CLEVELAND — Tyronn Lue has often discussed a utopian environment where the roster of the Cleveland Cavaliers, largely composed of veterans and high-IQ role players, leaves their respective egos at the door. The thinking behind "no egos allowed" is simple: Championships are difficult to win—why provide your own team with a self-erected hurdle?
An ego-free locker room is a rarity in any professional sport, yet here, the Cavs are just four games in with veterans making sacrifices for the betterment of the entire team.
While the sample size is just one game, the returns were positive Tuesday as Dwyane Wade, a starter for all but 11 contests throughout his 14-year NBA career, came off the bench for the Cavaliers and led a second unit that was vital in their 119-112 win over the Chicago Bulls.
"I thought D-Wade really came in and led that second unit," Lue said of Wade's maiden voyage as a reserve. "He had some great passes, was able to score, he had the ball in his hands a lot, and was able to make plays. He looked real comfortable in that role. He had great lift. I love having the ball in his hands. He's very smart with the basketball. I like him running that second unit."
The end result would be Wade's most productive game of the season with 11 points (5-of-7 shooting), three rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block in just under 19 minutes on the floor. He checked in with a little under two minutes left in the first quarter and immediately went to work, hitting two jump shots, pulling down three rebounds and finding Channing Frye for an easy layup during his first three minutes on the floor.
"It was great," Wade said of his first time off of the bench. "It was good to be a part of a positive lineup for this team. It was getting back to what I'm used to—having the ball, being able to make plays, and being able to get to my sweet spots."
While the Cavaliers' reserve unit carried the team—with Wade finding his game after admitting to a bit of disarray in his first week with the team—the early returns on J.R. Smith's insertion into the starting lineup were less than ideal. The 15-year veteran totaled just three points, hitting one of eight shots, and the Cavs as a whole got off to a rough 38-28 first-quarter deficit against one of the projected worst teams in the league.
Defensively, things were not much better for Smith, as the Bulls' starting shooting guard, Justin Holiday, scored a team-high 25 points on 8-of-17 shooting.
The hope is that moving Wade to the bench will not only allow for a primary ball-handler when LeBron James is not on the floor, but it will also allow Smith (and the Cavs as a whole) to regain the floor-spacing, three-point touch that has been his calling card since arriving in early 2014.
(On Saturday, Cleveland did not hit its first three-pointer until a little over three minutes into the second half. A day earlier, the team that was the second-best three-point shooting team in the NBA a season ago, went just 2-of-10 from three-point range in the first half.)
For Wade, however, it is about regaining a level of comfort that will only serve to be aided by an increased number of touches coupled with the potential of facing other teams' second units.
"Playmaking is both scoring the basketball and making the right play," said Lue. "Having [the ball] in his hands, he's never in a rush. He's poised and makes the right play. I just like having the ball in his hands and let him make the decisions."
By this time next week, Wade will have just as many games under his belt as a reserve with the Cavaliers as he did as a starter. Given the depth of the team's roster, making this move earlier in the season as opposed to waiting for additional struggles will only serve to benefit all parties.
But there's another question to think about. When Isaiah Thomas is medically cleared to play, Lue will be forced to change his lineup once again. With Thomas (presumably) joining the starting five and Derrick Rose relegated to backup duties, will Lue move Wade back to the starting lineup to avoid clogging the floor alongside Rose? Will he keep Wade in his comfy new sixth-man role?
We won't find out the answer to those questions for a couple of months, but what we seemingly already know is that Wade will be open to what's best for the team.
When Wade first arrived in Cleveland in late September, he spent his time with the second unit, getting comfortable with the team's offensive schemes. He would ask Lue to join the starting five, as he had been a starter since being drafted fifth overall in 2003. But he quickly realized following an uncharacteristic five points on 2-of-8 shooting Saturday that Lue's preference to have him spearhead the second unit would be the best utilization of his playmaking skill set.
"I came here for one reason," Wade said earlier this week. "I didn't come here to shoot 20 shots or average 20 points. I came here to be a part of winning and to bring what I can to this team, and I want to do that. I feel that my best opportunity to do that is in [the second] unit, so it just came down to that."
All too often, NBA teams are forced to react to certain issues like the chaos of blockbuster trades or the muck and mire of injured hips and ankles. The Cavaliers, however, were able to make this lineup decision just one week into the season not because they were dealt a bad hand, but because one of their ego-free veterans recognized what was best for the team.
"We're all here on the same page, and that's trying to win a championship," said the newly acquired Jae Crowder. "We want to do whatever it takes to win. We're not worried about who's starting or who's coming off the bench. Everyone wants to contribute in some type of way. He's done a great job of being a leader and that's what we expect of him.
"You have to respect it. That man is here to win."