The Decline of Dwyane Wade Is Being Greatly Exaggerated

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2014

For the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade, it's never been about ability, only availability.

At 32, operating on haggard and fragile knees, Wade is the consummate example of overblown downfalls. Almost 11 full years into his NBA career, he's not the same player he was five-plus seasons ago, when he averaged 30.2 points per game. He's not even the same player he was a year ago, when he missed just 13 of Miami's 82 regular-season games.

That's what happens when players age. They devolve and regress into shells of their former selves as they battle time-related limitations. 

By and large, though, Wade's decline has nothing to do with diminished ability. In fact, his decline isn't even a decline or career downturn so much as it is a string of unfortunate and recurring injuries, and the acceptance that, in his case, sometimes less can mean more.


Continuously Productive

When Wade has played this season, he's been mostly productive.

There have been games, some of which were looped together, during which he disappeared or shot poorly from the floor. That's going to happen when you play almost sporadically.

The game of basketball boasts an oft-understated rhythmic give-and-take dynamic. Extended or frequent absences can adversely impact a player's cadence, ruining the flow and comfort that comes with playing every night.

"Basketball to me is about rhythm," Grant Hill, who dealt with a vast array of injuries during his 19-year NBA career, told Bleacher Report. "I was the type of player that, if I took a week off, if I was out with an injury, I always felt like it took me a week to get that rhythm back and to get that time back."

Wade has fared admirably under the circumstances, posting averages of 18.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.6 steals on a career-high 54.7 percent shooting, despite missing 15 of Miami's first 54 contests and logging the second-lowest number of minutes per game for his career (33.4).

Admittedly modest, some consider Wade's production a failure. He hasn't registered under 20 points per game since his rookie season, prompting many to mistake his acceptance of reality a failure.

But when comparing Wade's per-36 minute numbers to those of last season and his career, his "regression" is hardly tragic:

Dwyane Wade Per 36 Minutes
Via Basketball-Reference.

Are we actually going to split hairs on the areas where he's actually declined? His numbers were never going to be the same next to LeBron James and Chris Bosh, but they're similar and have been accompanied by (mostly) more efficient shooting percentages.

Injuries have limited Wade's availability, especially now. But the numbers he's been able to put up in conjunction with inconsistent appearances is closer to remarkable than it is depressing.


Never Forget

For anyone who forgot Wade remains capable of taking over games or refuses to look at per-36-minute metrics, the veteran shooting guard provided a healthy reminder of what he can still do in a win over the Chicago Bulls on Sunday.

With James sidelined by a broken nose, Wade stepped up, going for 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, finishing just three dimes shy of a triple-double. It wasn't the most efficient of games for Wade, who shot 10-of-22 from the floor, nor was it the most easy of victories, but he still played 35 minutes and, along with Bosh, took over.

"We were missing a pretty big man," Wade told reporters afterward. "There's nothing we can do to replace the best player in the world, but we just had to go out there and play team basketball on both ends of the floor."

Once again, Wade played fabulous basketball, emphasis on "again."

This was Wade's second consecutive game dropping 20-plus points while flirting with a triple-double. Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, he went off for 24 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists in 37 minutes. That's Wade. That's what he can do.

At this stage of his career, it's not what he will always do. Stays on the sidelines stand to taper his production upon return, and when James is healthy and Bosh is thriving, Wade won't always have the shot attempts or see the minutes necessary to clear 20 points and register convincing double-doubles.

But through injuries, absences and off games, there still exists a reliable version of Wade, who, when healthy, continues to play like a superstar staving off the very decline people continue to hold against him.


Inescapable Pessimism

There won't ever come a time when Wade isn't facing the same doubt and criticism he's experiencing now. 

To an extent, it's always existed and was only going to gain steam as he aged. Now, with the Heat chasing a three-peat and Wade still criticized for his underwhelming playoff performance last season, it's just more prominent.

The Heat are held to a different standard than everyone else. It's been that way since 2010, when the Big Three joined forces, shifting the NBA's balance of power as we knew it. And with those expectations comes heightened scrutiny and sensationalized storylines.

Every Heat loss, every losing streak, however minor, is dissected and portrayed as something it might not be. The same holds true for Wade, who faces hyperbole no matter how well or poorly he plays.

When he struggles, he's finished. When he plays well, it's a borderline aberration; a transient glimpse into the past. 

Unlike most players, though, Wade needs to be viewed through a different lens. There's a difference between crippling atrophy and injury-related absences; there's a difference between availability and ability.

For his entire career, Wade has battled the former, laboring through a growing list of injuries that make most cringe. But his ability, his talent has never warranted question. Not once.

In the coming months and years, perhaps it will. For all the reservations and limitations he faces, Wade still slashes through the paint and soars through the air with reckless abandon. At some point, undergoing a transformation may become necessary.

Rim attacks and off-the-glass fadeaways may need to be replaced with three-pointers, an aspect of the game with which Wade has always struggled. In some ways, though, he's already begun that transformation.

Wade still isn't a deadly long-range shooter. His 39.1 percent deep-ball clip is a career best, but he's on pace to attempt under 40 total bombs for the first time in his career, preventing us from referring to him as a much-improved marksman.

Change has come in the form of his already strong mid-range game.

Less than 48 percent of his shot attempts have come within eight feet of the basket, according to (subscription required). Last season, nearly 51 percent of his field-goal attempts came within that range.

Wade's efficiency between eight and 24 feet, meanwhile, has increased. Roughly 48 percent of his shot attempts have come in that area, and he's connecting on 44.3 percent of them. Through 2012-13, only 43.1 percent of his attempts came between eight and 24 feet, where he shot just 40.1 percent.

This means Wade is posting career-best shooting percentages despite increasing the frequency with which he explores his range.

Some decline.

Players undoings aren't chaperoned by improvements and effective adjustments. They're defined by one athlete, playing beneath his previous ability involuntarily, unable to make necessary modifications.

Someday, Wade may incur a drastic decline, but not now.

"When you're missing LeBron," Wade explained on Sunday, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, "you try to do other things."

Rickety health bills have put Wade and the Heat in a less-than-ideal situation, but the 32-year-old is doing other things to avoid retreating into the irrelevance for which so many have mistakenly pegged him.


*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and (subscription required).


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