Dwyane Wade has made it easy to forget Dwyane Wade.
For instance, during the 2014 NBA Finals, when the Miami Heat guard was getting turnstiled by anyone and everyone in a grey and white uniform, it was simple to overlook the fact that eight years earlier he submitted the greatest Finals’ performance of all time.
Likewise, during a 2013-14 season in which he sat out 24 games, played a career-low 32.9 minutes a night, and yet still posted lows in many statistical categories, many of us lost sight of the 2005-06 season where Wade led the NBA in scoring and the 2006-07 campaign when he paced the league in player efficiency rating.
This is the way it goes for aging athletes. As they struggle to meet the high bar they’ve set, we forget the vigor and brio with which they raised it in the first place. In the near term, they’re the worst enemy of their own legacies.
This dynamic has been even more corrosive for Wade, in part, oddly, because he hasn’t slipped all that much. He looks the same, he’s still an All-Star level player, so it’s easy to compare him to his prime iteration. And the comparison isn’t flattering.
All of which is to say: It’s worth pausing, with his age 33 season set to begin in weeks, to remember just how great he’s been. Because he’s been pretty great.
The Early Years
Wade entered the NBA with an honest to god good resume. This is weird now. It was only slightly less weird then.
Before he was selected fifth overall in the 2003 NBA draft, behind fellow luminaries LeBron James, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh—yes, luminaries all—he was flat-out dominant at Marquette.
Wade finished his junior season with a 21.5-point/6.3-rebound/4.4-assist triple-slash line and led the Golden Eagles to the 2003 Final Four (he sat his freshman year due to academic ineligibility). In doing so, he notched a 29-point/11-rebound/11-assist triple-double to knock off the Kentucky Wildcats, the nation’s No. 1 team, in the regional final.
Believe it or not, it was only at this point that the guard really entered the lottery conversation. Consider this remarkable line from the June 23, 2003, issue of USA Today:
Wade, a 6-4 early entry candidate who left school after his junior season, thrust himself on NBA scouts' and personnel executives' consciousness with a triple-double (29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists) and four blocked shots in the round of eight vs. Kentucky.
And then this gem, a few inches down in the same story, from Wade himself. He somehow really was under-the-radar until the tail end of his college career:
Nobody knew who I was. Nobody knew who Marquette was. I had to work hard. I felt that Marquette, being the school that it is — a small school trying to come back to the national scene — it would take going to the tournament to show that we were good and I was good. I just kept doing what I was doing all year, playing basketball and winning games.
If Wade got our attention during that NCAA tournament, once he landed in the NBA, he demanded it.
After a rock-solid rookie season that saw him average 16.2 points on 46.5 percent shooting and lead the Heat to a surprise playoff berth, Wade took an enormous leap in his second year. Playing alongside Shaquille O’Neal—whom Miami acquired in an offseason trade—Wade averaged 24.1 points, 6.8 assists and 5.2 rebounds. To this he added 1.6 steals and a ridiculous—for a guard—1.1 blocks a night.
The Heat won 59 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost to the Detroit Pistons in seven games. Wade averaged 27.4 points per game in the postseason.
During the 2005-06 season, his third as a professional, Wade exploded. His 27.2 points-per-game average placed him fifth in the NBA, and, according to Basketball-Reference.com, his 14.4 win shares were good enough for eighth. At season’s end, he was voted second-team All-NBA for the second consecutive year.
And it was here that the legend of Dwyane Wade was born. In leading Miami back from an 0-2 deficit for the series win and the franchise’s first title, the guard averaged 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.7 steals—including a 42-point, 13-rebound masterpiece in Game 3.
Though many remember the series for its choppiness and the frequent whistles—Wade himself attempted 97 free throws across in six games—Wade’s greatness its salient aspect. According to John Hollinger, then of ESPN, Wade’s performance was the single-best in post-merger NBA Finals history:
Overall, Wade's 33.8 PER is easily the best of any Finals performer since the merger. While it seems strange to have somebody besides Michael Jordan in the top spot, the truth is Jordan never dominated a Finals to this extent. At the time, many called Wade's performance Jordanesque. It turns out they might have been selling him short.
Things Fall Apart
Wade’s championship encore was not, you imagine, what he’d hoped for.
Though the guard followed up his Finals MVP by pacing the NBA in PER with a whopping 28.9, he missed 31 games with an assortment of injuries—including a dislocated shoulder—and the enervated Heat were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by his hometown Chicago Bulls.
And then things got worse. In 2007-08, Wade again missed 31 games—primarily owing to knee problems—and struggled when he did play. His .082 win shares per-48-minute figure was the worst mark of his career. By measure of the metric, it was the only below-average season he's had in his career.
With Wade either in street clothes or ineffective, and Shaq looking every bit of his 35 years, a Heat team that won the NBA Finals just two years earlier finished with the NBA’s worst record.
After the humiliation of 2007-08, and the shakeup it precipitated—Shaq in Phoenix, Pat Riley from the bench back to the front office—Wade returned to form in 2008-09 and had perhaps the finest season of his career.
He led the NBA in scoring with 30.2 points on 49.1 percent shooting, added 7.5 assists, five rebounds and a staggering 1.3 blocks to those totals and posted a career-high 14.7 win shares. Wade was back in a big way.
The rest of the Heat, however, weren’t.
With a mediocre supporting cast—Michael Beasley was Miami’s second leading scorer—Wade and Co. squeaked out a 43-39 record and didn’t make it out of the first round.
The next season was more of the same. Wade was tremendous, but it wasn’t enough to get a Heat team that topped out at “pretty good” into the second round of the postseason.
But reinforcements were coming.
With some light recruiting by Wade and Riley, Wade’s friends and 2003 draft mates LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed with the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010, forming what was—depending on your rooting interests—the most talented basketball team in modern history or an abomination.
Things started off rocky. Wade and James each had a difficult time figuring out how to play with another ball -dominant wing, while coach Erik Spoelstra took a while determining how to best deploy the uniquely talented—and constructed—roster he lucked into.
Miami played vanilla basketball, and though it advanced to the NBA Finals, it got waxed by Nowitzki and the Mavs once there. The bad guys lost.
But things changed shortly thereafter. Wade and the Heat rode a stiff defense and a ridiculous performance from James to the 2012 title—Wade’s second ring—and then unleashed hell in 2012-13.
With Wade playing a subordinate role to James—but acting as a key cog in the space-and-slash Miami attack—the Heat took the league by storm. Miami went 66-16, buoyed by a 27-game winning streak and won its second-straight title. Wade’s 21.2 points per game that season were the second-lowest total of his career, but his 52.1 field-goal percentage set a new career mark.
But while the franchise was at a high point, doubts about Wade were creeping into view. He struggled in the playoffs, averaging just 15.9 points with a mediocre 49.8 true shooting percentage, and the “is he finished” whispers grew to a dull roar.
Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney touched on Wade’s struggles during the 2013 title run:
We've seen enough to know that all is not right with Wade, and though James may ultimately control whether his teammate's struggles tip the balance, there's no use denying that Wade's liabilities are very much in play when we talk about the Heat's title hopes.
With their eye on a three-peat, the Heat rationed Wade’s minutes this past season, in the hope that they would keep the guard fresh for the title run. The plan was partially successful.
While Wade set a career high in true shooting percentage in 2013-14 and finished second among all shooting guard’s in PER, despite athleticism that age and injury had taken a bite out of, he looked spent in the playoffs.
His .086 win shares per 48 minutes was the second-lowest of his playoff career, and his defense oscillated between shaky and nonexistent. The Heat were humiliated in the Finals, and many fingers were pointed, rightly, at Wade.
This is a curious season for Wade. He could tip either way. Resurgence or retirement both seem squarely in play. Will he bounce back or continue his decline? There are strong indicators pointing in both directions.
The case against him is a strong one. He’ll be 33 this season. This is an age when most NBA players, according to research by Dave Berri in The Wages of Wins Journal, have already begun to "age like milk."
And Wade’s already in decline, though maybe not a precipitous one. In the last three seasons, despite Miami keeping a watchful eye on his playing time, his win shares per 48 minutes have ticked down from .227 to .192 all the way to .149.
Making matters worse, in 2014-15 and beyond, he’ll be without LeBron, whose presence surely generated the easy-scoring opportunities that inflated Wade’s efficiency numbers, while taking the burden of shot creation off the guard.
But there are also reasons for optimism. According to NBAwowy.com (membership required), Wade has scored just about as efficiently with James as without him the last several seasons—and with a much higher usage rate.
And Wade's story itself also offers morsels of encouragement. Wade’s career arc has been a strange one. He’s always been injury-prone. He’s had bad seasons, bad series, lost superstar teammates and he—and the Heat—have always recovered.
Though he’ll be 33 in January and is surely nearing the end of what will be a Hall of Fame career, it’s possible Wade has one final hurrah left in him...a grand finale...a powerful last act.
Don't bet against it.
Stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise.