Do Miami Heat Rebuild Around Dwyane Wade or in Spite of Him?

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Do Miami Heat Rebuild Around Dwyane Wade or in Spite of Him?
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

As a general principle, professional basketball teams shouldn't attempt to rebuild around 32-year-old shooting guards with mounting injury issues, declining skills and production that's long been on the ebb. Even if the player in question is Dwyane Wade.

The case against Wade is simple and watertight. He's currently a very useful player, but that's not likely to hold until the Heat are prepared to win again.

While the veteran finished second among all shooting guards in player efficiency rating in 2013-14, per ESPN, he posted the third-lowest figure of his career—after his rookie season and his injury-ravaged 2007-08.

This points to the salient Wade story right now: deterioration. The guard is slipping each season—though, because the peak from which his decline began was so high, it was hidden for a time. It isn't hidden anymore.

According to Basketball-Reference, Wade has scored fewer points per 100 possessions in each successive season since 2008-09, dipping from 41.8 down to 30.5 last year.

Blocks and free-throw attempts are good indicators of athleticism. Wade averaged 0.5 swats and 4.8 FTAs per outing in 2013-14—the lowest marks he's ever posted. Stats in general are good indicators of value: Wade was comfortably under his career averages in points, steals, blocks, assists, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, free-throw attempts and free-throw percentage in 2013-14. At nearly every component part of basketball, the aging guard was less effective than usual.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
"Three years ago, hand to god, I would have blocked that shot."

The advanced metrics agree. Next to, again, his rookie season and a 2007-08 campaign that ended with his being shut down with an ailing knee, Wade put up the lowest win shares per 48 minutes, win shares and PER he ever has.

And the lone area of his game where Wade is still elite—efficient scoring; the guard posted a career-best true shooting percentage of 58.8 in 2013-14—seems a function not of his skill as much as exogenous forces. The fact of LeBron James on the floor soaked up so much defensive attention that it created space for Wade to slash to the basket unimpeded. He routinely got looks he simply won't get without his departed teammate.

And then there's Wade's defense, which is collapsing. Writing about his dreadful performance in the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, Deadspin's Sean Newell described Wade as "ambling around the court like a video game character who's been abandoned by his player." Not incidentally, the Spurs set Finals records for offensive rating and effective field-goal percentage, according to ESPN's Kevin Pelton (subscription required).

The evidence is overwhelming: Wade is fading. Fast. And unless the Heat manage to reload much sooner than seems possible at the moment, it's difficult to believe the future Hall of Famer will still be an asset when Miami is ready to make another Finals push.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Strictly speaking, re-signing Wade might not make basketball sense, but it makes business sense for Miami.

But here's the thing: None of this means the Heat were wrong to re-sign Wade. The stated objective of professional sports teams is to win championships, but—heresy alert!—titles are really a means to an end. And that end is creating a meaningful and entertaining experience for customers, for fans.

Rings are, of course, a really effective way of accomplishing this. But they're not the only consideration. There's a certain pleasure people take in watching a great—and that's what Wade is, a capital G great—play his entire career with one team. No messy divorce, no breakup: The player belongs to the fans and they to him. It allows the city in question an uncompromised memory of that player and what he and his team achieved. It's a nostalgia enabler.

Someday, probably not terribly far from now, Wade will retire as a member of the Miami Heat. He'll have a tearful press conference, take a farewell tour across the league and might play the final game of his distinguished career in front of a packed AmericanAirlines Arena. The fans will wear No. 3 jerseys and think of the three Larry O'Brien Trophies Wade helped deliver them. They'll love him in an unambiguous way and feel loved in return.

This matters too. Wade conceded as much in a statement he released announcing his return to Miami and absolving LeBron of any blame for fleeing to Cleveland. "Home is where your heart is," he wrote.

There's little doubt where his resides.

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