Dwyane Wade is 32. This is young for a novelist and practically adolescent for, say, a physician, but pretty old for a professional basketball player. Which, as it happens, he is.
And there’s more bad news. Wade just lost teammate LeBron James this offseason, the best player he—or any other contemporary player, really—has ever suited up alongside.
So there’s some pessimism about Wade’s prospects for the coming season. If not pessimism, at least a growing consensus that Erik Spoelstra and the Miami Heat will have to bend over backward to put the veteran in a position to succeed in 2014-15.
Sipho Mangoye of Fansided’s HoopsHabit gave voice to this feeling:
Now, without the overwhelming safety blanket that is James, those troublesome knees could cause more issues than they have in the past four years, and we could see a much worse version of the All-Star.
LeBron James attracted so much defensive attention, the thinking goes, that Wade was able to thrive as his No. 2 in a way he wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, managed in a more conventional context. (That is, a context where a 6’9”, 250-pound cyborg isn’t running around wreaking havoc.) And to keep his production at the level it's been, Miami will have to reach pretty deep into its bag of tactical tricks.
There’s some statistical basis for this belief. Despite athleticism that’s clearly waning, Wade posted true shooting percentages that were above his career average in three of his four seasons with James—including the 2012-13 and 2013-14 campaigns where the “Wade isn’t the same” line found itself on the tip of every commentators’ tongue.
But the numbers, as they do from time to time, complicate the story a little.
If you consider LeBron’s on-court/off-court numbers, Wade actually doesn’t figure to suffer much absent the King. According to NBAwowy.com, the guard posted a true shooting percentage of 57.1 last season—playoffs included—with LeBron on the bench and 58.6 with James in the game.
This is a negligible downtick. For a point of reference, Bosh managed a true shooting percentage of just 52 percent without James but a gaudy 59 percent with his departed teammate.
2013-14 wasn’t an aberration either. Since January of 2012—as far back as the NBAwowy.com database goes—Wade has posted a true shooting percentage of 56.8 with LeBron at his side and 55.8 without him.
The story gets even more interesting when we consider Wade’s usage. There’s some evidence that players generally connect on a lower percentage of their shots as they take more of them. But this hasn’t happened to Wade when he’s had to pick up the offensive slack with James on the bench.
Since January of 2012, in the regular season and playoffs, Wade has posted a usage rate of 36.5 percent without LeBron, per NBAwowy.com, and 25.5 percent with him. If continued over the course of a season, the former mark would have led the NBA in 2013-14 and been the fourth-highest mark in league history, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
And, again, he took on this additional offensive burden without suffering any substantial dip in efficiency.
This points to a pretty plain conclusion: Miami won’t really have to do anything different with Wade in 2014-15. The adjustments that will allow Wade, health permitting, to be a productive scorer have long since been made.
Wade has reinvented his game over the past few seasons. He's eliminated the 3-point shot. In Wade's first season with LeBron and Bosh by his side, he took 206 attempts from beyond the arc. That's 52 more attempts than he took in the previous three seasons combined. It feels unlikely that he'll be willing or able to turn around a career 28.9 percent with more defensive focus surrounding him. He also hasn't exactly been a bad scorer in terms of efficiency.
As we’ve detailed before in this space, the Heat’s real challenge with Wade won’t be manufacturing ways to get him high-percentage looks at the basket—he’s shown himself to be plenty adept at doing that—but in judiciously managing his minutes, in looking out for his health.
"Dwyane has been the franchise cornerstone for this team since the day he arrived 11 years ago," Heat president Pat Riley said in a statement after the guard re-signed with Miami this offseason.
Even without LeBron James, that should continue as long as his body holds up.