Dwyane Wade couldn’t have had more of a nightmare start to his season.
After reaching a buyout with the Bulls, he agreed to sign with the Cavaliers for the veteran’s minimum. From a pure value perspective, this looked like a win, even if Wade wasn’t the player he used to be. Practically, it was more problematic.
Wade’s a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer, and adding those kinds of players come with complications. Despite fit issues alongside Derrick Rose and against his own personal wishes, Tyronn Lue gave Dwyane Wade a starting spot, bumping J.R. Smith (and pissing him off in the process).
The fit was questionable, even with Jae Crowder helping to juice spacing in place of Kevin Love. Wade has lost a ton of explosion, and really needs to be involved in the offense to justify his place. The results were disastrous.
In his three games as a starter for the Cavaliers, Wade floundered. He averaged 5.7 points, 3.3 assists and two rebounds while turning the ball over 2.7 times per game and shooting a hilariously terrible 28 percent from the field. There was no room to operate when he had the ball, and when he didn’t have the ball, he was ignored and strangled spacing.
It probably wasn’t particularly easy, but Wade swallowed his pride and approached Lue about leading second units off the bench. Fortunately for everyone involved, it’s worked beautifully:
Wade’s numbers are up across the board and the eye test matches the numbers. He’s a really capable distributor, and he’s averaging just under seven assists to just 1.8 turnovers per 36 minutes since coming off the bench. He’s got the ball in his hands and knows how to manipulate space and timing to find his teammates in tight windows or for cross-court passes to generate good looks.
Wade is also scoring more effectively (17.1 points/36 minutes), though outbursts against the Pelicans and Hawks certainly have aided that. He’s most at home when he either has a clear pathway to the rim or with a deadly floater from 8-12 feet away from the hoop.
All this is not to say that Wade is playing perfectly on offense. He’s got a penchant for pull-up jumpers that are just way too early in the shot clock.
This stuff might’ve flown in Chicago’s clogged toilet offense (shoutout Zach Lowe), but the Cavaliers have the personnel to find better looks later in the shot clock. Tyronn Lue should be impressing upon Wade the need to save those for break-glass-in-case-of-emergency situations.
Meanwhile, Wade’s post-game, generally a strength, has not really shown up this year for the Cavaliers.
Last season, Wade earned 0.915 points per possession on post-up shots, via Synergy. That was good enough to put him in the 62nd percentile, which is to say - he was above average in the post, which is helpful as a guard who can’t shoot.
This year, it’s mostly been a disaster. He’s only mustering 0.737 points per post-up possession, putting him in the 25th percentile. Those just aren’t good enough numbers to justify those kinds of shots unless he has the tastiest of mismatches. The Cavaliers are probably counting on random chance bumping those numbers up, but for now, it’s probably good to move away.
On the other side of the floor, Wade’s defense has been a pleasant surprise. He’ll never be the lockdown defender he was in his prime, and his effort waxes and wanes, especially in transition. With that said, who knew he could still block shots like this?
Wade is currently blocking 1.4 shots per 36 minutes. That actually ties the best mark of his entire NBA career, which he posted six years ago in the 2011-12 season with the Heat.
That is bonkers for a 6’4” guard who can’t jump anymore. His timing is still impeccable, and he’s got the wingspan and smarts to pick his spots on when he thinks he can get a piece of an opponent’s shot. This number probably won’t stay as high as it is, but as it stands, it’s helpful for a team that almost never can get the other team’s shots to miss.
The blocked shots are flashy, but Wade’s presence on defense has also helped the Cavaliers go from “the worst defense of all time” to “really bad.” The team allows 116.7 points per 100 possessions with Wade on the bench. With him on the floor, they’ve “only” allowed 106.7. That’s a byproduct of who he’s playing with and against (not Derrick Rose, not opposing starters), but it’s still a positive trend for a team that needs to seek out as many of those as possible.
Ultimately, getting away from Derrick Rose is what Wade needed most. The two players both need the ball desperately, and Rose has been particularly ball-dominant in his time on the floor. That can work in stretches, but not when Wade is being ignored by his defender. In the 46 minutes the two Cavaliers guards have shared the floor, they’re being outscored by 20.7 points per 100 possessions. Those are noisy numbers, but when a bad concept meets bad results, it’s probably fair to draw some conclusions earlier than you would otherwise.
This paradigm works for now, but problems loom for Tyronn Lue once Isaiah Thomas returns (a good problem to have, mind you. Isaiah Thomas is really good at basketball.)
When Thomas kicks Rose to the bench, the Cavaliers are forced into the same awkward pairing they had to start the season. Playing against worse players certainly helps, and Lue will try to stagger things, but ultimately, if both are in the rotation, they’re going to have to play together. That also means that Iman Shumpert and probably Kyle Korver will have to take a hit on their minutes, and Korver especially has played really well this season.
Will Lue make the tough call and drastically chop either Wade or Rose’s role? That’s probably the right decision, but egos are in play, just as they were to start the season. Neither player will happily sit on the bench and collect DNP-CDs and play in garbage time. As it stands, Wade has earned a chance to run the second-unit for the foreseeable future.
The Cavaliers don’t need huge outbursts from Wade like the one they got against Atlanta, where Wade poured in 25 points. Games with 10 points, four assists and four rebounds on efficient shooting with low turnover totals are more than enough, and Wade has the game to provide that on a consistent basis.
Wade might not have wanted to be on the bench heading into the season, but after the way he’s played since the move, my guess would be that he’s having plenty of fun again.