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NBA Saturday: Dwyane Wade Turning Back the Clock

Dwyane Wade is healthier than he has been in recent seasons and is showing flashes of his younger self.

Jesse Blancarte

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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.

 

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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