Earlier this week, the NBA released its most recent All-Star voting numbers. Coming in at the top was Kobe Bryant who, as of Thursday, registered 1,262,118 votes. Kobe is in the final season of his historic 20-year career and so it comes as no surprise that fans are flooding the voting channels with his name despite the fact that, at age 37, he is putting together arguably the worst season in his illustrious career.
While Kobe is a lock to take one of the starting guard slots for the Western Conference, Dwyane Wade of the Miami HEAT currently holds a strong lead in the voting for one of the guard slots in the Eastern Conference. The difference is that Wade, who will turn 34 on January 17, isn’t earning votes because this is final season in the NBA. Rather, Wade is earning his votes on the back of his resurgent 2015-16 season, where he has turned back the clock and shown flashes of his younger self.
Through 35 games this season, Wade is averaging 18.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists and one steal while shooting 46.6 percent from the field. While these numbers are very solid for a 33-year-old shooting guard, they aren’t earth-shatteringly good. In fact, Wade’s numbers this season are either right in line, or outpaced, by his per game statistics from last season. But don’t let that fact fool you into believing that Wade isn’t enjoying a resurgent season.
Wade has struggled with injuries stemming back to his college days at Marquette. After tearing the meniscus in his left knee in 2002, Wade chose to have it removed, a decision he said has led to ongoing issues throughout his NBA career. Indeed, Wade has never played a full 82-game season, topping out at 79 games played in 2008-09 (which also happened to be arguably his best individual season). He has missed 61 games over the last three seasons to various injuries and strategic rest days to keep him fresh throughout the season.
If you only watched Wade this season, however, you wouldn’t be able to tell that the veteran guard has struggled with injuries throughout his career. He is attacking the rim aggressively, hitting tough fall-away jumpers, taking opponents off the dribble and keeping defenses off balance with a fluidity in his movement that we have not seen in recent seasons. This was on full display in Miami’s recent win against the Phoenix Suns, where Wade contributed 27 points, two rebounds, two assists, one steal, two blocks and a couple of highlight dunks.
Wade is crediting his improved athleticism and health to Dave Alexander, who trained Wade this last offseason. Wade switched to Alexander last offseason after training with highly-regarded trainer Tim Grover for the last 13 years. With Alexander, Wade lost 10 pounds and entered training camp in shape and free of injury.
“It was very tough,” Wade told Michael Wallace of ESPN on parting with Grover. “But at the end of the day, I have to make a lot of tough decisions because it’s my life, right? Tim is great. Obviously, he wanted to continue to work with me, but he also saw I wanted to go in this direction. It wasn’t easy to have that conversation because he’s been in my life since my rookie year. But this is what I needed to do. I needed something a little different. Coming off the last couple of years, my body needed a different focus.”
So far this season, that new focus is paying off for Wade. Wade has only missed one game this season and that was to be with his youngest son who was in the hospital.
“It’s always a question,” Wade said regarding perceptions about his health. “But no one wants it more than me, at the end of the day. I told Pat [Riley] the same thing. I love playing the game, and I love being healthy playing the game. Last year, I was disappointed I had two hamstring injuries that kind of took me out of a portion of the 20 games I missed because I thought I was making the strides. But this year, I switched a few things up and I’m more about my body and it feels great.”
With a clean bill of health, Wade is helping the HEAT keep pace in the East. Miami is currently 22-14 and just two games back in the loss column to the second-place Chicago Bulls. The HEAT’s defense is its main strength, holding opponents to just 98.9 points per 100 possessions, which is good for the sixth best rating in the league. However, Miami is no slouch on offense either, scoring 103.2 points per 100 possessions, which places them just outside of the top-10 offenses in the league.
The offensive end of the court is where Wade generates most of his value these days. He has a 31.7 usage percentage this season, the sixth highest usage percentage in the entire league. He handles the ball often as a quasi-point guard and often initiates the HEAT’s offense. He is a threat to attack the rim off the dribble, pull up for a midrange jumper, find a teammate for an easy basket in the pick-and-roll, make timely cuts to the rim off the ball and throw down put-back dunks off of missed shots. These are the ways in which Wade is able to bend opposing defenses, unlike younger shooting guards who are modeling their respective games to fit the pace-and-space style of play that is permeating throughout the league.
Wade is a throwback two-guard in that he makes his contributions through sheer volume rather than elite efficiency. Like Michael Jordan and Kobe before him, Wade uses a ton of possessions on offense and generates a ton of defensive attention because of his ability to score in such a diverse amount of ways.
He is not an advanced analytics darling like Khris Middleton, a 3-and-D wing who makes a major impact for his team by knocking down three-pointers, spreading the court, moving the ball and locking down opposing wings. He is not an elite shooter like J.J. Redick or Klay Thompson, players who are among the league’s elite in terms of spot-up shooting and efficiency coming off of multiple screens. One of the only categories that Wade comes close to leading in terms of offensive efficiency is in the post. Wade is fourth among all guards in points per possession out of the post (limited to players who have posted up 60 times or more), trailing only Andrew Wiggins, DeMar DeRozan and Russell Westbrook, according to Synergy.
Speaking of DeRozan, there is perhaps no better example of a young shooting guard in the NBA today whose game represents that of the past generation that Wade is a part of. DeRozan, like Wade, can’t knock down three-pointers consistently and doesn’t impact the game in the same ways that modern 3-and-D wings do, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an effective player.
As Ian Levy recently wrote for The Cauldron, DeRozan’s inability to space the court with three-point shooting is a weakness that he overcomes by being effective in other nuanced ways.
“DeRozan is important because of what an enormous outlier he is: a shooting guard just coming into his prime that is thriving without a 3-point shot,” wrote Levy. “He’s a statistical unicorn.
“If this DeRozan recipe sounds familiar, it’s because it is a relic from another era. This is a rough facsimile of how Michael Jordan played. And Kobe Bryant. And, more recently, Dwyane Wade. DeRozan isn’t turning back the clock or opening any fissures on the prevailing wisdom of modern basketball. He’s just really, really good. This template doesn’t work anymore unless you can do all of these things well and excel in a few specific ones.”
Wade’s inability to knock down three-pointers consistently (28.8 percent from beyond the arc for his career) should limit his ability to impact games in a major way, especially in today’s NBA. However, his ability to handle the ball like a point guard, find teammates for easy scoring opportunities, make difficult shots that other players can’t and score out of the post allow him to make a unique offensive impact for his team, which offsets this particular weakness in his game.
Wade has always been able to do these things throughout his career. That is not unique to this season. What is different this season is that Wade is able to do these things fluidly, consistently and doesn’t have to miss games to recover strategically to stay fresh and recover.
“It is a lot better mentally to be able to play that way,” Wade recently told Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “It’s very taxing mentally when you have to play through pain, when every movement is painful. It’s very, very taxing. But when it’s not, you can just play basketball and it’s the joys of the game.”
As we saw against the Suns, Wade is moving well and genuinely looks like he is enjoying the game more than he has in recent seasons. Again, he hasn’t remodeled his game to fit the current style of play in the NBA or added some new fancy skill-set that will extend his career. Rather, Wade has simply managed to overcome his recent injury issues with a new training regimen and is now able to more consistently show flashes of the physically dominant guard he once was.
“It’s good to see those athletic plays from Dwyane again,” Chris Bosh said recently. “We know what he’s capable of.”
Wade is offering a good reminder of what he is capable of with his play this season and it seems the voters have taken notice.
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