If there’s a ready-made chess analogy for why the San Antonio Spurs proved triumphant in the 2014 NBA Finals, it’s that the Miami Heat—who had no answers for Gregg Popovich’s move to start Boris Diaw in Game 3—simply ran out of moves.
From this perspective, there was too much that fell outside the Heat’s immediate control; the Spurs were, quite clearly, the better basketball team.
But if there’s one thing Miami should be able to count on heading into the 2014-15 season, it’s the offensive evolution of the franchise’s longtime cornerstone, Dwyane Wade.
First things first, of course: As of this writing, Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh have yet to officially commit to returning to Miami—either on their current contracts or by way of new, restructured deals.
However, recent reports—such as this one from USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt—suggest Wade and Bosh are committed to returning, with LeBron being lone, tentative holdout. Which has prompted longtime team president Pat Riley to issue a rather boldly worded challenge.
"This stuff is hard,” Riley told reporters at a recent news conference, per Zillgitt. “And you got to stay together, if you've got the guts. And you don't find the first door and run out of it."
Assuming the Big Three remain intact, the Heat still stand to have more than a few fissures to seal. And while rounding out the Heat’s top-heavy roster remains priority No. 1, how Wade in particular approaches the offseason—whether he can successfully augment his stubborn skill set—will go a long way in determining just how much championship juice he and his fellow heroes have in the tank.
The more difficult question is how, specifically, D-Wade should be looking to improve.
The good news, as NBA.com’s Jon Schulmann points out, is that Wade already has a track record of admirable adaptation:
Over the last four years, Wade has changed his game to better complement James. He can be effective without the ball in his hands, because he’s one of the best in the league at off-the-ball cuts, always able to take advantage of a defender who has turned his head toward the ball. And though he’s lost some of his explosion, he still has enough talent and old-man game to usually keep the Miami offense afloat when James is resting.
But the best complement for the league’s best player is a guy who keeps the defense honest no matter where he’s standing on the floor. When Wade is on the perimeter, defenses need not guard him. He barely shot threes at all (32 attempts in 58 games) this season. His attempts per game have gone down in each of James’ four seasons in Miami.
For Wade to make the requisite adjustments of repertoire, Schumann concludes, he needs to heed the late-career learning curve of one all-time great in particular—Jason Kidd:
But Wade is just 32 years old, a year younger than Jason Kidd was when he started working with a shooting coach. Kidd wasn’t as bad as Wade from 3-point range at that point in his career, but he went from shooting 33.2 percent from beyond the arc through his 12 seasons to shooting 37.3 percent over his last seven.
That’s not a huge increase, but it’s a difference of more than 12 points per 100 attempts and, more importantly, it’s the difference between defenses leaving you alone on the perimeter and defenses having to respect you.
That’s all easier said than done, of course. But that doesn’t make it any less necessary for Miami.
Another possibility would be to bring Wade off the bench, thereby sparing him at least some of the wear and tear that’s compelled the Heat to put their Hall of Fame shooting guard on a more regimented rest schedule during the 2013-14 regular season.
In many ways the plan was a success, why with Wade finishing the postseason with averages of 17.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists on 50 percent shooting, including—wait for it—38 percent from distance.
His raw numbers may have been down slightly (ditto his PER), but as a bellwether for the basketball player the Heat need him to be, Wade’s playoffs proved there’s plenty of room to teach an old dog new tricks.
Wade has never specifically addressed the prospect of playing off the bench, although it’s sure to be a touchy subject if and when it arises.
That’s not to say Wade as a sixth-man extraordinaire guarantees a return to finals glory for Miami. But for a team that looked so often a shell of its former championship self all options—regardless of any temporary inconvenience or hurt feelings—must be squarely on the table.
Writing at SportsGrid.com, Joe Polito posits perhaps the most compelling case for why Wade could prove a potent boon off the bench:
Yes, yes — it was a long time ago, but Wade was arguably Team USA’s best player throughout the tournament. He led the team in scoring at 16.0 per game while averaging just 19 minutes off the bench. He’s nowhere near that explosive anymore, but there’s got to be a way he can conjure up a different brand of that same efficiency in spurts again.
Wade may be just 32 years old, but the toll taken by his singular style—reckless abandon betrays the body-tossing bombast—has aged him considerably. Not enough to render him suit-clad by the time he’s 35, perhaps. But enough to make Miami conjure creative ways of maximizing Wade’s effectiveness.
At this point, the Heat’s central strategic concern has to be equipping LeBron James not just with the best possible supporting cast, but the strategy that best utilizes that cast’s individual talents.
It’s one thing when your name is Mike Miller, Shane Battier or any one- or-two-dimensional mercenaries Miami’s employed these past four years.
When you’re a 10-time All-Star with two gold medals and enough Heat records to alarm Al Gore? Pride can often be the enemy.
Over the coming days, the whats and whereabouts of LeBron James will once again take center stage. As the purported lone remaining holdout to bringing the world’s biggest basketball band back together, James has the kind of clout mere mortal kings would kill for.
Which is why the onus is on James to set some strategic stipulations for his return, including convincing Wade to augment his game. Even if it means temporarily compromising the two’s longstanding friendship, the potential windfall—winning where it matters most—would be more than worth it.
In relinquishing Miami’s reins four years ago, Dwyane Wade proved he’s more than capable of subsuming his ego below the greater good. This time around, doing it again may be Miami’s only chance of getting back to great.