Dwyane Wade has seen some serious ups and downs in his career, from carrying his team to a title in his 3rd season to slogging through various injuries just to return with Michael Beasley as his best teammate. Now he is fresh off back to back titles operating as the second option to LeBron James.
The James-Wade relationship (on the court at least) has been a little rocky at times, but over the course of the 2012-13 season they continued to improve their synergy, and along with Chris Bosh were at times unstoppable. According to 82games.com, lineups featuring those three and two shooters posted ludicrous offensive efficiency numbers without sacrificing their defense, outscoring opponents by 20 to 30 points per 100 possessions.
Unfortunately heading into the playoffs Wade was facing a knee injury, and his aggressiveness and effectiveness were hampered. This left the impression that Wade was in decline. The truth of the matter is that Wade was less effective last season, his 10th in the league, but the injury made it look worse than it was. He turns 32 next season, so it’s fair to question how much longer he will be an elite player.
However, he is still capable of being very effective, as evidenced by his solid play in the last few games of the Finals to help the Heat overcome Tim Duncan’s strong efforts in capturing the championship. Here’s a look at what his game looks like as he ages on both sides of the ball, and how he can adapt to stay effective.
With knee injuries limiting his explosiveness, Wade drifted toward the perimeter at the end of the season and the playoffs. Strong playoff defenses also played a role in this as they attempted to seal off the lane from LeBron and Wade. As a result he was left taking long two-pointers, the least efficient shot in the game.
Even when completely healthy Wade will often settle for a pull up jumper after taking a couple of side to side dribbles – if the defender hangs with him, the ball is likely going up from wherever Wade is standing. He isn’t a bad shooter from that range, hitting almost 40% of those shots, but it just doesn’t compare to his game close to the rim. There are several maddening moments when watching tape where Wade will catch a pass or iso on the wing, then pull up, sometimes with a foot on the line, when kicking the ball back out and resetting would be a better move.
None of this is to say that Wade isn’t an intuitive player. The perimeter stuff is an outgrowth of his years carrying an offense on his own. In those days he had to manufacture space for himself, and having defenders respect the midrange jumper was the best tool he had in his arsenal. Even now, after all these years and with stats to show that a midrange jumper is worth conceding to anyone who is not an elite shooter, opponents will show hard to try to discourage Wade from firing away. In fact, his signature move may be the bizarrely effective pump fake that continues to get defenders in the air and earn him trips to the line.
Wade is certainly an instinctive offensive player, it’s just that those skills are so much more apparent when he doesn’t have the ball. Pesky cuts and offensive rebounds are some of the easiest ways to get looks at the rim, and he is increasingly feasting on them thanks to his ever-improving skill moving off the ball and LeBron’s passing ability.
When he gets near the rim with the ball he is still fantastic, shooting over 71% there last season. Wade still controls his body as well as anyone, seeking contact near the rim and still managing to finesse the ball into the basket. This comes in handy with his expanding post game, another nice addition for an aging guard to put in his repertoire. He uses this, usually on the block or baseline, to punish opposing guards.
A shift from relying on outside shots to open the floor would benefit Wade tremendously going forward since he can rely on LeBron and some of the other perimeter players to open cutting lanes or feed him in the post. Instead of a shot chart that seems evenly distributed over the entire floor, he should aim to have a clear majority of attempts coming near the rim.
There are a few obvious factors preventing this, most notably the desire to leave the middle open for LeBron to operate, but it’s not like Wade never sees the ball. He still posted the 10th highest usage rate in the league, and was 7th in PER. With a few less jumpers and incremental improvement to his post game, he could stay at this level for a few more years.
Wade’s defense suffered along with his offense when he started experiencing knee problems, but some of his weaknesses were present all season.
In isolation, where one would expect Wade’s still-existent athleticism to be very useful, he struggled to contain quick guards, often allowing them to get by him from the three-point line. This was exacerbated in the playoffs when he was slowed due to the injury, turning him into a traffic cone any time he misjudged his opponent’s moves. Thankfully for him the hyperactive Heat defense helped cover up a lot of these mistakes.
When opponents get past him on the perimeter, Wade has two interesting options that he likes to use to recover. The first is to follow directly behind the ball handler, and when the ball comes up for a shot attempt sweep his right arm over the ball handler’s head for a block. He is an excellent shot blocker for a guard, averaging almost one per game in the regular season, and he gets a lot of them with this move.
The other recovery method he uses is over-retreating, darting deep inside, often to the edge of the paint, to seal against layups. Of course, this leaves his man with a midrange jumper, but Miami is always happy to trade a layup for a jump shot. This technique is a microcosm of his overall defensive style – playing loose on the perimeter and hanging back to provide weakside help.
Wade will often leave a sizable gap between himself and the ball handler on the perimeter, partially in response to his declining quickness. This results in a lot of players shooting straight over him, but it also allows him to play passing lanes and help with rotations. Unfortunately this style also results in players like Danny Green getting hot when he loses them repeatedly off the ball and gets hung up in screens.
This tendency to get caught in screens would seem like a big negative against the pick and roll, but that is actually the area in which Synergy rates him most highly. Part of that is his ability to use his speed to recover, and the rest is the strong team concept Miami employs.
Going forward, Wade’s declining athleticism is likely to impact his defensive performance in some crucial ways, such as his ability to recover off screens or jump for blocks, but he already plays a “free safety” role, and this should minimize the impact somewhat. The other thing to remember is that his athleticism is declining, not gone, and that he still has a long way to go before it’s even at average levels. When healthy, he is still very athletic and capable of locking in for long stretches.
The Heat’s ability to push for a three-peat will likely hinge on Wade’s health, especially with the loss of postseason wild card Mike Miller. If he is able to stay healthy through the playoffs, this team will be incredibly tough to beat. If not, there may be another champion crowned in July.