As there are five stages of grief, there are three very definite phases people go through when thinking seriously about Dwyane Wade’s 2013-14 season.
Phase one is visceral: The realization that Wade just didn't look the way that he used to.
He was a step slow, seemed sort of languorous and lethargic at turns and—most disconcertingly—just didn’t complete many of the head-turning, quintessentially Wade-ian feats of athletic excellence that were his calling card in his younger and more prosperous years.
Phase two is the realization, upon inspecting his numbers, that Wade was actually pretty sneaky-effective in 2013-14
At 58.8, Wade posted the highest true shooting percentage of his career, according to Basketball-Reference, and finished second among all shooting guards in player efficiency rating. And while Wade’s per-36-minute numbers were unusually low for him, his numbers per 100 possessions were roughly in line with his career averages. The only statistical area where he clearly declined was scoring, and that was only because he was taking fewer shots.
But then comes phase three, which is characterized by the recognition that said sneaky effectiveness was a function of the Heat thoughtfully, and cautiously, managing the old man’s minutes—not Wade’s performance.
Wade sat out 28 games in 2013-14, and when he did play, logged a career-low 32.9 minutes a night. In other words, nearly every time he set foot on the floor, he was maximally rested. Fully capable of playing his best. In an 82-game season, this is a luxury few are afforded.
The 2013-14 Heat could be so cautious with their No. 2 because they were so great. There was no chance of them missing the playoffs, or finishing outside one of the top two spots in the enervated East. So they chanced nothing by sitting Wade 28 times.
That won’t be the case this season, during which Miami will be in a knock-down, drag-out battle for seeding and—if things go less than swimmingly—just a playoff spot. They’ll need Wade to produce during the regular season in a way they didn’t last season.
All of which begs the question: What do the Heat do with Wade in 2014-15?
The answer is clear. They should rest him as often as he needs.
Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie said something instructive during a post-draft press conference. A reporter asked him when the team would start playing Joel Embiid and, according to Liberty Ballers, the executive plainly stated that the center’s own body would dictate their plans:
Guess what our approach will be? We will focus on the long-term health of the player. We've had this discussion before. It is all that matters, the long-term health of the player. Will we be smart about that? Of course. Will we be thoughtful about that? I hope so. Will we be patient? Yes. We will give him every chance to be as healthy as he can be.
Granted, the Sixers aren’t in a position where they’re attempting to compete and win games right now, so they lose nothing—and given the perverse incentives of tanking, probably stand to gain quite a bit—by sitting the No. 3 overall draft choice. Nevertheless, Hinkie is right. The only way to manage injuries, or the decline of an aging player, is to listen closely to their body and put them in the best possible position to succeed.
Consider the case of the San Antonio Spurs, one of the most sneakily dominant teams in NBA history. According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton (subscription required), San Antonio didn’t just rock Miami in the 2014 Finals, it administered an unprecedented shellacking. Pelton found the Spurs posted the highest field-goal percentage, effective field-goal percentage and offensive efficiency ever recorded in the Finals.
And here’s the thing about the Spurs: They rest their guys. All of them. All the time.
Not a single player on the team played more than 30 minutes a night—the first time that’s ever happened—and the Spurs' aging core got plenty of nights off in addition to their manageable workloads. Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili played 68, 74 and 68 games last season.
Not many teams have the depth the Spurs possess, but, to an extent, this dynamic cuts in both directions. San Antonio could afford to rest its starters because it had such excellent depth, but it also built this depth, in part, by resting its starters. Players on the end of the bench logged meaningful minutes for SAS, and they because better for it.
This is the tack the Heat should take with Wade. It might cost them a few games between October and April, but that should be a minor concern. Priority No. 1 for Miami should be thinking about Wade’s health and taking the steps, and making the sacrifices, that will keep him fresh and effective for years to come.
And the sacrifice may not be an enormous one. With Shabazz Napier in tow, the Heat have a guard who can come off the bench and fill the shot creation gap that Wade left. Though Napier struggled mightily in summer league, due to his age (23) and collegiate success (he led the nation in win shares in 2013-14, according to Sports-Reference), the rookie figures to be an immediate contributor. There may not be a huge gap in production between he and Wade in 2014-15.
This is the right thing to do by Wade, and it’s also the smart move for a franchise that probably still thinks it can build a contender around Wade and Bosh. If it wants Wade to be at his best at that point, it has to take it easy on the 32-year-old now.