The reports of Dwyane Wade’s deterioration have been greatly exaggerated. (H/t, Mark Twain.)
After his body seemingly broke down against San Antonio in the NBA Finals — the low point being his 7-for-25 shooting in the last two games — many believe that his current form can be summed up by one play, a rim meeting with Tiago Splitter.
A few years ago, Wade’s elbow would have extended above the cylinder, with the collision resulting in Splitter featuring prominently on the wrong end of a “SportsCenter” highlight like his Brazilian compatriot, Anderson Varejao. Instead, Wade did not jump nearly as high, and Splitter emphatically blocked his shot, unceremoniously slamming No. 3 to the hardwood.
At first glance, that moment felt symbolic to many, but the danger in drawing conclusive judgments from two Finals games is that it disregards the importance of sample size and Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich’s masterful game plan, while also undervaluing Wade’s basketball IQ.
As popular as LeBron James’s public relations masterpiece of a letter is with the sports-consuming public, on some level, the “I’m coming home” narrative belies the basketball reasons behind the decision. The Cavaliers roster is populated with young lottery talent, led by a spry back court, both in their early 20s.
One of the subplots surrounding James’s departure — from the “home is where the heart is” Instagram post, to his new weight loss goal — has centered on Wade’s reaction to a decision he has to find disappointing at best, and at worst, an indictment of his league-wide standing as a 32-year-old player. For Wade, the motivation is ample, inescapable.
The question is will the face of the franchise be able to effectively revert to his pre-Big Three role as the primary perimeter option? While Chris Bosh will likely be the first option on offense, the ball will again be placed in Wade’s palms, instead of playing in the off-ball, secondary role Wade adopted these last two years. For Wade to succeed in this role, he will have to make several adjustments and follow the example of two future Hall of Fame guards, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant.
Wade is already following Kobe’s lead by making one key change— losing weight. Two summers ago in 2012, before the summer Olympics, a then-32 Bryant shed 16 pounds to also lessen the pressure on his knees. Wade worked closely with Michael Jordan’s former trainer, Tim Grover, all season to strengthen his troublesome knees. The training, coupled with a rest-heavy schedule, resulted in the most efficient season of Wade’s career, as he shot 54.5 percent in the regular season with a high percentage of those points coming at the basket and on mid-range jump shots. The counter-argument, however, is that his success can be attributed to being able to pick his spots, only playing when he felt healthy, while also not facing the opponent’s best defender.
One facet of Wade’s game that tends to evade casual fans is that Wade is still an elite attacker. According to NBA.com’s SportVU cameras, Wade ranked in the top 25 in team points per drive last season. In the playoffs, he ranked 10th in player points per drive. Without James dominating the ball, Wade’s touches will increase. Last season he averaged 58.5 touches per game, compared with James’s 75.6. Wade’s numbers also didn’t drop off as drastically as you might expect when he played without James. Wade shot 52.4 percent in 613 minutes without James last season, per NBA.com data.
For Wade to be effective without James, he will have to go back to navigating the pick and roll efficiently, using the screener to gain separation from his defender, taking a similar approach to Paul. Because of recent injuries and wear, Paul is not as quick as he once was, but he still is able to create space by intelligently using screens and through crafty dribbling. Like Paul, Wade has a strong midrange game and by going back to a heavy diet of pick and rolls, he should be able to score efficiently and find open looks for teammates.
You should also expect Wade to spend a fair amount of time in the low post, where he’s become one of the most efficient scorers in the league, using a combination of quick jump hooks and push shots. He ranked 21st in post scoring efficiency, per Synergy Sports. This summer, Wade should look to expand his moves and incorporate the Kobe Bryant/ Michael Jordan baseline fadeaway.
One key difference between Wade and the aforementioned players is his lack of a consistent three-point shot. For his career, Wade is a 28.9 percent three-point shooter, lower than Bryant (33.5 percent) and Paul (35.7 percent), but some of that can be attributed to shot selection. Wade has almost abandoned the shot, averaging just under one attempt per game over the last three years. To open up space, Wade needs to at least make his defenders respect the threat of the shot. But 11 years into his career, that might not be realistic, though Jordan managed to add it to his game. However, as the primary ballhandler, his shooting should not affect the spacing as much as it did when he stood in the corner, waiting for James.
Of course, Wade is not the same 26-year-old pogo stick, exploding to the rim with mid-air aggravated assault on his mind. For Wade to succeed, he knows that he has to be more Paul than Russell Westbrook. Over the years, he’s displayed a willingness to evolve and adapt his game to the situation, to the roster. The motivation is obvious. Wade will have those Cleveland dates memorized by September, with No. 23 already at the top of his list. If he can again adjust, we may be in store for one heck of a playoff series at some point.