CLEVELAND — Dwyane Wade opted to join the Cleveland Cavaliers with hopes of adding new hardware to his trophy case, but if LeBron James is right, Wade could finish the 2017-18 NBA season with more than another championship ring.
Last Saturday, James talked to reporters about Wade's potential to be Sixth Man of the Year, per Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:
"He's probably the No. 1 candidate. Not even being biased, that's one of my best friends. Just looking at the teams. Eric Gordon has had to start a lot this season because [Chris Paul] was out. [Andre] Iguodala's been out a little bit, you look at Manu [Ginobili], you look at Jamal Crawford ... those are sixth man guys, right? D-Wade would probably be leading that right now, but there's a long way to go."
It's a long way indeed, but if the early results have shown us anything, it's that moving to the bench for the first time in his career could result in Wade's becoming just the second player in league history to be NBA Finals MVP as well as the league's top reserve.
Redefining the Prototype
If the last six years of NBA basketball have shown us anything modeling consistency, it is that being a score-first guard gives you one hell of an advantage to win the Sixth Man of the Year award.
If we were to create an NBA player to win the Sixth Man of the Year award in today's era, he would be a shooting guard—say, 6'4" or 6'5"—who cares not for efficiency and even less for pesky statistics such as rebounds, assists and blocked shots. Defense is optional, but the volume knob has to be at max levels, as field-goal attempts have to come by the boatload.
James Harden's 10.1 field-goal attempts per game in 2011-12, when he won the award, were modest compared to some of the league's more recent winners. Jamal Crawford averaged 13.5 field-goal attempts per game in his three award-winning seasons. Eric Gordon's campaign as the league's top reserve saw him take 13.5 shots per game.
And the most egregious version of this Sixth Man shot-chucker came in 2012-13, when JR Smith managed to take 15.6 field goals per game as a member of the New York Knicks.
Now, Wade—who admittedly fits the body type—has a chance to transform the prototype. He has an opportunity to prove it's not about chucking shots, and that points per game isn't the most important stat when looking at impact off the bench.
How We Got Here
Wade's move to the bench has been one of storylines to emerge from Cleveland through the first seven weeks of the NBA season. After taking a buyout from Bulls, Wade joined his longtime friend LeBron in Cleveland. The only issue was the Cavs already had a starting shooting guard in JR Smith.
After a three-game failed experiment with Wade as the starter, the 35-year old asked head coach Tyronn Lue to bring him off the bench. In return, Lue has given Wade carte blanche when he's on the floor, providing the Cavaliers with a dynamic guard who can shoot, get to the rim or find open teammates for high-percentage shots.
"Playmaking is both scoring the basketball and making the right play," Lue said. "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."
As the results roll in, Wade has not only embraced his role of leading the Cavs' reserve unit, he's thrived in it.
"I came here for one reason," Wade said in October. "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."
Wade doesn't have the points-per-game numbers of Utah Jazz shooting guard Rodney Hood or Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon. And he's not a lights-out scorer like the Los Angeles Clippers' Lou Williams or the Denver Nuggets' Will Barton.
But that doesn't mean he's not a viable Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
While Eric Gordon leads bench players with at least 15 minutes per game in offensive rating thus far with 118.6 points scored per 100 possessions, Wade has him in efficiency-based metrics like effective field-goal percentage (47.5 to 37.3), true shooting percentage (54.2 to 49.0) and player impact estimate.
Hood, who's averaging 19.3 points per game, has made the Jazz just 2.1 points better per 100 possessions. Williams' scoring totals have been equally impressive, but he's on a Clippers team that has won just eight games this season. Barton and the Nuggets have been fun to watch, but Denver is 10.0 points per 100 possessions better with the shooting guard off the floor. Wade, meanwhile, has one of the best net ratings on the Cavaliers (10.2).
"Team success is always up there with winning an award—that's just my personal opinion," James said. "Then the impact you make on that second lineup or whatever lineup that you're in. You have a lot of winners, and you've seen why they've won. When JR won it when he was in New York, Jamal Crawford and Eric Gordon, seeing the things that they did coming off the bench and doing the things they've done off the bench to help their team be successful."
With a little more than nine minutes left in the fourth quarter against the Bulls last Monday, up 15 points, Wade received an outlet pass from Jeff Green, casually dribbled the ball up the right side of the floor at guard Jerian Grant, briefly backed into the lane and dropped in a layup off the glass.
Grant let out an expletive in frustration, tipped the ball to Bobby Portis on the other side of the baseline and attempted to make up for his questionable defensive efforts. No four-letter words would be enough, however, as Wade went on about a 90-second stretch that resulted in nine points.
The Cavs' lead stretched to 22 in the blink of an eye, and their winning streak stretched to 12 and lived to see another night. Wade tied with Kevin Love to be the game's leading scorer, dropping 24 points in 26 minutes off the bench—those last three words being the most important.
"I mean, he's run a franchise before," James said following the game. "He's ran units before. There's not one situation that he hasn't been in, so it's a luxury for our team to be able to have him to come off our bench and be able to lead that group. The way he's playing right now, he's just in a great groove. And you guys know me—I'm extremely happy to have him."
Checking his ego at the door, Wade is leading a bench unit in Cleveland that has been integral in the team's recent success. Wade has done a remarkable job of giving credit to the Cavaliers' reserves (specifically Channing Frye, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green) with the success of the unit, but Wade is the one who has been tasked with its leadership responsibilities. On some nights, it's scoring and having the ability to drop 20 points. On others, it's setting up his team for open looks.
While Wade has dominated in stretches, his leadership is even more evident when he's struggling to score. In the Cavaliers' 101-95 win Wednesday over the Sacramento Kings—their 13th straight victory at the time—Wade knew his shot was not falling, and he became a facilitator, recording six assists while hitting just one of five shots.
On the defensive end, Wade is contributing a block total that has him leading the Cavaliers on a per-36-minute basis, rejecting attempts of players like Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia's Joel Embiid through the first quarter of the season.
"I don't think he's jumping that high," said Ty Lue, with a laugh, speaking of his 6'5" rim protector. "He's just got great timing."
Regardless of Wade's role, his move to the bench has allowed him to seemingly take the baton from James and has given the Cavs a do-it-all player with 14 years of starting experience. And he has been able to manifest it into one of the league's best benches.
"You can't just have five guys doing that," Korver said of Wade's ability to orchestrate. "You got to have someone in that group who is making that pass or commanding that double-team or getting the ball into the paint and then with the movement and pieces that we have, kind of making it fit together well. So, I really think the way I look at it, we have two of the greatest basketball minds in the history of the game, and one is leading the first unit, and one is leading the second unit."
As the Cavaliers roll through the Eastern Conference, they will look to reimplement Tristan Thompson, who has missed the last month with a calf injury, and add Isaiah Thomas, who continues to work his way back from a hip injury. While both of these players can be expected to take on starter minutes, Wade no longer has that role in mind.
"I'm good where I'm at," Wade said, per Vardon. "... Where I am now, it's working for me and for this team."
Wade's mantle is full of hardware. He's a three-time NBA champion and a 12-time All-Star. He was the 2006 NBA Finals MVP and has eight All-NBA nods (two first team). His move to the bench helped the Cavs, but it could also help buck the trend that Sixth Man awards should prioritize scoring totals over true value.
If the Cavaliers continue to thrive with Wade leading the reserves, an award he never even thought about during his first 14 years in the league may be his for the taking.