Dwyane Wade Saturday in Brooklyn may make an unexpected return from a serious elbow injury that was expected to keep him out at least the rest of the regular season.
“I feel comfortable. I’m not in any pain. Hopefully they’ll allow me to go out there (Saturday) and play a little bit and try to get back in the flow a little bit and try to help our team continue to make this push; they’ve done an amazing job of trying to get to the playoffs," Wade told reporters after the Bulls practice at the NBA players’ association gym in midtown Manhattan.
“No idea (about minutes),” Wade added. “I guess if they allow me to play that’s something we’ll talk about during the game. From my standpoint (I am fully healed). We’ve done X-rays, we’ve done everything; there is nothing the doctors in Chicago are worried about. It’s just trying to get through the discomfort and trying to get the strength back and all these things that come, trying to condition my arm back to shooting and dribbling and passing and taking hits; so many other things beside what the diagnosis said it is.”
Wade’s return, which seems imminent now for Saturday, or the latest Monday home against Orlando, is surprising after the Bulls declared him out for the season following sustaining the injury running into Zach Randolph against Memphis March 15.
Of course, now comes the even larger question.
Will Wade’s return disrupt and destroy this brilliant chemistry and playoff run the Bulls are on?
Oh, you mean the current stretch of 11 games since Wade’s injury when the Bulls were blown out at home by the Philadelphia 76ers and dominated in New York by a non playoff Knicks team missing virtually all their top players. You mean that great run?
The 39-40 Bulls still tied for the last playoff spots in the conference?
“I think everybody's excited to get him back on the floor,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Dwyane participated in everything (in practice). He looked good. He's pain free from the elbow. We'll head back and see how he does tonight and make the final call. He's a guy who's been in these types of situations throughout his entire career. There's a lot at stake right now and you want to get as many weapons as you can on the floor. Dwyane has as much experience, championship experience, as anybody on the team, so he'll be welcomed back when he starts playing again.”
Yes, the Bulls have done relatively well in Wade’s absence, 7-4 overall, a better ratio of scoring 106.3 per game to giving up 102.1 per game. Nikola Mirotic has been the biggest beneficiary, All-Star Jimmy Butler’s self anointed wing man, as Mirotic explained it after Thursday’s victory in Philadelphia. Mirotic is averaging 17.4 points since Wade went out and shooting 48.6 percent on threes.
The Bulls as a team have been better on threes, averaging about 10 per game and shooting 39 percent overall, finally competitive with the rest of the NBA.
The Bulls settled into a nice rotation with Rajon Rondo pushing and distributing the ball and Butler exerting himself even more, averaging 27.5 points, 7.9 assists and 6.1 rebounds in Wade’s absence. Wade was prescient after his injury when he said, "It'll be an even better story with me out of it. It's a challenge for (Butler). And I look forward to see how he rises to the challenge."
Butler has, including with his triple double against the 76ers with Rondo out. Rondo was listed out again Saturday with his right wrist injury. The Bulls list Wade as questionable. Wade and Hoiberg both did say after practice that the training staff has to make the final decision on whether Wade is ready now, or will have to wait until Monday.
Wade also said in watching the Bulls recent play, he believes Butler is playing the best of his career and made a subtle pitch for Butler to remain a franchise cornerstone.
“Rondo has done a great job at the point of leading the team,” said Wade. “Jimmy has been phenomenal. And other guys have chipped in when they need to. Niko obviously has been great as well. Bobby (Portis, averaging 10.6 points and 6.2 rebounds without Wade) has been good. You can see guys’ confidence coming. And it’s a good time for that as you try to get this playoff spot.
“He’s (Butler) a franchise player,” Wade said. “He’s a guy you definitely build around. Through everything this year, he’s been out there. Since I got hurt, he’s been playing top five basketball in the NBA. He’s doing it all. He’s not only scoring. He’s passing, he’s rebounding, he’s defending the other team’s best player. He has really stepped it up and really went to another level. He’s done it all year. But at this time of the year, with all the bumps and bruises that he’s going through and the defense knows he’s getting the ball, I think this is the best stretch so far of his young career.”
But there’s also been another large factor about the time Wade went out. The rotation became tighter and the roles became more defined. The Bulls for much of the season with nine new players coming in and then a big midseason trade bringing in more young players have been almost auditioning to establish roles and future priorities. But about the time Wade got hurt, that began to end and players began to fall into more regular NBA routines. Of course, that changed from time to time with injuries, like with Jerian Grant starting again Saturday with Rondo out. Grant is coming off his best all around game of the season with 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
So perhaps it looked some like Wade was perhaps a hindrance, even though he was averaging 18.6 points, second on the team. But that was misleading, and if the Bulls do make the playoffs, it would be difficult to imagine them having any success without someone like Wade.
“Gives us another scorer,” Wade said about his presence. “Same thing I always bring: Gives us another guy where it’s harder to double team Jimmy, gives leadership, experience, especially this time of year. Especially, hopefully, going into the playoffs where a lot of guys haven’t been there. I’ve been there multiple times. So the experience is key, somebody who can play basketball.”
That’s right; you don’t turn down basketball players, and Wade even at 35 has the ability to rise to an occasion.
Last season in two seven-game playoff series, Wade averaged 21.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and shot 52 percent on threes. Paul Zipser’s done some good things filling in; Denzel Valentine has had some moments. But other than with Mirotic, there’s been little consistency. Wade can help provide that.
For how long once he returns and where — starting or off the bench — no one is much saying. Hoiberg said all that is to be determined and Wade said he’s fine with whatever the team decides.
"So whatever he decides to do is what I’m going to do. This right here is about our team. It’s not about me. I just want to make sure that I come in and help this team continue to win and then put ourselves in position where if we get in the playoffs, whoever we play, we’re as prepared as possible. Whatever the call at this time of year I am willing to do."
“Everyone is different,” Wade said about Pau Gasol and Paul Millsap coming off the bench in return from injuries. “You just leave it up to the coaches. As a player, you just want to get back on the court. You work your tail off. When they said it (out for season), it’s a challenge for yourself. I did that and I think they were very surprised by the days early on how I was able to do certain things; it’s the way I’ve always been. I’ve always fought back from certain things and this is no different. Whatever the coach decides, you just roll with it. I think you ramp up (the playing time) as you go along. I think the first game between 15 and 20. And then you just continue the next game to try to go a little higher, the next game and the game after that.
“I’ve got wear and tear of my 14 years of NBA basketball, three years of college with a young Coach (Tom) Crean,” Wade said about perhaps being fresher with this time off. “I’ve got wear and tear, period. It’s going to take me awhile even practicing to get back. Even practicing and getting your legs back in it. The legs are the first thing to go when you get tired. The one thing that’s been great about this is guys have had to step up. And guys have done that. Even (in Philadelphia) with Rondo being out, you see Jerian come in and step up. That’s all great for confidence. A lot of these young guys haven’t been in the playoffs. These moments they’ve been playing of late have been that kind of must-win mentality. And they’ve been doing a helluva job. That’s probably been the blessing in disguise to come out of any injuries.”
Could this have been the secret plan all along? Nah. But who knows. It could just work out.