Heat seek health, identity amid erratic start

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
1:09
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- With one towel wrapped around his waist and another draped over his shoulders, Miami Heat center Chris Bosh emerged from the showers after a recent game, carved through reporters waiting at his locker and noticed neighboring teammate Shannon Brown scrambling to get away.

Brown hurried to dress and clear out of the way so Bosh would have all the space he needed.

“Why are you rushing? It’s just the media,” Bosh said. “They’ve got questions. We’ve got answers.”

If only it were that simple for the Heat this season.

Within a span of seven days, Miami has displayed the best of its progress and potential with impressive victories at Dallas and Brooklyn. And the Heat have also shown just how painstaking the process of rebuilding on the fly can be in demoralizing home losses to Milwaukee and a depleted Indiana team.

One week, the Heat are riding high after an impressive 5-2 start in which Dwyane Wade flashed his newfound health and durability by playing six games in nine nights. And the next week, the Heat stumbled through three straight losses and a rash of injuries to three starters that included Wade missing time with a strained hamstring.

Every time it seems the Heat (6-5) are on the verge of providing answers, more questions arise.

“I guess it’s just part of what we have to go through, I guess, because we’re right in the middle of it,” Bosh said of the erratic start to the season. “You knew it was going to be a little difficult. But it comes in ways you don’t expect. You just have to stay with it until it turns. Just get on course and do better.”

There’s a significant chance to turn again with Thursday’s visit from the Los Angeles Clippers as Miami looks to distance itself from consecutive embarrassing home losses. But even that opportunity comes with its own set of questions, specifically regarding the health and availability of three key players.

After missing the past three games, Wade didn't go through shootaround Thursday and is doubtful to play against the Clippers. Luol Deng, who sprained his wrist in Sunday’s loss to the Bucks, was held out of Monday’s win against Brooklyn. Heat forward Josh McRoberts practiced Wednesday after missing Monday’s game with a bruised foot.

At a time when the Heat had hoped to gain traction and establish some early continuity, injuries and inconsistent performances have instead forced them to use four different starting lineups in 11 games.

Add in Bosh’s week-long shooting slump, and it presents a buffet of excuses that could have led to a poor performance on the second night of a back-to-back set entering Monday’s 95-83 win against the Nets. Yet, the hard-to-figure Heat turned in perhaps their most encouraging effort of the young season.

Amid Wade’s recent injury history, questions have been raised about the Heat’s depth at shooting guard after an offseason in which Ray Allen and James Jones both departed. But Mario Chalmers, who has transitioned from starting point guard the past several seasons to Wade’s primary backup this season, has thrived in his new role. He’s shot 53 percent from the field and averaged 21 points and seven assists in the three games Wade has missed.

The Heat have also relied more heavily on rookie guards Shabazz Napier and James Ennis and hope they can build on their efforts from Monday, when they combined for 21 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and two steals and saw extended time in the fourth quarter. But those productive moments guarantee absolutely nothing moving forward. So far, the trend has seen that the Heat take one huge step forward only to lose their balance the next time they’re on the court.

Maintaining progress and patience has been a challenging balancing act for the Heat.

“You have to embrace that as a competitor, really,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The NBA season turns like this for you, for whatever reason. The ball isn’t bouncing the right way. You’re not getting the calls you think you’re going to get. There are injuries. Guys are in and out of the lineup. That’s when you reveal yourselves as a basketball team. That’s how you grow -- [through] these mini points of adversity.”

That adversity has produced some uneven moments for a team that is working with as many as six new rotation players who were around for Miami’s two championships and four straight trips to the Finals.

Settling in means there are going to be some flashes of phenomenal play, which was the case when Miami efficiently carved through Dallas on Nov. 9 with beautiful ball movement that led to a season-high 31 assists and 55.3 percent shooting in that 105-96 victory. But getting acquainted also means there will be miscommunication and frustration, which were prominent when the Heat were outrebounded by 25 boards on Nov. 12 against the Pacers and consistently blew coverage assignments two nights after in Atlanta, where the Hawks shot 56 percent and scored 114 points.

No player on the Heat’s roster understands the challenge of change more than Deng, who is with his third team this calendar year after he was traded from Chicago to Cleveland last season before he signed with the Heat as a free agent over the summer.

“It’s definitely tough ... we’re having different lineups out there,” said Deng, who fills the starting small forward spot vacated by LeBron James. “The last couple of games, there have been games we showed how good we can play together. But it’s a long season. And this is definitely a learning process. We just have to come together, see the things we’re doing great and stick to that. And the things that are beating us, we have to learn to avoid those. Hopefully we can benefit from all of this in the long run.”

Bosh has been here before.

He knows it’s impossible to endure the long run by being short on patience. That, in part, is why he isn’t too perplexed by his recent shooting woes. After getting off to one of the most productive starts of his career through the first seven games, Bosh has shot just 28.3 percent from the field in his past four outings. He’s missed 11 of 14 attempts from 3-point range and averaged just 13.4 points in that span.

Bosh held himself and his teammates accountable with a harsh message after Sunday’s loss to the Bucks -- a setback that included his 2-for-17 shooting performance.

“We’re starting to see the same mistakes over and over and we’re just going to have to have a serious talk about it,” Bosh told ESPN.com after that game. “We’re not talking on defense; we’re not even running our set plays. It just can’t happen. If we’re going to go down, let’s go down executing and playing our game. We’re going down making mental lapses and mistakes at opportune times. I can understand missed shots. That comes and goes. But if we’re not even running plays ...”

About 24 hours later, after the relative breakthrough in Brooklyn, Bosh praised Napier and Ennis for showing some resilience and talked about the boost veteran Danny Granger provided in his debut after sitting out the first 10 games with a hamstring injury.

“We’re going to need them,” Bosh said.

The next step is to put two consistent weeks together.

Playing two consistent games would be a start.

“We just have to continue discussions about where guys are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do,” Bosh said. “We can do this. We just have to pound away until it sticks.”

Maybe that’s when the answers will start to overshadow the questions facing the Heat.

Post-LeBron Heat: The Post-Up Podcast

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
10:59
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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Dwyane Wade, Chris BoshDanny Bollinger/NBAE/Getty ImagesDwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are still front and center for the Heat.
ESPN.com NBA reporter Michael Wallace is joined by Miami-based sports radio co-hosts Ed Freeman and Jeff Fox to break down the Heat's post-LeBron makeover and the biggest stories from the opening month of the NBA season.

The Post-Up Podcast Listen

Dwyane Wade: Back to my comfort zone

November, 12, 2014
Nov 12
10:00
AM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- The worst part was the uncertainty.

Chris Bosh remembers all of those times he would enter the Miami Heat’s training facility three hours before tip-off, see teammate Dwyane Wade’s troublesome knee being poked, prodded, tested, diagnosed and then reevaluated again by the medical staff before the final word arrived.

The Heat’s starting lineup would be written up on the team’s dry-erase board. There were plenty of nights last season when Bosh and his teammates wouldn’t learn of Wade’s availability until just before the game when they realized his name wasn’t among the five listed.

“He might make a wrong move in warm-ups, and then that would be it,” Bosh recalled Tuesday of Wade. “It was just that much of a delicate situation. Before, it was giving him trouble and even he didn’t know what was going to happen. He was stressed out because he didn’t even know how he was going to wake up in the morning, whether he was going to be fine that day or hurting from the start.”

It’s a far different sort of start that has Wade and his teammates far more encouraged about his prospects now. Coming off a season in which he missed 28 games largely due to knee issues the team tried to address through a proactive maintenance program, Wade’s availability and production have been the most surprising aspects of the Heat’s 5-2 start entering Wednesday’s game against Indiana.

[+] EnlargeWade
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsDwyane Wade has already played in as many back-to-backs (three) as he did all of last season.
This time a year ago, Wade was already well into that maintenance program that started in training camp and left him out of the lineup for the second game of the season. He also frequently skipped at least one game to preserve his knees or to deal with soreness when Miami played on consecutive nights.

Among the biggest accomplishments of the Heat’s young season is that Wade, 32, not only pushed through a recent stretch of six games in nine nights, but thrived while doing so. Wade has already played in every game of Miami’s three back-to-back sets, which matches his total from all of last season.

Wade finished with 20 points and 10 assists in Sunday’s 105-96 win at Dallas a night after he had 25 points, eight assists and two steals in 30 minutes during a 102-92 home victory against Minnesota. Wade still deals with some uncertainty. He joked in Dallas that he woke up in the team hotel amid the dizzying recent schedule and didn’t immediately know what city he was in.

For now, health seems to be the least of his worries, although conditioning remains his top priority. That’s one reason why Wade, a perennial All-Star with three championship rings among other accolades, was proud Tuesday to count his recent stretch of production as a significant personal accomplishment.

Even after the Heat absorbed back-to-back losses last week to Houston and Charlotte, Wade approached coach Erik Spoelstra with a bounce in his step, having totaled 44 points on 16-of-29 shooting in 64 minutes over those two contests.

“I told Coach, obviously coming out of four [games] in five nights, we lost two of those -- I said, ‘Well, I had an individual victory, playing my best on the last night of those,” Wade said. “The same thing with the six [games] in nine [nights], playing my most minutes in the biggest stretch. It’s all good from the standpoint of the work I put in this summer. It’s very, very early, but I’m happy where I’m at right now.”

Neither Wade nor Spoelstra would venture into great detail how Wade’s conditioning and maintenance program has evolved from the process they went through last season.

But Spoelstra has been fond of saying that Wade is “putting in a typical American workday” in terms of showing up for eight-hour shifts. That time incorporates practices and games, in addition to the conditioning routine Wade goes through before practices or after game-day shootarounds as well as the treatment sessions after games.

Wade and Bosh have shared the additional burden created by LeBron James’ return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in free agency after the trio guided the Heat to two titles and four straight trips to the NBA Finals.

Bosh has scored at least 20 points in all seven games this season, which is his longest streak with the Heat, and is the only player in the league averaging at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and three assists a game. And Bosh’s four double-doubles this season are only two shy of his total for all of last season.

For Wade, the transition has allowed him to serve as the team’s primary facilitator and he’s averaging 19.7 points, a team-high 6.9 assists and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 51 percent from the field. He’s had two games with at least 10 assists, which match his total from 54 regular-season games last season.

“What you’re seeing now is the residual of all the work Dwyane has put in -- I keep saying he’s working a full American day,” Spoelstra said. “He’s not shortcutting any part of the process. It’s not easy. But it’s what he has to do to keep himself at a high level. We’re all happy with the process, his commitment.”

Wade has advanced from a trial-and-error process to a more stable and reliable routine this season. Two years ago, Wade entered the 2012-13 season recovering from knee surgery. He came into last season coming off a shock-wave therapy procedure to address extensive bone bruises in his right knee and spent much of the season in and out of the lineup as he played through the rehab process.

The wild production swings last season led to Wade’s strong performance against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals but his confounding struggles in a five-game loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. This past offseason was all about conditioning, which included reshaping his body and losing enough weight to require a smaller size in his game-night jersey and shorts.

“Every year is different. Last year was last year,” Wade said. “My body went through a different thing and we went through a different program. It worked at certain moments and it didn’t at others. Right now, this year is different and we’re starting off different. You can’t control it. As long as you put the work in, hopefully you’ll see the progress you make from the process.”

Teammates as well as opponents have already witnessed the progression.

[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade, Chris Bosh
Danny Bollinger/GettyChris Bosh has joined D-Wade with increased productivity, posting four double-doubles, just two shy of his total for last season.
“People keep talking about him being old or hurt, but I don’t see it,” Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said after Wade had 19 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in a Nov. 2 win against the Raptors. “He’s that guy. He and Chris are back to both being that guy again.”

Bosh said Wade shouldn’t be expected to play in every back-to-back and will likely take some games off this season even if healthy. The difference between this season and last season, Bosh said, is that his teammate seems rejuvenated and determined to lead by example on and off the court.

It starts with Wade being healthy, reliable and available.

“It’s smart to have that balance with him,” Bosh said. “But we have to be a little smarter with the balance this year. We had the luxury of having a super veteran team in the past, and he knew that guys would pick up the slack. But we have a younger core now, and we have to all do a little more. He’s responded well to that. It’s just something you deal with, and for him it’s a lot of motivation.”

Wade sort of forgot how good all of this attention felt, especially from opposing defenses.

As the Heat were on their way to racking up a season-high 31 assists and carving through the Dallas Mavericks for their most impressive win of the season so far, Wade noticed the additional company he commanded each time he touched the ball.

There were nights last season when Wade would have been a forgotten man in a suit on the bench as his team trudged through the second game of a back-to-back set.

He’s now back to being the center of attention, commanding a double-team.

“It felt good to get that back,” Wade joked Tuesday. “It’s a sign of respect. I have to make the plays I’m making to get off the ball. I’m comfortable at understanding the game and knowing when to get guys shots and when to get my own. It’s back to my comfort zone I’ve had pretty much my whole life.”

Wiggins relishes Wade's words of wisdom

November, 9, 2014
Nov 9
1:13
AM ET
Gutierrez By Israel Gutierrez
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- Among the baskets Dwyane Wade scored against the defense of Andrew Wiggins in the final four minutes Saturday were a 19-foot baseline jumper that took some of the tension out of a surprisingly close finish, and a clean split of the pick-and-roll that ended in a two-handed dunk that sealed Miami’s 102-92 win over the Timberwolves.

The No. 1 draft pick could’ve learned plenty just watching Wade close out the young Timberwolves, finishing with 25 points, eight assists and two steals.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Wiggins, Dwyane Wade
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsWolves rookie Andrew Wiggins got a few encouraging words from Dwyane Wade after the game.
But the greatest takeaway for Wiggins came when Wade approached the rookie after the game and offered a few words of encouragement (no, they didn’t spend any time badmouthing LeBron James for abandoning each of them).

“He asked me if I wanted to be great,” Wiggins said of his postgame exchange with Wade. “I said yes. He said I’ve got all the tools to be great, just keep working.”

Wiggins had his second double-figure scoring effort (10) but was 3-of-9 with one rebound and two assists. It was consistent with Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders’ description of Wiggins pregame, when he said the rookie can be “spectacular” at times but too often has “wasted minutes.”

It didn’t help that Wiggins, 19, wasn’t even the youngest starter on his team Saturday. Zach LaVine, younger than Wiggins by 15 days, started in place of Ricky Rubio, who suffered a severe sprain to his left ankle. Saunders said he started LaVine ahead of Mo Williams because LaVine projects as an important piece to the franchise’s future.

As is Wiggins, of course. And those few seconds he spent with Wade after the final whistle were hardly a waste.

“Those words at the end of the game just motivate me,” Wiggins said. "Already I'm thinking about what he said, and it’s going to carry through for a long time now.

“He’s one of the people I watched growing up, one of the people I idolized. That guy right there is great.”

Chris Bosh returns to a starring role

November, 3, 2014
Nov 3
1:29
AM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- For the better part of the past four years -- even as LeBron James racked up regular-season and postseason MVP awards during four straight runs the NBA Finals -- Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra repeatedly referred to Chris Bosh as the team’s most important player.

And each time, the muffled scoffs and eye-rolling would follow from those within earshot.

But Spoelstra always felt there was a clear distinction between LeBron’s value and Bosh’s impact.

“I don’t expect everyone to always understand it,” Spoelstra would say at least once every couple of weeks. “But in terms of what we do, how we want to play, what we need to happen on the court on both ends for us to be successful, C.B. is our most important player. That’s how we see him.”

What Spoelstra saw then is becoming abundantly clear to many now.

Bosh is off to the most productive three-game start of his Miami tenure, and the Heat have emerged from the first full week of the regular season as the lone unbeaten team in the Eastern Conference after Sunday’s 107-102 victory against Toronto.

While Bosh refuses to buy into the notion that LeBron’s departure to Cleveland in free agency is solely responsible for his initial statistical outburst, the 12-year veteran believes his development is part of a natural progression in his game that was inevitable, regardless of Miami’s personnel.

In other words, after four straight seasons of seeing his scoring and rebounding numbers decline as he settled into a role as primarily a spot-up shooter, something had to give.

“It’s just time,” Bosh said after he finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes against the Raptors. “I knew I couldn’t settle into that same position I’ve been in the past four years, floating outside and shooting a couple of jumpers. I know I had to switch it up a little.”

[+] EnlargeBosh
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsChris Bosh has helped filled the void left by LeBron James with increased productivity.
Through three games, Bosh has switched it up a lot. He’s averaging 25.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game while shooting 54.5 percent from 3-point range. Having accumulated totals of 77 points, 34 rebounds, 12 assists and four steals so far, Bosh is off to his most dominant start since he arrived in Miami in 2010 to essentially become the third option behind LeBron and Dwyane Wade.

This represents the fastest start for Bosh since his final season with the Raptors to begin the 2009-10 season, when he tallied 93 points, 44 rebounds, made all three of his 3-pointers and shot 45 free throws. Bosh has been fond of saying that even though his overall numbers dropped off once he arrived in Miami, that he is a much better player now than he was during his previous All-Star years in Toronto.

Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan was a rookie during Bosh’s final season in Toronto, and said there are aspects of his former teammate’s game that have expanded despite being featured far less in Miami.

“He was scoring 40 and doing all types of amazing things back then,” DeRozan said of Bosh, who averaged career-highs of 24 points and 10.8 rebounds for the Raptors the season before he opted out of his contract to test free agency in 2010. “It’s a tough question, but I think [Bosh is a better player now]. He’s still the same type of [dynamic] player, but he’s a lot better now than he was, a lot more mature.”

Bosh pointed out some specific areas where he felt his game has grown this season.

It starts with conditioning and consistency.

“For me, that’s what this year is all about,” Bosh said. “Before, I’ve had good starts or whatever, but I couldn’t keep it up. I ran out of gas. I’m just focusing now on playing it one game at a time and making sure I can sustain what I’m putting out there.”

Another facet of Bosh’s game that hints at expansion is his ability to make plays with the ball. He now gets many of the initial touches in halfcourt sets and has multiple options. His shot has comfortably extended out to 3-point range the past few seasons, but he also maintains a quickness advantage in majority of his matchups at center that allows him to get by opponents with his first step.

“More than anything, I’m a facilitator now,” said Bosh, who combined with Wade for 40 points, 22 rebounds and 11 assists Sunday. “I can find open guys a lot better. I can develop chemistry a bit better. I can work off catch-and-goes. I can work off the ball. All those things make me a bit more complete.”

But there’s nothing Bosh takes more pride in so far than his ability to get to the free-throw line, where he’s averaging nearly 10 attempts through the first three games. Still, Bosh and the Heat know better than to exude overwhelming confidence. The sample size is too small and a bit flawed at this point.

The Heat won their season opener against a Washington team that was missing two of its best three players, with guard Bradley Beal sidelined with a broken wrist and center Nene having served a one-game suspension. Miami’s second win was against a Philadelphia team that could be contending for the NBA’s worst record for a second consecutive season. Sunday’s game saw Bosh face a Raptors frontline that was without injured shot-blocker Amir Johnson.

But the Heat’s offense seems well ahead of schedule, with Miami averaging 109.3 points per game to rank second in the league behind Golden State. After finishing with 33 assists on Saturday against the Sixers, the Heat added 22 more to complete the back-to-back set Sunday. It has been an encouraging blend of ball-movement, back-to-back availability from Wade and bigger boosts from Bosh to begin the season.

“The best part about it is it hasn’t been strenuous,” Bosh said of the additional burden. “It feels natural.”

The schedule will bring tougher tests, with five of their next six games against teams that made the playoffs last season, beginning with Tuesday’s visit from the Houston Rockets.

“We’re three games into this, so it could quickly go the other way if guys start to feel comfortable,” Spoelstra said. “That’s not a referendum on our personnel. Guys see how we have to play to be successful.”

Continuing to play through Bosh is a start.

Especially considering the way he has started the season.

Sustaining it is the next test for Bosh and the Heat. But even a team that’s advanced to the NBA Finals the past four seasons and has won two titles in the span isn’t too proud to be pumped by opening 3-0.

Bosh insists it means something.

“Absolutely, we humbly take it,” he said. “We’ve been saying we want to get off to a good start. It’s about to get tougher. But it’s important for us to get going, hit the ground running. We just have to keep our head down, even though [critics] will come out and start saying how surprised they are. We just have to keep focusing on that day’s work and making sure we’re being the best team we can be.”

Dwyane Wade embraces another change

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
9:48
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- First, Dwyane Wade’s body basically gave out on him in the NBA Finals.

Then, his buddy and four-time league MVP essentially gave up on him to return to Cleveland as a free agent. And soon after that, Wade balked after opting out of the remaining $42 million on his previous contract to sign a deal for nearly $10 million less.

No doubt, the losses certainly piled up on Wade during the most humbling and tumultuous offseason of his career. But now, Wade tends to focus more on what he’s regained as the Heat enter their first season in five years without LeBron James as the franchise anchor.

It starts with a newfound perspective.

[+] EnlargeWade
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesDwyane Wade is embracing a more vocal role with the departure of LeBron James.
And it was discovered, in part, during a random visit to the Heat’s practice facility earlier this month during what was otherwise a day off for the team. Wade came in for a workout, but soon found himself standing off to the side in a gym buzzing with activity on the main basketball courts.

It happened to be the day the Heat were holding workouts for their NBA Development League team prospects, a group ranging from local rec league ringers to former Division 1 college rotation players.

Wade didn’t really know any of those battling just to get invited back the next day for the remote chance to start a career somewhere. But it was a reminder of Wade’s own identity.

“I sneak up here every now and then to let people know I’m still around,” said Wade, 32. “That’s just it. I’m motivated by the game of basketball, being able to come out here and still play it. This is a lot of people’s dream. All you have to do is come in and see these guys trying out for the D-League team and look around and say, ‘OK. I’m in a special place.’”

Sobering moments like those have motivated Wade and the Heat, who open the season Wednesday night at home against the Washington Wizards. There’s no longer the luxury of LeBron’s greatness to carry the largest share of the load. The path that led Miami to two championships and the last four NBA Finals is now paved with potential potholes throughout a reloaded Eastern Conference.

And the combination of high roster turnover and far lower expectations has rendered the Heat as anonymous as many of the players pushing through drills during that D-League workout. At one point during the height of LeBron’s four seasons with the Heat, there were as many as 90 media members who crammed into a gym just to watch Miami’s training camp workouts.

By contrast, at one point during this preseason, the horde consisted of two local newspaper reporters. Although change has been difficult throughout this process for the Heat, Wade refuses to allow this team to focus on what they were the past four years or to look too far ahead into this season.

“It’s going to be like that [all season],” Wade said. “We don’t have the team right now where we can look forward. We have to focus on every day. It’s the only way we’re going to be successful, whether we win six or seven in a row or lose six in a row. Come in and focus on getting better. We don’t have the team where we have that confidence where we can look forward. We have to build that in ourselves.”

And that’s going to require Wade to first rebuild from within.

Although Chris Bosh is expected to become the primary option in the offense after re-signing on a maximum contract worth nearly $120 million over five seasons, the Heat’s prospects in the post-LeBron era largely rest on Wade’s health and productivity.

Many aspects of Wade’s role on the team have changed from the previous four seasons, when LeBron averaged 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists to lead the team in multiple statistical categories. However, many of the questions Wade faced in recent injury-riddled years persist.

That’s what makes both Wade and the Heat difficult to gauge this season.

Wade shot a career-high 54.5 percent from the field and averaged 19 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds in 54 games last season. But he also missed 28 games, mostly to manage knee issues, before enduring a turbulent postseason. After increasing his productivity in each of the first three rounds of the playoffs, Wade essentially flatlined during Miami’s five-game series loss to the Spurs in the Finals.

Wade refused to say whether his health was a factor in the Finals, when he shot just 43.8 percent and averaged 15.2 points and nearly four turnovers a game. A sluggish start to the preseason only raised more concerns about Wade, but he dismissed his sporadic play over the first four exhibition games as a case of coach Erik Spoelstra tweaking the offense and focusing on getting offseason acquisitions such as Luol Deng, Danny Granger and Shawne Williams more comfortable in the system.

Some encouraging signs came over the final week of the preseason, when Wade scored 26 points with six assists in 29 minutes during an Oct. 21 win against Houston. Over the final two exhibition games, Wade averaged 21 points and shot 18-for-26 from the field.

Questions about his health this week were cut off abruptly and answered succinctly.

“It won’t be a problem at all,” Wade said. “My impact will be what my impact is going to be. I’ve put the work in and you go on the court and try to put forth your best effort. And that’s all you can do.”

Wade said the Heat’s new offense is unlike any system he’s played in during his previous 11 seasons in Miami and is predicated more on ball-movement, attacking from the wings and exploiting mismatches at any position on the court. It has called for Wade to shift from strong-side decoy to facilitator to clear-out option from one possession to the next.

It’s an intricate scheme change from the past few seasons when LeBron was heavily relied upon to dominate the offense through either scoring or setting up the Heat’s bevvy of spot-up shooters. But marksmen such as Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Shane Battier and James Jones are now replaced by rookies Shabazz Napier and James Ennis on the perimeter along with versatile veterans in Deng, Williams, Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts, who sat out the preseason to recover from toe surgery.

Wade’s attitude in camp was a key factor in helping the Heat get through a challenging transition.

“I think it’s been invigorating, a new challenge,” Spoelstra said of Wade. “Having a new team, new players, a new role; he’s really stepped up from a leadership standpoint. I’ve really enjoyed watching him step into this role, being more vocal, showing players what we stand for, what our culture is, what our philosophy is, and backing it up with his actions. He had a very good training camp. He came in with a mindset to lead with his voice as well as with his work ethic, and he’s been doing it every day since.”

Heat forward Udonis Haslem, the only other holdover with Wade from the Heat’s first championship team in 2006, said the tone was set from the opening day of camp a month ago when every player passed the team’s conditioning test on the first day of practice.

“I’m not sure if that was the case the last few years,” Haslem said, coyly. “All the things we’ve been working on behind the scenes, we’ve had more than enough time behind the scenes to kind of put things in place and get a feel for different things. I don’t know if the identity has changed.”

But Haslem is certain about what’s been clearly restored.

“It’s his team again,” he said, referring to Wade. “Not to say it wasn’t, but you know, he’s been here. He’s the guy. He’s got the most championships, besides myself. Guys are looking to him and myself because we understand the Heat culture and embody what it’s all about. We’ve been here from the start, and hopefully we’ll be here until it’s finished. Everybody understands that.”

This is not an unfamiliar predicament for Wade, who embarked on a similar journey entering the 2008-09 season after the departure of another larger-than-life teammate.

Only then, Wade was a 26-year-old superstar in his prime, battling back from two major surgeries, regrouping from Shaquille O’Neal’s recent trade to Phoenix and regrouping from a 15-67 season that matched the worst finish in franchise history.

Wade won the league scoring title that next season and finished third in MVP voting.

No one expects that version of Wade to show up again this season.

So how does Wade at this stage of his career go about picking up himself and his franchise again? The pride is there. So is the passion. But why should anyone other than diehard Heat fans believe the necessary production will be there as well?

Just file those questions right along with all of the others facing the Heat these days.

“Obviously, it’s a little different when you talk about how you’re older now than you were then,” Wade said. “But we haven’t gotten into the throes of the season yet, so I can’t really say. But we’ll see when the wins and losses start piling up, how great it really is. But it feels renewed.”

Change -- sprinkled with a three championship runs -- has been the only constant in Wade’s career.

After riding a four-year wave of success and stability on several fronts, Wade has had to adjust to another shakeup. The same offseason highlighted by his marriage to actress Gabrielle Union also featured a costly and dramatic low point: his breakup as teammates with LeBron.

Diving into a new challenge has served as a coping mechanism.

“I don’t really know if it’s a secret to it. That’s life,” Wade said. “Life never stays the same. If it does, it gets too boring. You would call it Groundhog Day. You have to make the adjustment or you’ll get left behind. That’s all I’ve been able to do when change comes, whether it’s on the court or off the court. I’m not saying that I always do it right. But you just try to make it the best way you know how.”

Heat's Bosh adjusting post-LeBron

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
6:02
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
Archive
Chris BoshBrian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesWithout LeBron James, a new season and role will come into focus for Chris Bosh.
MIAMI -- Trying to replace the 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists LeBron James averaged during his four seasons in Miami already stood as a daunting enough challenge for the Heat.

Filling the four-time league MVP’s vocal leadership void is proving to be just as difficult for the Heat player who now commands the primary role in the offense as well as the team’s biggest contract.

Heat center Chris Bosh said Monday that in addition to adjusting aspects of his game entering the season, he’s also had to tweak major parts of his personality to effectively smooth the franchise’s transition into life after LeBron. Stepping up his production likely won’t be a problem for Bosh.

But speaking up more along the way? Well, that’s another ordeal altogether.

“It’s a challenge. I can’t duplicate what he did,” Bosh said of rallying the Heat around his voice the way LeBron has the past four seasons. “He’s a great leader. Guys followed him easily. And I’m trying to put my own spin on it and bring my own personality to it. That’s been a difficult journey for me, but I’m learning every day. I’m trying to make sure I personally talk to guys all the time and just take pointers from other people and see how I can bring all that to the table.”

Bosh quickly moved to the forefront of the Heat’s rebuilding process. Just hours after LeBron announced in July he was heading back to Cleveland in free agency, Bosh agreed to a five-year contract worth nearly $120 million to remain in Miami as the Heat’s building block for the present and future.

The Heat also brought back Dwyane Wade on a two-year, $33 million deal. Bosh and Wade each had a strong voice in how the Heat operated on and off the court in recent seasons. But even they fell in line beyond LeBron, who guided Miami to two championships in four consecutive trips to the Finals.

Along the way, there were plenty of moments when LeBron drew attention for the way he communicated with his teammates -- from yelling at point guard Mario Chalmers during games to leading teammates through a viral Harlem Shake video in the locker room.

While James’ style is louder and more demanding, Bosh is more laid-back and cerebral in his leadership approach. Still, there were moments when Bosh didn’t hesitate to be brutally honest and aggressively communicate with teammates in the past. It just wasn’t always a comfortable process.

“Naturally, no,” Bosh said after Monday’s practice as the Heat prepared for Wednesday’s season opener against the Washington Wizards. “It’s easier for me [to lead by example]. I like spending time by myself. [I have to] force myself to talk every day. It’s not easy. It’s something I will always work on. My wife pushes me every day to work on that stuff, so there’s no hiding for me. I might as well just get it over with and talk and be social. I’m comfortable doing it.”

It wasn’t just LeBron who left the Heat’s leadership circle. Miami’s overhaul also included the departures of veterans in Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis and James Jones. That has left Bosh and Wade to pick up the slack along with other long-term roster holdovers in Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers.

Bosh insists he’s not nervous or overwhelmed with the transition.

“I don’t do anxiety much anymore,” he said. “I just make sure I do enough to carry the responsibility.”

It’s a heavier load on multiple fronts.

But it’s less about what Bosh says, and more about what the Heat show as a collective unit.

“It doesn’t matter what we say ... in other people’s perception, we’ll be an underdog,” Bosh said of expectations facing the post-LeBron Heat in the East pecking order. “But for us, we’re trying to be an elite team. It’s going to take work. On paper, [other teams are] ahead. Chemistry-wise, I think Chicago is ahead. Talent-wise, Cleveland is ahead. But, you know, we have what it takes here. We have a chance.”

How the Heat contend in the East

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
12:18
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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Wade vs. Grandma Nelly

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
1:23
PM ET
By D'Arcy Maine
ESPN.com
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video
For her 90th birthday, Heat fan "Grandma Nelly" dreamed of playing one-on-one against Dwyane Wade. Her dream came true. Read the full story here »
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Heat ready to move on without LeBron

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
8:03
PM ET
Gutierrez By Israel Gutierrez
ESPN.com
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MIAMI-- For the past four seasons, so much was consistent about the Miami Heat.

Four seasons of championship expectations. Four seasons of coach Erik Spoelstra’s catch phrases repeated time and again. Four seasons of questioning Chris Bosh's role. Nearly four seasons of Dwyane Wade's health being examined. Four seasons of being everyone's favorite enemy. And, most notably, four seasons of LeBron James in his absolute prime.

So much of that changed between July 11, when James announced he was signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Friday, when the retooled Heat held media day on the eve of their first practice.

The expectations have fallen from championship or bust to essentially being projected as just another playoff team. Bosh has suddenly gone from an All-Star-caliber role player to quite possibly the top option in a revamped Heat offense.

Wade's health concerns are still there, as evidenced by the first question to him being, "How’s your knee?" But no longer is he viewed as a fragile piece of crystal that must be kept in prime condition until the postseason. Wade has returned to being an absolutely vital piece, one that won't be afforded nearly as many days off, if he can avoid it.

That much change could be jarring, especially for a core group of players and a franchise that have become quite used to winning at the highest level.

But Wade said the past 2½ months have been plenty of time to adjust to the idea of, once again, playing without James.

"I think everyone in the organization had enough time to get used to the idea that it's going to be a different team," Wade said. "We can't replace LeBron. We're a different team. Everyone's opportunities will be different. Everyone's responsibilities will be different."

The only problem for Wade is, he's not sure exactly how his responsibilities will change.

Other than the uncertainty of his troublesome knees, Wade also faces the question of just how close he can get to his form of four or five seasons ago.

Without knowing that, he can't honestly answer how his role will change this season.

"I'm not sure," Wade said. "Obviously, I'll have the ball in my hands a little bit more. I've always been a playmaker for this team, and I'll continue to be that. I've always been somebody who scored the ball at a high rate, and I will always try to do that.

"I'm not coming in thinking I have to do anything that LeBron did, or that I have to do anything that I did before the Big Three. I'm coming in with a new mind, with a new thought of, 'What’s going to be my role on this team?'"

Among Wade's offseason highlights was, of course, marrying Gabrielle Union, and among the lowlights was a 30-day paleo diet stint that left him moody but also noticeably leaner.

"It was bad," Wade said of the mood swings. "I had to tell my wife, 'Excuse me if I'm not the guy that you're used to.'

"There were some days where I just couldn't take it, but I stuck with it for 30 days, and from there it just becomes part of your lifestyle."

Wade wouldn't divulge his current weight, but he did indicate it was somewhere between 212, his weight as a rookie, and 225, his playing weight last season.

"My goal this year is to be available as much as possible," he said.

The other remaining member of the former Big Three has more detailed goals.

Bosh never expected to return to a primary scoring role. He assumed that James would stay in Miami for the long haul, leaving Bosh as an outside-shooting big who watched James and Wade dominate the post.

Now, armed with a healthy, new $118 million contract, Bosh is downright giddy about the opportunity to show off a refined, well-rounded game that will allow the Heat to remain among the best teams in the league.

"I've had to play a role the past four years, but moving forward, I can show the city and the organization what value I can bring, how much I can turn up the intensity, how much I can put more weight on my shoulders and really hold that load and bring more wins to Miami," Bosh said.

One aspect of the Heat that won't necessarily change is the players' feelings about James.

While you could easily find reasons for Wade, Bosh and a handful of others in the Heat organization to have animosity toward James because he left everyone in the dark while making his free-agent decision -- or simply for leaving a team that could've maintained a long, championship-level run -- no one displayed even the slightest bit of bitterness.

Spoelstra said it took him and the front-office staff about 10 minutes to shift moods from disappointed to invigorated.

Udonis Haslem said he was plenty satisfied with two titles in four seasons during James' time in Miami.

Even Danny Granger, who briefly reopened his free agency after hearing of James' return to Cleveland, said he decided Miami was still the best fit for him, even without the four-time MVP.

Among players, Wade probably has the most reason to be upset with James, given that the timing of it all cost Wade millions, and he was considered James' best friend on the team.

Wade said he understands there are reasons for him to be angry if he chose to be. He simply chooses not to.

"I don't want to focus on none of that," he said. "I want to focus on moving on. That’s my friend, at the end of the day. The rest of it, I'm just focused on moving on and doing what I can. I can't focus on disliking somebody and all that. That's putting too much energy on the wrong thing."

Besides, given how much the Heat have to adjust now that James is gone, there's probably not enough time to even hold a grudge.

"I was disappointed," Bosh said. "There was a letdown initially for not being able to keep that going, but you have to get over it. You can't stay in the past.

"It's a huge opportunity, not only for this team, but for every individual that's here."

The split personalities of the 2007 NBA draft

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
6:46
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
Archive
Greg Oden and Kevin DurantJennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images)A tale of two draftees: While injuries sunk Greg Oden's career, Kevin Durant rose to superstardom.
Al Horford could see it. Playing against Ohio State in the 2007 NCAA championship game, the Florida Gators big man could tell Greg Oden was going to be something special in the NBA.

"I just knew I was looking at a guy that was going to be like a 10-time All-Star -- was going to be in the discussion as one of the best centers, for sure," Horford said. "I have no question in my mind, looking back, that he was going to be a great player."

Almost three months later, Oden was selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft while Horford went third.

Seven years later, Horford is the one playing in All-Star games while injuries and other issues have derailed Oden’s career, to the point where he has openly described himself as “one of the biggest busts in NBA history.”

The 2007 draft’s legacy is one of rare extremes. And not only the ever-diverging gap between Kevin Durant's path to prominence and Oden's tumultuous tumble toward obscurity.

For every major hit that turned out to be an elite-level talent, such as Durant, Horford, Mike Conley Jr. (picked fourth), Joakim Noah (ninth) and Marc Gasol (48th), there were massive lottery misses on the likes of Oden, Yi Jianlian (sixth), Acie Law (11th), Julian Wright (13th) and Al Thornton (14th).

The 2007 class boasts both the league's reigning MVP (Durant) and defensive player of the year (Noah), marking the first time that has happened since the 1999-00 season. But it also produced a class in which seven of the first 21 players selected are no longer in the NBA. Oden would become the eighth if he's out of the league again this season.

Oden's arrest also places him among a far more disturbing distinction associated with that draft's first round.

Sean Williams, selected at No. 17 by the Nets, saw his career mired by a string of arrests on drug, trespassing and felony misconduct charges. He has been out of the league since being cut by the Rockets in 2012.

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesSeven years after being picked second overall, Kevin Durant became the league's most valuable player.
Javaris Crittenton, picked two spots later, was arrested in December 2009 along with Gilbert Arenas for their roles in a locker room gun incident while teammates with the Washington Wizards. Both players were subsequently suspended for the remainder of the 2009-10 season. Crittenton never played another NBA game after the gun incident in Washington. His life allegedly took an even more heinous turn in recent years as he awaits trial on multiple murder, drug and weapon charges.

Ryan Blake, senior director of NBA scouting operations, is among those still trying to make sense of the 2007 draft’s many postscripts.

"It's such an interesting one, with sort of all of the weird things that have happened," Blake said. "There were a lot of differences in terms of guys with upside, guys we thought were better and guys that just didn't pan out ... just a lot of risks in that draft."

Horford, though, cringes when he sees Oden ridicule himself or measure his plight of misfortune against Durant's meteoric ascension. Though Horford’s Atlanta Hawks have made the postseason in each of his seven NBA seasons, he has endured his own injury problems, causing him to miss 116 games over the past three seasons.

"I think it's unfair for Greg," Horford said. "There were a lot of expectations on Greg, but we all knew it was just a matter of time before Kevin was going to blossom and become the player he is today. With Greg and everything he had to go through, he shouldn't compare himself to Kevin. When he's been able to play, he's been able to do OK.

“I can tell he's a good guy, a good person. It's just been a tough road as far as injuries and even this off-the-court situation. At the end of the day, we're all humans that make mistakes."

Wade's loyalty warrants royal Heat response

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
12:43
AM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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The hashtag spread quickly the moment Dwyane Wade used his Instagram account Tuesday to confirm he signed a new contract and planned to be a Miami Heat for life.

#LoyaltyoverRoyalty.

The symbolism is hard to miss.

That message, which instantaneously served as a stamp to hundreds of social media posts, was a way of embracing Wade for recommitting to the only NBA team for which he has ever played in his 11-year career. It was also a parting shot at LeBron James, aka King James, from a still grieving group after the four-time league MVP bolted Miami and returned to Cleveland as a free agent last week.

It was equal parts love for Wade and loathing LeBron.

The truth is Wade was never going anywhere after he opted out of the final two years and $41 million left on his contract to help the Heat shore up the roster after last month’s loss in the Finals to San Antonio. This round of negotiations for Wade, 32, was only a matter of how much less he’d be willing to take and how long the Heat would have to fork over significant -- and potentially crippling -- cap space.

Wade did the Heat a huge favor on both fronts Tuesday by signing a reported two-year deal worth at least $31 million, which includes a player option for the second season. It was widely believed Wade would push for a four-year, $60 million contract that would essentially guarantee he’d retire as a member of the Heat and never go through high-end free agency again.

But there’s a unique thing about this form of loyalty and sacrifice. By accepting a shorter deal for less money and greater flexibility for the Heat, Wade has locked himself into a lifetime commitment. NBA rules prohibit promises and agreements by teams to take care of players beyond their contracts.

[+] EnlargeHeat Fans
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsDwyane Wade's hefty contract give-backs show his dedication as the face of the Heat franchise.
Still, there’s no doubt Wade has only solidified his stake in this franchise, this town, for life. There are only four people getting reservations ahead of Wade at any establishment in Miami. Dan Marino. Don Shula. Pat Riley. Tony Montana. And Riley may have just gotten bumped.

“He has shown his commitment to the Heat many times over the course of his career and has always been willing to sacrifice in order to help build this team into a champion,” Heat president Pat Riley said. “This time is no different. I am ecstatic to have him back in the fold and I am confident that Dwyane, as always, will be leading this team as we look to contend for NBA championships.”

By taking a deal worth half as much and for half as long as Wade could have commanded, the Heat are in position to be a major player in free agency again in 2016. Leaving that much money on the table as part of plans to retain LeBron and upgrade the supporting cast this summer was the expectation.

The reality played out completely different. Wade’s sacrifice this time around allowed Miami to re-sign Chris Bosh to take a max deal worth $118 million over five seasons and to sign Luol Deng to replace LeBron at small forward for $20 million over two seasons. The Heat continued their recent run of signings Tuesday by bringing back Udonis Haslem, who opted out of $4.6 million due next season to agree to yet another team-friendly deal, and securing 2013 second-round pick James Ennis.

This seed planted by Wade was laced with loyalty and legacy.

All anyone needs to know about either of those coatings can be summed up by the bargains and sacrifices associated with Wade’s place in the team’s salary structure the past dozen years. A vital part of all three of the Heat’s championship teams, Wade is Miami’s all-time leader in points, made field goals, free throws, assists, steals, starts, games played and, now, dollars given back.

Yet, he has never been first in salary during any of the 11 Heat seasons.

Over the years, that distinction has gone to Eddie Jones, Shaquille O’Neal, Shawn Marion, Jermaine O’Neal, LeBron and Bosh. The NBA’s rookie pay scale assured Wade would be a built-in bargain his first four seasons. When Wade earned $3 million during his 2005-06 NBA Finals MVP season, he was the lowest-paid player to earn that award over a span of 22 years. That stretch ended when Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard was named Finals MVP last month following a season in which he was paid $1.9 million.

But it was by choice the past two times Wade ended up with discounted deals in Miami. In 2010, he took less than a full maximum contract, also convincing LeBron and Bosh to pitch in, to make sure there was room under the salary cap to re-sign Haslem and other key role players.

This time, Wade did it again to give the Heat the best chance to recover from LeBron’s abrupt departure. But this is more than about money for Wade, who has $121.3 million in NBA career earnings and likely a matching amount in endorsement deals.

He’s not exactly starving.

Yet expect Wade to be as hungry as ever to prove he can lead a post-LeBron push to remain prominent, especially in a wide-open Eastern Conference void of a clear frontrunner. Wade benefited as much as anyone from playing with LeBron. When he missed 28 games last season, mostly due to knee issues, it was LeBron who carried the extra load and got the Heat to a fourth straight NBA Finals.

But when Wade was healthy, there was a recurring burden he carried at times through a difficult adjustment to a secondary role the past four years. Wade has also talked about dealing with perceptions his legacy has been overshadowed by LeBron’s breakthrough as a two-time champion in Miami.

“I think when all the smoke clears -- because right now, so much is viewed on LeBron’s legacy and I’m wrapped up into that,” Wade recently told ESPN.com. “Obviously mine doesn’t get talked about or seen as much, and rightfully so. I understand. But when all the smoke clears, you sit down and it’s something you can talk about in terms of what I’ve been able to accomplish and how I’ve accomplished it.”

Wade compares his circumstances with those of other marquee players who have remained with one franchise their entire careers. He admires how the Lakers treated Kobe Bryant, 35, who was awarded a two-year, $48 million extension during an injury-plagued season because of what he has meant through the years.

Wade also respects how Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have been more flexible with their salaries in recent years to give San Antonio and Dallas, respectively, a chance to retain key players, remain in the mix for valuable free agents and stay in title contention.

“There’s a different way to look at things when you’re at this stage of your career, in terms of helping your team and your team helping you,” Wade said. “My way has been different than some guys'. But I’m just continuing to add to what I am, my so-called legacy. I’m fine with it, whatever it’s going to be.”

Giving back salary at a time when few could have blamed Wade for holding onto every dime of that $41 million he was due is the clearest sign of the lengths he’s gone to sacrifice for his franchise.

No player in NBA history has opted out of that much money to take that steep a cut.

Now, one unprecedented move deserves another. Wade’s No. 3 jersey is certain to be hanging from the AmericanAirlines Arena rafters soon after he’s done playing.

But why wait? There’s no league rule against doing so while he’s still playing, perhaps as early next season’s home opener. There would be no greater show of gratitude for the singularly restored face of the franchise.

For what Wade has given the Heat time and time again, he has already earned it.

No hashtag movement necessary.

Departing LeBron not indebted to Heat

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
4:54
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- The doors swung open to Aderholt Gym on Hurlburt Field’s military base in the Florida Panhandle four years ago, unveiling a scene that remains as vivid now as it was on the opening day of the LeBron James era during his first training camp with the Miami Heat.

“That’s bulls---, man,” LeBron shouted.

Wearing a netted yellow vest over his black cutoff shooting shirt, LeBron was livid that day in late September 2010. These were the first words heard as nearly 100 reporters filed past the base’s bomb-sniffing dogs, filtered through the security checkpoint and found their way into the facility.

Once inside, the baritone-voiced barking and frustrated banter of the boulder-shouldered man standing near the free throw line was essentially bouncing off the walls.

“That’s bulls---,” LeBron repeated in the heat of battle. “Get it right. Stop cheating.”

The Heat’s first scrimmage with the Big Three had devolved into a verbal scrum.

Standing across from LeBron was new teammate and temporary practice adversary Dwyane Wade, leading an opposing group of players in the split-squad game. Standing between LeBron and Wade was Heat assistant coach, Hall of Famer and resident scrimmage referee-scorekeeper Bob McAdoo.

Somehow, McAdoo screwed up the count.

First, he ruled Wade’s team was ahead. LeBron exploded. McAdoo was reminded of a score he hadn’t accounted for earlier in the game and granted LeBron’s team the lead. Then Wade lost it. Meanwhile, Heat president Pat Riley sat nearby with a smirk as he proudly took it all in.

There was one prevailing thought that day: Buckle up for a wild and crazy ride.

It didn’t take long to comprehend the level of intensity, heavy artillery and fireworks that would be in play covering arguably the most dynamic and polarizing team in NBA history for the Heat Index. It proved to be a thrill ride that never disappointed despite the highs and lows.

After four straight trips to the Finals and consecutive championships in 2012 and 2013, LeBron walked away as a free agent Friday to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite the articulately crafted essay he wrote to explain his decision for Sports Illustrated, LeBron needs to face some real questions about why he left and when he knew he would be leaving to reunite with his home-state team that drafted him No. 1 in 2003.

But there’s one thing that can’t be questioned. It’s his relentless, passionate effort that never ceased.

Before he took off for Cleveland, LeBron hardly took off a day in Miami. From his first training camp practice amid the Heat’s bunker mentality in that sweaty, cramped gym to the final game he played in a desperate yet ultimately failed push against San Antonio in a series-clinching Game 5 of the Finals last month, James gave the Heat everything he had -- even in times when his body literally gave out.

Then he took the first option out allowed in his contract to return to a place he never emotionally left. Some are still struggling with whether to shame LeBron or thank LeBron. But as some of the numbness and shock subsides from his abrupt departure, it’s growing more difficult to truly blame LeBron. He didn’t make a public spectacle of his free agency like Carmelo Anthony, who was within his rights to tease and flirt through a four-team recruiting tour before returning for mega money in New York.

And LeBron didn’t spend the season working behind the scenes to force a trade to Cleveland. He simply did his job at an MVP level -- sore back, bum ankles, broken nose, creaky knees and all -- every night. It can be tough to focus on what’s ahead when that level of excellence hangs in the rearview mirror.

The Heat have rallied the past few days to recover from LeBron’s departure with a flurry of moves that have included re-signing or closing in on deals with Wade, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem.

That’s a surefire playoff team, especially in the wide-open East. That’s a squad that could win 45 to 50 games next season if healthy. Solid but hardly spectacular. Teams don’t recover quickly from losing the best player in the game. They regroup as much as possible and hope for the best.

That’s the 2014-15 Miami Heat -- almost certain to be better than they were the three years before James arrived but probably never as dynamic and dominant during the four-year run with him. There’s no way to recreate the self-described Heatles, sans LeBron as the front man. No one expected the Jacksons to extend the same magic for long once Michael left to do his own thing.

After closing the chapter on LeBron, the franchise began this week contemplating plans to start removing his No. 6 jersey either completely or at least from prominent display in the team stores at AmericanAirlines Arena. It remains to be seen whether the Heat take a similar approach with some of the floor-to-ceiling images displaying LeBron’s postseason exploits the past four years.

One of the most prominent murals is the one positioned just outside the Heat’s locker room. It’s the photo that captured LeBron’s maniacal stare as he crouched down in a defensive stance during his epic Game 6 performance against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.

It’s the first image players see as they head down the “Championship Alley” tunnel to enter the court. It’s the last glance that holds them accountable as they head back to the locker room after games.

There’s no denying what LeBron has meant to the Heat on and off the court the past four years. But what is overlooked is the way he conducted his business with the media. The same player who controlled every aspect of the game also had the wherewithal to engage many on a personal level.

There were the moments before games when he asked, unprompted, about the recovery of one reporter’s mother, who was hospitalized and needed surgery. There was another time when, after a big game against Oklahoma City, he checked on the baseball performance of another reporter’s son.

Covering the huge performances in marquee games as well as the demoralizing losses and controversies were all memorable. But so were many of the behind-the-scenes moments, like the time when LeBron turned up the volume to ear-splitting levels in the pregame locker room and engaged Shane Battier in a rap battle as they recited N.W.A.’s explicit lyrics.

Yes, that Shane Battier.

Should LeBron have given the Heat more of a clear heads-up on his way out?

Absolutely. Perhaps he did as much and Miami simply refused to take no for an answer. In hindsight, there were plenty of hints and subtle messages that were either dismissed or overlooked along the way, especially the final six months of this season.

But LeBron left without owing the Heat anything else.

That was clear from his first day of work to his last.

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