents or improve cap or luxury-tax standings. But the difference is that Duncan and Garnett had already played out the full length of previous top-dollar contracts before they respectively signed new, cap-friendly deals in 2012.

The closest example to Wade's potential scenario can be traced to the summer of 2010, when 30-year-old Richard Jefferson opted out of $15 million on the final year of his contract with the Spurs. He then re-signed a four-year, $39 million contract that reduced his 2010-11 salary from $15 million to $8 million. It also helped San Antonio sign Tiago Splitter and reportedly save $17 million in overall salary and potential luxury-tax penalties.

When Wade was told about speculation earlier this season among some league analysts that he might consider retiring after this season if he won his fourth title, he jerked his head back and frowned.

"I'd be a damn fool," Wade shot back. "I'm not retiring no time soon, so if that's what people are waiting on, that's stupid."

When then reminded that he earned just $3 million during the Heat's 2006 championship run when he was Finals MVP, there was a different reaction from Wade, who was one of the league's biggest bargains for so many years.

He smiled and looked away.

Momentary silence.

As long as he's playing and producing at a high level when it matters most, he'd never comprehend being cast in any scenario as a potential salary burden. Sacrificing part of his salary and a bigger part of his role to bring this Heat team together set the tone for four straight trips to the Finals.

Any plan that disrupts the run from continuing shouldn't be an option.

"Obviously, you don't have to do anything," Wade said. "From the standpoint of us even coming together, it wasn't anything I had to do. It's what I wanted to do. And will never feel like I have to do this. We all think I worked very hard over my career to earn what I've earned and put myself in that position. So I will never feel like I have to take less after this, or have to do this. It's not my job. It's the job of others around to figure out how to make it work. If I want to be a part of that, then I'll be a part of that. But if I don't, I won't. It's simple as that. I don't feel that pressure at all."

No pressure, just freedom of body and mind.

Finally.

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