Because of a learning curve that was made more steep by multiple starting lineup changes, as the Cavs tried to figure out their new team dynamic, it took a little while for Dwyane Wade to look comfortable and effective. But, over the team’s current nine-game winning streak, he’s slid into an important role, leading the bench unit and, maybe most importantly, looking like a player that belongs on the floor during the final five minute of close games.
"You come to a new team and a lot of guys don't know each other like that and it's a little quiet," Wade recently told the Akron Beacon Journal about his early-season adjustment period. "Especially on the basketball floor it’s even quieter. You wish you can fast-forward. It takes time for certain guys. When teams get it, they start clicking, then it becomes fun.”
Since Nov. 11, when the win streak started, Wade’s averaging 12.9 points, 4.1 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game, with a plus/minus of +9.3. Over the same period of time, he’s played the second most minutes on the team without LeBron on the floor (103 minutes to Jeff Green’s 108), and also has scored the most points with the King on the bench (74 to Jeff Green’s 52 and Kyle Korver’s 38).
Figuring out where Kyrie Irving’s vacant possessions were going to go caused some bruises in late October and early November and, because of the dramatic shake-up, there were some trial-by-fire situations, a few of which were busts. The Derrick Rose experiment has already seemed to wither away. Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, two three-and-D players, were asked, early on, to take on more dribbling duties than their skill sets are capable of.
But once Wade and LeBron’s minutes became more staggered, allowing those two to absorb the vast majority of the ball-handling, everything started to kind of fit together. It’s not Wade’s most glamorous role, playing quarterback on a second unit of snipers and specialists, but in the right windows he controls the flow of the game very well, which is exactly what the Cavs need him to do at this point.
“I think any role that has to do with winning suits him,” his former coach Erik Spoelstra said before Tuesday’s Cavs-Heat matchup, per cleveland.com.
The day before Spoelstra also told cleveland.com that “the role that he's in is going to be one of the most impactful roles in the league,” something that seems like both a bold and reasonable prediction, as the Cavs always seem to be a secondary ball-handler short. Wade has always had a good feel as when to push in transition, and when to be patient and run a set.
Wade’s shown that prowess recently as the second unit continues to build chemistry. And although he can habitually settle for long twos and other low-percentage shots, he’s the sort of savvy, talented scorer/passer that can float the offense when LeBron is not on the floor. He still consistently attacks the heart of the defense, looking to find mismatches and easy opportunities for himself and his teammates. His crossover is still sneakily good. And when he dribbles into a post-up situation, he can be a bully on the block — even when those turnaround fadeaways or foot-work floaters aren’t hitting. His LeBron-esque ability to control the ball down low, while shooters space around him, has intrinsic value. He just creates a steady and reliable offense that has purpose, rather than a second unit that, in the past, has looked like they’re just trying to hold on until LeBron checks back in.
Wade’s not putting up elite numbers. His 10.8 points per game is far less than his 23-point career average, and even substantially less than the 18.3 that he put up on the Bulls last year. His current 44.4 percent effective field goal percentage would clock in at the lowest of his career. Still, he’s had games were he’s gone off and games where he’s stayed quiet. He’s had games were he was efficient from the field, and games were he wasn’t. He’s had games with 11 rebounds, and games with none.
But, in seven out of his last nine games, he’s been on the right side of the plus/minus box, including a +19 against the Clippers, with 23 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. He’s not going to end up being a stat darling this season, probably continuing to be sporadic in terms of production, but as long as he keeps the momentum with that second unit, he’s a valuable asset. When Isaiah Thomas comes back and the playoffs get closer, Wade’s role might become more restricted, but intensive, with high expectations as a spark off the bench and a as core member of the closers, but with less minutes overall. That’s fine, because he’s already proven to be able to quickly adapt to a non-star role.
Because the Cavs bench was constructed for LeBron, they also work well with Wade. Korver, Frye, Green and company space the floor around his isolations, and that squad is also sneakily long and disruptive on defense.
On this play, Dario Saric gets switched onto Wade. Wade drives into the paint and stops, which plants the defense out of respect for the shooters, giving Wade time for a quick ball fake and an easy basket. It’s nothing groundbreaking or exciting, but it’s the sort of play that allows LeBron to rest more, and possibly gets the opposing team’s defense to bite down on a double in the future, opening up a three-point look.
Wade’s also really strong for a guard, and his back to the basket game can compensate for his dwindling athleticism, allowing him to read the floor and kick to players with range. Here, he sees the double team close, which, even though he’s in the high post, gives just enough of a window to give Korver the room needed to knock down a triple.
The Cavs can probably count on LeBron staying in God mode, and if he keeps shooting the ball the way he has, he’s going to be an extra layer of hell in the pick-and-roll heavy playoffs, not allowing teams to cheat under screens. My feeling is that Jae Crowder is going to look like a different player in May. Thomas should provide an offensive spark when he returns. Tristan Thompson will be an interesting element when he recovers.The Cavs seem likely to make a trade at some point, whether it’s a minor one, or a large-scale move with the Brooklyn pick. There’s a lot of swirling variables surrounding the Cavs, but Wade just needs to keep doing what he has been on this winning streak.