There is more to the 2014 NBA Finals than LeBron James and Tim Duncan.
There is more to them than the Miami Heat's quest for a three-peat.
There is more to them than the lasting impact the outcome will have heading into free agency and next season.
There is, among the many things to reflect upon, Dwyane Wade and the legacy he is still framing and poised to leave behind.
The obsession over James' ring count is understandable and expected at this point.
As he continues to chase "greatest of all time" status, championship volume takes priority over everything else he does and, more pointedly, everything his teammates and the Miami Heat do.
When the Heat lost in 2011, it was about James choking. When they won in 2012, it was about him capturing his first NBA title. And when they won last year, acceptance spread. James was no longer the villain or immoral ring-chaser. He was—decision, past transgressions and all—unmistakably legendary.
Little has changed in the wake of Miami's fourth straight finals appearance. The idea of James winning again is more comfortable and easy to envision than in years past, but it's still all about him.
Winning again gives James three championships by the age of 29. Know who else won his third title at 29? Not Michael Jordan. He was 30. But he didn't turn 30 until February of that season. That was also just his ninth season in the league. James is finishing up No. 11. It's a gray area, but one James can look fondly upon knowing his championship valor rivaled Jordan's.
Bringing home another championship gives him the opportunity to do something Jordan never did: win four in a row.
One-upping the San Antonio Spurs yet again further cements the gorge-sized gap existing between him and everyone else.
It's still all about James.
Wade will never receive the same attention as James, or even face comparable pressure, but he is creating a historical reputation of his own—one for the ages that will land him in the Hall of Fame alongside some of the greatest to ever play.
This time around, he can win his fourth championship. That's one fewer than Kobe Bryant (five). Two fewer than Jordan (six). One more than James Worthy, Larry Bird and, presently, Manu Ginobili (three).
That would be one more than James (three), the player (mostly) everyone else shamelessly focuses on.
Only 35 players have won at least four titles in NBA history. Wade can be No. 36, joining Duncan, Bryant and Derek Fisher as the only active ballers with four pieces of championship hardware.
Treasured legacies have been founded upon much less.
The Numbers Game
Respect isn't paid to Wade's statistical prowess. Not frequently, anyway.
Upon James and Chris Bosh's arrivals, Wade's averages predictably began a slow, steady decline. The combination of time, health and additional egos to stroke all carried his production in what is generally considered the wrong direction. Even so, his career numbers are fiercely impressive.
And undeniably historic.
Three players in NBA history have maintained averages of at least 24 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game through their first 11 seasons—Bird, James and Wade. So let's not use James' arrival and Wade's maintenance programs as a means to discredit his current relevancy.
In what many considered a below-average 2013-14 campaign, Wade still posted 19.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.5 steals on 54.5 percent shooting. What he did during an off year allowed him to join James, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, John Wall, Russell Westbrook and James Harden as the only players to register benchmarks of 19.0, 4.0, 4.0 and 1.5, respectively. That's certainly something.
The time he spent without James and Bosh was something even more.
Between 2003 and 2010—his first seven seasons in the league—Wade averaged 25.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 block per game. Yes, one block. Even though he's a shooting guard. Even though he stands at a generally listed 6'4".
No one in NBA history has matched Wade's production through his first seven seasons. James comes the closest, but he falls just short of his teammate, having recorded 0.9 blocks a night during his first seven years.
This isn't something that can be glossed over. Not even the most ardent Kobe Bryant supporters can ignore Wade's success. He ranks sixth all time in win shares accumulated (105.4) for guards through their first 11 seasons. The only shooting guard he trails is Bryant himself (110). Jerry West could also be added to that short, short list, but he spent most of his time at point guard.
Add three All-Defensive and eight All-NBA team selections, and one NBA Finals MVP (2006), and Wade's resume exceeds remarkable.
Combine his other feats with a fourth NBA title, and it becomes unforgettable.
Flash's Place in History
Determining Wade's place in history is tricky business.
Unlike James, he hasn't helped facilitate the conversation. Mentions of his spot among the all-time greats are typically met with humility intertwined with an air of disinterest.
Here's what he told Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick in January when asked if he's considered where he'll rank upon retiring:
No, I haven't yet, no. No, just to be known for whatever I did in the game. Obviously, the body of work that I put in early in my career, for the first eight years or so, that body of work was good enough to put me in the conversation with 'blank' 2-guards. But wherever it lands me, it lands me at the end of the day. I'm not going to lose no sleep over someone saying I'm four, not five, I'm seven, not eight. Not really.
Pushing Wade's legacy even further onto the back burner has been James' arrival and subsequent ascendance. He's remembered more for being a sidekick than an alpha dog.
Think Scottie Pippen here, who is recognized for his individual success but most often identified as being the guy behind Jordan.
But as Bleacher Report's Tom Sunnergren found in February, at least part of Wade's statistical decline is very real and accounts for more of his shaky historical standing than James' presence:
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 George 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.
Wade closed out the regular season averaging .149 win shares per 48 minutes, a 22.4 percent decrease from his career average (.192). It's been the same story during the playoffs, only to a lesser degree. He's averaging .147 win shares per 48 minutes, which is more than 13 percent below his career postseason average (.169).
Put that way, he has regressed and given critics and stat gurus enough reason to doubt his historical placement. But his late-career struggles—predominantly health-related, no doubt—don't strip him of what he's been able to do and accomplish.
Maybe Wade needed James to forge a dynasty, but he didn't need him to win. Flash won a title in 2006 as the alpha dog. It was then Wade recognized that he needed help, but he was James in this scenario. Shaquille O'Neal was the partner in crime; he was Wade.
Four titles speak for themselves at their core. The three he currently has do the same. And in winning those, he has put himself in the same class as Bryant, George Gervin, Allen Iverson, Clyde Drexler, Ray Allen and even Jordan, among others.
The noticeable difference—borderline backslide—in his game will forever play a part in determining where he ranks, but that all-around dominant shooting guard hasn't faded entirely just yet. He can still be found in the numbers. He shines through the 32-year-old who has decided to connect on more than 38 percent of his three-point attempts during the playoffs for just the second time of his career.
"As someone who is 6'3", 6'4" on a good day, and I've done what I was able to do," Wade told Skolnick. "I think it will be my own space, in a sense."
Spaces, however unique, are meant to collide. And if Wade captures his fourth title, his will meet those those once considered untouchable or markedly ahead of him, which is something to celebrate.
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