Not a whole lot.
Now, “not a whole lot” here is a relative expression. Miami still needs Wade. A crippling injury, or a flare-up of the knee issues that have long dogged him, would deliver a devastating blow to its hope of a three-peat. In the strictest sense, no Wade means no title. This is uncontroversial.
But it still stands that the Heat’s success, at this point in the franchise’s evolution, is less contingent on the guard dominating than at any point in recent memory—at least since he, like a bizarro Nick Fury, recruited a superteam to join him in South Beach.
And, fortunately for the hoops-happy denizens of that lovely community, Miami hasn’t been relying on him. Not like it used to. The guard isn’t the player he once was, and he hasn’t been for some time. His decline has been deep and broad. Across the board, his performance has ebbed. And yet LeBron James and company roll merrily along.
Consider last season’s title run. Wade was not himself. His play inspired a plethora of what were effectively obituaries, mournful paeans to the end of a great career.
“We’re watching the Miami Cavaliers right now, playing this series,” TNT analyst Reggie Miller quipped after watching Wade and Chris Bosh struggle during Miami’s Game 6 loss to Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In a rarity in sports punditry, much of the said grousing was warranted by what the guard did on the court. Or, rather, didn’t do.
In 22 games in the 2013 playoffs—which ended, again, with the Heat hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy—Wade hit a nadir, posting numbers that, if they were extended over the course of a season, would be the poorest of his career by a fair margin.
He scored 15.9 points a night on 45.7 percent shooting, good for a true shooting percentage of 49.8. All, if stretched over 82 games, would be career-worsts, per Basketball-Reference.
Meanwhile, his rebound, assist and steal numbers slipped a notch from what he produced in the preceding regular season and coincided with a disconcerting lack of aggression. After attempting 6.2 free throws per game, he mustered just 3.6 in the playoffs.
Even teammate James conceded, by acknowledging his own increased responsibilities, that Wade was off his game.
"Yeah, I kind of just went back to my Cleveland days at that point and just said, 'hey, let’s try to make more plays and be more of a scoring threat as well,' and just try to figure out a way that I can—I don’t know, just see if the guys would just follow me, and just lead them the best way I could. I was just in attack mode in the third quarter, look for my shot,” James said after a Game 5 victory in the same series.
The advanced stats were more directly critical of Wade’s performance. Wade’s win shares per 48 minutes during the 2013 postseason, according to Basketball-Reference, was .108. His PER dropped to 18.7 from a mark of 24 in the regular season.
And yet, of course, Miami repeated. Granted, it took the Heat a pair of seven-game series to sneak by Pacers and Spurs teams that, if the regular season was any indication (and it usually is), were manifestly inferior, but the plain fact remains.
They won a championship with a suboptimal Wade.
And, by all indications, they can do it again.
In the first four months of the 2013-14 season, a similar dynamic has unfolded. Wade flounders—relative to his standards—while the Heat cruise along. Through 53 games this season, with a limited Wade, the Heat posted a 39-14 record. This is, incredibly, precisely the same record the team had through 53 in each of 2012-13, 2011-12 and 2010-11. (Say what you want about the Heat: they’re consistent.) That doesn’t paint a picture of a squad that’s especially reliant on its No. 2.
Now, none of this is to say the Hall of Fame shoo-in is a non-entity at 32. He isn’t. Wade is still arguably the best guard in the Eastern Conference—though this speaks more to a dearth of quality backcourt play than it does the preservation of Wade’s (once numerous) abilities. He's second among all shooting guards in Player Efficiency Rating, according to ESPN,and 17th overall. Furthermore, his ability to score at a ridiculously efficient clip makes him a key component of Miami’s league-best offense.
But it does mean he's less important than ever before, a superstar who's had the "super" stripped from his title.
Dwyane Wade is likely to put together a 2014 postseason similar to what he's provided thus far in this regular season and offered in the 2013 playoffs. He’ll look a hair slower and creakier than usual, a bit more measured in the deployment of what's left of his athleticism and a little less like a game-changing talent than a solid-if-unspectacular shooting guard who does a lot of things well and a few others less so.
Here's the good news for Miami: If the recent past is any indication, that will be plenty.
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