Is Dwyane Wade Still an Elite Player in Today's NBA?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2013

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 29: Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat looks on during a game against the Chicago Bulls at American Airlines Arena on January 29, 2012 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Dwyane Wade has been an elite NBA player for a long time, but the whispers are starting to build that he's dropped out of that upper echelon.

Scratch that.

They aren't whispers anymore, at least not after a lackluster postseason saw him battle to remain effective in the wake of some painful knee injuries.

However, for the Miami Heat fans out there, fear not. Any rumors of Wade declining are quite overblown. The shooting guard's role is changing, but he's remained quite effective and will continue to be a valuable star on a championship-contending team.

And that means the rest of the NBA should continue to be afraid.  

Increased Efficiency 

As his career has progressed, Wade has just shifted his role, allowing him to compensate for any decline in volume with a simultaneous increase in efficiency. This is especially important while playing beside LeBron James, whose ball-dominating tendencies don't afford the shooting guard as many opportunities to do his own thing. 

The basic principle here can be explained best by using two hypothetical players:

  1. Player A averages 26.6 points per game and shoots 47.6 percent from the field. 
  2. Player B averages 21.2 points per game and shoots 52.1 percent from the field. 

Which would you rather have? 

Now, of course, other factors go into the debate. How effective were they behind the arc? Who shot more efficiently at the charity stripe? What about turnovers and the other facets of their game? 

However, if we look only at these two surface-level statistics in a vacuum, it's hard to differentiate between the two players. If anything, it's a matter of personal preference, as some fans/teams/analysts would rather have the extra scoring output at the expense of efficiency, while others are just all about putting the ball in the basket at the highest percentage possible. 

Also, I lied to you. Those aren't hypothetical players. Player A is Wade during the 2009-10 season, while Player B is him this past year. 

Over the last few seasons, Wade's scoring output has declined. There's no arguing that. But that doesn't mean he's declined as a scorer. 

Below you can see how his field-goal percentages and effective field-goal percentages have changed over the years, courtesy of Basketball-Reference

Those are pretty sizable differences for someone who shoots as often as Wade, and the effective field-goal percentage is quite telling. If you're unfamiliar with that metric, it's a shooting efficiency stat that accounts for both three-point shooting and performance at the free-throw line. In other words, it tells a lot more than the standard field-goal percentage, even if it's not as commonly used. 

Wade didn't shoot his freebies with nearly the same confidence in 2012-13 that he has in the past, but he was still able to make up for the difference by playing to his strengths from the field, attacking the rim with relentless fury and almost completely eschewing shots from behind the three-point arc. He took only a single triple per game, the lowest mark since his first two seasons in the Association. 

The 2-guard is playing smart basketball. 

He understands his current role with the Heat, and taking a backseat to the unstoppable machine that is LeBron has allowed him to earn the second and third championship rings of his career. 

Claiming Wade has taken a step back and is no longer elite because he isn't competing for scoring titles anymore is nonsensical. It completely overlooks his improved assist-to-turnover ratio, his willingness to play off the ball and defer to the best player in the world for the sake of the team, and his vastly improved efficiency. 

Continued Off-Ball Greatness

One of the main reasons Wade has remained such an impressive offensive contributor is the retention of his immense off-ball skills. The shooting guard has always been known as a premier slasher, but he's used his veteran savvy to become one of the NBA's most dangerous cutters, even at 31 years old. 

Defenders just can't afford to look the wrong way when drawing Wade as an assignment, or else he's going to make them pay with an easy shot at the rim. 

Synergy Sports (subscription required) shows the former Marquette standout averaged 1.33 points per possession when cutting to the rim, good for 33rd in the NBA. That's an impressive mark for a player who used off-ball cuts on 11 percent of his possessions. 

No matter who the defender is, Wade will capitalize if even the smallest mistake is made. 

That's no mere mortal guarding the Miami star for the Memphis Grizzlies. It's Tony Allen, widely known as one of the premier perimeter defenders in the NBA. 

At this point in the play, Wade isn't testing Allen. He's just moving without the ball into the far corner. 

Now is when the game begins. 

Ray Allen is a threatening presence on the wing, and as you can see with the purple arrow, he's drawing attention from the other Allen. The Memphis 2-guard has his vision focused on the sharpshooter, and if Wade is in his peripherals, it's only barely. 

As LeBron drives into the paint, Wade sneakily cuts behind Allen's back and finds himself an opening. 

Then he gets to hang on the rim for an easy two points. Allen never saw it coming because he was too focused on the all-time leading three-point shooter. 

But Allen isn't the only great defender Wade has torched with an off-ball cut. Far from it.

In this play, Wade is guarded by Avery Bradley, the tenacious combo guard from whom the Boston Celtics expect big things. 

Even at the start of the possession, Bradley's eyes aren't fixated on Wade. That's a mistake, especially since there isn't enough action occurring on the strong side to merit his attention. 

The Heat's 2-guard has already begun cutting, and Bradley's ill-advised look to his left hasn't allowed him to realize it. 

If you don't immediately react with Wade, you're going to get burned. 

Wade squeezes between Bradley and Paul Pierce, and there's nothing between him and the basket but open space (and a giant green oval). 

The result is an easy layup as Bradley trails behind and isn't able to catch up fast enough to block his athletic counterpart's attempt at the rim. 

Miami extends its lead. 

Individual cuts aren't Wade's only off-ball method du jour. According to Synergy, he was also an elite player using screens to free himself from defenders, scoring 0.83 points per possession in those situations. 

The following play is one you see the Heat run a lot when Udonis Haslem is on the court. 

Wade begins the play in the corner, and Mario Chalmers is acting like he's going to set a screen on the defender. It doesn't have to be Chalmers with the fake pick, as any guard on the Miami roster is capable of setting himself up in a similar position. 

The effort is enough that Arron Afflalo has to look directly at Chalmers, and that's all the impetus Wade needs. 

He takes off. 

Now's where the real screen comes into play. 

Haslem pins down, and Wade curls around to free himself from the Orlando defense. No one is in any place conducive to contesting his mid-range jumper. 

Wade fires, and the result is that pretty swishing sound every basketball player loves so much. 

Although his mid-range efficiency could still use a bit of work—Basketball-Reference shows he shot only 39.8 percent from 16 to 23 feet—plays like this are still quite effective. It's the isolation looks from mid-range Wade fires up that aren't as successful. 

Wade has needed to find a way to remain offensively potent even without the ball in his hands, and it's abundantly clear he's managed to do exactly that. Whenever he's tasked with creating a look for himself while someone else dribbles, he's up to the challenge and thrives waiting for a defender to make even the tiniest mistake. 

Obviously, it's working quite well. Both the numbers Wade has produced and the rings on his fingers can attest to that. 

Changing Defensive Role

All you need to do is look at the picture up above, and you can already tell just how much Wade's defensive role has shifted. 

Focus on his eyes. They aren't trained directly on his man; instead he's looking sideways without betraying his intentions so that he can prepare to jump into a passing lane or play help defense. 

Early in his career, Wade was a stellar individual defender. He thrived as a shutdown perimeter player, holding his mark to the fewest points possible. And the accolades piled up, as he was named to the All-Defensive second team three times in his career.

Well, Wade isn't elite as an individual defender anymore, but he's bought into Miami's team concept. It's not about personal glory; winning is the only thing that matters.  

Up above, you can see how the Heat have performed with and without Wade throughout his career. The numbers fluctuate rather dramatically as the personnel has shifted, so try honing in on the last three seasons. 

The makeup of the roster has been rather consistent ever since LeBron and Chris Bosh came to South Beach, so the disparity between on-court and off-court defense is more telling. At first, the Heat were more defensively porous when Wade played, but that's slowly changed. Over the past year, the gap became much greater, and that's a great indication of how much Wade has improved as a team defender. 

Sure, his individual numbers are down, but that's only a result of him straying from his assignment to play the percentages and help out his teammates. 

Another way you can see that reflected is by looking at Wade's steal percentage over the last three years. 

Wade can afford to gamble more, because that's his role now. He doesn't have to stay directly in front of his man, as the Heat's swarming defensive system tends to pick up the slack. The benefit of jump-starting Miami's sickeningly good transition machine offense trumps any cost produced by the gambling. 

It's just another way that shows individual numbers aren't as important as the overall team concept. 

Across the board, Wade's role is just changing. That's not a negative, but rather a reality. 

There are multiple ways to be "elite." Some players achieve that lofty status by dominating in the scoring column. Others play lockdown defense, while others still facilitate for their teammates throughout the game. 

During the early portion of his career, Wade was elite because he stood out as a tremendous scorer who also distributed the ball among his teammates while he played great individual defense. Now he's still elite, but he's considered as such because he's gotten more efficient and bought into the Miami team concept. 

As long as his knees allow him to remain on the court—which they should after offseason OssaTron shock therapy—he'll be a central figure in any conversation about the best NBA shooting guards, right up there with Kobe Bryant and James Harden

Wade has changed, but his elite status hasn't. 


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