Dwyane Wade acquired his second and third titles by luring LeBron to Miami, but did he lose something else in the deal?
Legacies are funny things.
So things have gone pretty well for him. (In the last three years, my personal highlights include buying a Civic and subscribing, then unsubscribing, to Rolling Stone.)
That a run like this might actually hurt his standing when the final analysis of his career is performed—that it could knock him down a rung or two in the hierarchy of the sport’s all-time greats, a list NBA fans are unusually obsessed with arranging and rearranging—is, on its face, a patently absurd notion.
It also might be true.
The Case Against Dwyane Wade
In the last year or so, sportswriters tasked with ascribing meaning to Wade’s career have developed a counterintuitive (and now ubiquitous) angle. We suggest that, maybe, his historical standing has been diminished by the presence of LeBron James in his locker room.
The argument goes something like this: By forming a superteam with James—and, to a much lesser extent, Chris Bosh—Wade superficially burnished his resume, and the authors of history will call him on it.
"I feel like I need three rings," Wade told the Associated Press last spring. "I’ve always said that if I can end my career with at least three rings…it would put me in that special group that only a few can say that they’re in. It would mean a lot."
Wade understood, and understands, most every argument about the relative merits of this player or that is eventually reduced to "dude, count the rings." So the veteran went out and got some.
But, in getting this jewelry, Wade inflicted damage on the legacy he aimed to bolster.
By luring LBJ, he didn’t just accept second-fiddle status when it was foisted upon him by some distant front office, but he tacitly conceded he wasn’t good enough to go it alone. That, even in his prime, he needed help.
That was bad, the argument goes, but what's worse has been the visceral experience of watching him and LeBron play together. Of course Wade is great, an all-timer for sure, but oh good god, did you see what LeBron just did?!
Like every other citizen of the planet, Dwyane Wade is not as good at basketball as LeBron James. But unlike other earthlings, this fact is foregrounded in the public imagery every time he plays. He pales in a comparison that is made literally every time he steps on the floor.
Yes, we acknowledge, on some level, what Wade did in bringing James and Bosh aboard was selfless and laudatory, because it’s all about winning, but like fat-free chips and a balanced budget, selflessness in our athletes is one of those things people merely claim to desire.
In actuality, the public wants its superstars to be like Michael Jordan—megalomaniacal, pathologically competitive victory mongers who wouldn’t ask for help if a car fell on one of their kids. Scottie who?
So our thesis—the Unifying Theory of Dwyane Wade—boils down to this: By improving his standing as a historical figure, the guard diminished his standing as a player. He became John Calipari with a jump shot.
It's an interesting argument, as far as it goes. It's also completely beside the point.
The Real Case Against Dwyane Wade
It’s no secret around the league Wade has been increasingly limited by knee injuries in the back end of his career, a decline that's accelerated during the reign of the Big Three.
Per-game averages can be misleading, but since 2008-09, when Wade was arguably at his zenith, the guard has seen his scoring backslide in each season (from a peak of 30.2 to 18.7 this year) and his assists dip from from 7.5 per night to 4.7. He has suffered in other categories as well.
The area of decline that packs the greatest symbolic wallop is blocks, where arguably the greatest shot-blocking guard ever is averaging just 0.6 per game, less than half of what he offered only two seasons ago.
The advanced metrics reinforce the perception that Wade is slipping. His PER fell from a high of 30.4 in the aforementioned 2008-09 campaign all the way to 21.2 in 2013-14. His win shares per 48 minutes have likewise plummeted to .142. He was at .227 in 2011-12.
This deterioration is, for a superstar, unusual. While NBA players age fast (according to some studies, the average player peaks at around 25 or 26, plateaus for a few seasons, then falls off markedly), superstars seem to resist this trend. As in many things, they defy the forces of gravity.
Consider some other star shooting guards. A list of the greatest 2's of all time probably includes, in some order, Wade, Ray Allen, Earl Monroe, Reggie Miller, Allen Iverson, Clyde Drexler, George Gervin, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant and, of course, Michael Jordan. Relative to this group, Wade has aged like Kathleen Turner.
Where does Dwyane Wade rank on the list of the NBA's all-time greats?
In Wade’s age-32 season (this one), his WS/48 is about 25-percent worse than his career average (.142 compared to .193). The only player on the above list who suffered a steeper drop was Gervin, who posted a .106 WS/48 in his age-32 season, 32 percent shy of his .157 career average.
It gets worse. Of the 10 players we're considering—again, likely the 10 best shooting guards of all time—Wade and Gervin are the only ones who had any meaningful drop-off in their age-32 seasons. Bryant, who had a .178 WS/48 in 2010-11 compared to a career average of .182, suffered the third-worst decline on the list.
Everyone else—a group that includes Jordan, West, Drexler, Miller, Iverson, Monroe and teammate Allen—was still outperforming their career norms, sometimes dramatically so, at an age when Wade is, clearly, not what he once was.
This lack of longevity counts and should count against Wade, especially in an era of advanced medical, nutrition and training regimens.
In professional sports, it's not just the height of a player's peak that determines how they're ultimately remembered, but how long they stay there. This is why Mark Rypien and Brady Anderson aren't remembered as fondly as Brett Favre and Bernie Williams.
And it's why Dwyane Wade, at the moment, seems on shakier historical footing than he did a few seasons ago. His standing among the league greats may have taken a hit during the Big Three era, but it has nothing to do with LeBron.