There are times when he looks laughable, to be quite honest. The white leggings and arm sleeves, his body filled out with padding and the usual torso expansion of age. He goes through post-moves in slow motion, he struggles to get back in transition. He talks wistfully about those moments when his athleticism fails him in ways it never used to. It would be sad, except for one thing.
Dwyane Wade is killing it.
Stars age in different ways. Some burn out in a supernova of inefficiency like Kobe Bryant. Some modify and adapt into role players like Vince Carter. Some do what they've always done, just in shorter and shorter bursts like Manu Ginobili. Last season with the Bulls, Wade was a net negative on a young team, trying to hold Chicago up with his production. There were nights where he was "still Dwyane Wade," but there were also nights where he was trying to hold up a building that weighed more than his capability would allow.
With the Cavaliers, after a disastrous start, Wade made the move to the bench. That had to take some soul searching and a lot of pride-swallowing for a 12-time All-Star, eight-time All-NBA selection and three-time NBA champion. Starting or coming off the bench probably shouldn't be as big of a deal to players as it is, which is what coaches are constantly trying to say, but none of that changes the reality: it is a big deal. And yet, Wade made that transition, and then has made the most of it.
- Wade is averaging the most assists per 100 possessions he has since 2010, while staying steady in rebounds and, unbelievably, blocks
- The Cavaliers are a plus-8.7 per 100 possessions with Wade on the floor, and a minus-0.6 with him on the bench. Specifically, the defense, Cleveland's problem area this season, is 8.7 points per 100 possessions better with Wade on the court.
- Here's the key one. With LeBron James and Wade on the floor, the Cavs are a plus-8.9. With Wade on the court, and with James on the bench ... the Cavs are a plus-8.0. The last three seasons, the Cavs have been a negative with James on the bench. They were outscored by 8.5 points when he sat last season, which is catastrophic. This season, they are a plus-2.3. That's huge.
Here's a look at what he's done to help bridge things for Cleveland.
Wade's ability to stabilize the second unit has real impact on Cleveland. The Cavs have needed a second playmaker for years. Kyrie Irving is one of the best 1-on-1 scorers in the game, maybe in NBA history. He is a master at so many passes. He's also not a playmaker first and foremost. He has some passes in the bag, but it's telling with a much larger role and sway over the offensive flow this season, Irving's assists are down relative to last season and on par with his 2015-2016 numbers per 100 possessions. He's just primarily a scorer.
Wade, on the other hand, has been masterful at just helping run the offense. He's particularly trusting of Jeff Green, who surprisingly is shooting 34.6 percent from deep when LeBron is on the bench. Wade finds Green when he's facing advantageous mismatches, and the bench lineups that feature Kyle Korver and Channing Frye and typically at least one other shooter means that a pump-fake or fake pass from Green gets him to the room with no one waiting.
Wade's not James Harden; he's not manipulating the defense to find unconventional angles. What he is doing is finding constant mistakes. Ekpe Udoh takes a step, just a step, toward him driving, and the second Udoh does, Wade is dishing to Korver for a corner 3-pointer:
And Wade is willing and ready to go to the mechanism that both Irving and James have neglected to a shameful degree this season: the Kevin Love pick and pop. Wade routinely uses this and they almost always get a good look out of it. Love is awesome at this; he's a good screener and he pops cleanly, ready to shoot. This is a legit weapon.
The fact that Wade's no longer a north-south threat actually helps the Cavaliers with the shooters and set up they have. He probes defenses in the pick and roll, finding weak points instead of charging in, like here where Thon Maker gets turned around:
The numbers for Wade defensively are amazing. They really are. As stated above, the defense is 8.6 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor. His individual Synergy Sports numbers are great. It all paints a rosy picture.
There are some concerns.
For starters, Synergy doesn't have a single sequence of a player driving against Wade where he's the primary defender, since Nov. 30. It's been nearly three weeks without a player logged as driving against him. Synergy data can be messy with how it's logged, and you can find some that are missed in various situations that say otherwise, but the overall picture is pretty clear. Guys just aren't challenging him, and in time, especially in the playoffs, that's likely to change.
When they do challenge him, it's ugly:
Khris Middleton goes right by him here:
The spirit is willing, but the body is not.
All of this, combined with the personnel he shares the floor with most often (like Kyle Korver who was an underrated good defender four years ago but like Wade is just not as capable now, and Channing Frye who is a big who cannot protect the rim), paints a clear picture. Their stout defensive metrics are likely to regulate over time and could be an issue in the playoffs. However, just because opponents should attack them differently doesn't mean they will.
One thing you notice with Wade is that he knows the scouting report. He leaves bad shooters with some space to encourage shots, he closes out harder on spot-up guys. He's also still got quick hands for steals, and every now and again, just every now and again, he still does stuff like this:
Wade has reinvented himself with Cleveland, like Jason Kidd did with Dallas. His passing was always a part of his game, but more than ever, Wade is a floor general, an orchestrator, an architect. He's no longer the tip of the spear. He is the shoulder that makes sure the throw is sound. (LeBron James remains the torso, back, elbow, wrist, hand, and the spear itself, all at once.)
Wade came to Cleveland to help his friend LeBron. He thought he would start. That's not what happened. But Wade, more so than other aging superstars, seems keenly aware of his basketball mortality, and is satisfied with still finding those moments where he takes over, like when he knocked down two key 3-pointers vs. Milwaukee Tuesday night. (Wade is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range this season ... on just 40 attempts.)
We can save talk of whether Wade can hang in against the Warriors in the NBA Finals -- or even Boston in the Eastern Conference finals -- for later. For now, let's appreciate a player who doesn't get enough talk as one of the greatest of all time, finding ways not to hang on to the identity from his prime, but instead to forge a new one as he continues to contribute to the one thing that's remained a constant for him since he came into the league 15 years ago: winning.