With LeBron James leading the way, the Miami Heat will enter the 2013 NBA playoffs as the clear favorite to repeat after last year's championship. But it's Dwyane Wade, not James, who is the key to the Heat's quest to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy again.
James posts about the same numbers whether Miami wins or loses. He's reached of level of greatness where he's going to be basically unstoppable, regardless of the situation.
That's not the case with Wade. When he's played well, the Heat have won. When he hasn't, Miami has lost.
Let's take a look at Wade's win/loss splits.
Wade's averages in Heat wins: 22.5 points on 54.3 percent shooting, 5.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, .9 blocks and 2.0 steals.
Wade's averages in Heat losses: 16.9 points on 42.6 percent shooting, 4.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, .4 blocks and 1.4 steals.
Wade's elite ability as a No. 2 option is what sets the Heat apart from the rest of the league. He's the best No. 2 option in the league. And really, it's not that close.
When Wade is playing at his best, Miami has the top No. 1 and No. 2 options in the league with he and James. A combination like that coming from a team that also has depth is simply too much for the rest of the league to overcome.
But when Wade doesn't have it going, Miami can be vulnerable. Defenses can focus more of their attention than they usually do on James. He's excellent enough that sometimes he can overcome the extra defensive pressure and still lead the Heat to victory, but not every time.
A great example of this comes from last year's postseason.
The Heat's series against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals is very telling in regard to how vital Wade is to Miami winning another championship this season.
The Heat fell behind in the series 2-1 after losing Game 2 and Game 3. Wade shot a combined 10-for-35 in Games 2 and 3, with the Heat scoring just 75 points in each game.
But Miami would win the next three games and the series, scoring more than 100 points in each game.
What changed so much in those final three games?
You guessed it: Wade. He shot above 56.0 percent in every game with point totals of 28,30 and 41.
Wade makes the offense go. When Wade is on the court Miami scores 116.5 points per 100 possessions, compared to just 103.9 points per 100 possessions when he's off the court, according to 82games.
That's a net gain of 12.6 points per 100 possessions. Needless to say, the Heat's offense is markedly different without Wade. As important and skilled as LeBron is, his net offensive gain per 100 possessions is less than Wade's.
The reason Wade has such a high value on the Heat offense is that, like James, his offensive game is much more than just scoring. He's an excellent distributor, and when he's often setting guys up for easy buckets, Miami rarely loses.
According to Hoopsstats, when Wade dishes six or more assists in a game, the Heat are an absurdly good 24-2 this season.
Furthermore, Wade has impact for the Heat that stretches much further than just the offensive end of the floor.
When Wade grabs five or more rebounds, Miami is 31-7. And when Wade blocks at least one shot, Miami is 30-4.
The Heat are unlikely to repeat if Wade doesn't play to the best of his ability. He's too important in too many areas for Miami to be able to make up for it consistently when he's not playing well.
Fortunately for Miami, Wade is on his game much more often than not playing at an extremely high level. It's a big reason why the Heat have only lost 16 games all season.
He's not Miami's best player, but he might just be the most important.
Wade won't get the most credit for a Heat championship. That will be James, and he deserves all the praise heaped on him. But even though few know it, Wade is the catalyst for James and Miami's success.
Just call Wade the undercover key to Miami's 2013 title defense.
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