October 13, 2014

#SLAMTop50: Dwyane Wade, no. 32

The definitive ranking of the NBA's best players for 2014-15.

I wrote this feature for SLAM Online, and it was originally published on their website on October 1, 2014 as part of the ongoing 2014/15 #SLAMTop50 series.

The voices of SLAM chosen: Dwyane Wade is the 32nd best player in the NBA.*

*(Well, maybe).

The asterisk above is important, because, as we reflect, we realize that Wade’s entire career has been a series of asterisks, of many circumstances beyond the traditional scope of talent which have defined his legacy. In recent years, here’s a player who has oscillated between the ranks of ‘Third Greatest Shooting Guard in NBA History’ and ‘Complete Waste of Space in the Playoffs’ and hit nearly every rung of the ladder in between. He’s made it almost utterly impossible for us to judge without doubts that he could be a dozen times better or a dozen times worse than whatever we predict.

Here’s a player who enjoyed more success by his third season in the league than most of the peers of his generation ever did.*

*(Mainly because Shaquille O’Neal joined Miami after Wade’s rookie season, turning the Heat from a midtable team into a legit championship contender).

He put up one of the greatest Finals performances in NBA history, dragging the Heat to a 4-2 win after going down 2-0 to the Mavericks, scoring over 39 points per game from Games 3-6. He rebounded, he assisted, he defended, and he hit big shots over and over again. He was the undisputed Finals MVP.*

*(The 2006 Finals will always be shrouded with controversy, as Wade shot a Finals six-game record 97 free throws in the series, including 25 in Game 5 alone, as much as the entire Mavericks squad).

Wade missed major chunks of the 2006-7 and 2007-8 seasons to injury. The Heat finished the 2008 with the NBA’s worst record.

*(In the 2008 summer, he was arguably USA’s best player in the Beijing Olympics. He led the league in scoring in the 2008-9 season. He became the first player in NBA history to accumulate at least 2,000 points, 500 assists, 100 steals, and 100 blocks in a season).

He reached the NBA Finals four times in four years from 2010-2014, and won two more championships. *

*(Mostly because the league’s best player – LeBron James – joined him in Miami and eventually reduced Wade to a sidekick in his own team. And yes, they had another All Star teammate in Chris Bosh, too).

Wade was considered a top-10 player in the league by SLAM Rankings until a year ago, when he clocked in at No. 14. There was a recurring theme over the last three years, where Wade would miss major chunks of regular season games to various ailments or need of rest, suffer embarrassingly at the big stage in the playoffs, but bounce back in dominant fashion sometimes just days later. He became a more efficient shooter than ever before with LeBron and Bosh by his side and continued to play at the All Star level.*

*(Only when he actually played. Wade missed a quarter of all regular season games from 2011-2014.)

And this is how we arrive at No. 32, the lowest that Dwyane Wade has ever fallen – by a wide margin – since the SLAM Top 50 was devised six years ago. Like most other moments in his career, our judgement of Wade varies entirely on the various asterisks.

Now that LeBron James has taken his talents out of South Beach, the Big Three has become a Big Two or a Big One and a Half depending on Wade’s health. Without LeBron, Wade will have to carry much of the team’s perimeter aggression on the offensive end again. Without LeBron, Wade’s defensive mishaps will be highlighted even more. Wade is going to miss much of what LeBron brought to the team over the last four years. LeBron he led the Heat in points, rebounds, assists, and steals last season; Luol Deng is a decent replacement but Miami will need Wade to bounce back to near-‘Flash’ status to remain contenders in the East.

For his part, Wade seems to be ready physically to snatch the baton back from LeBron and reignite himself as the Heat’s ‘Alpha Dog’ again. He has lost weight in the off-season and seems committed to being fitter than in recent years.

Optimists will say that Wade knows a thing or two about bouncing back. He has done it over and over in his career, so much so that they even made an ad campaign about it (Fall seven times. Stand up eight). But pessimists will wonder if his oft-broken 32-year-old body can truly survive the wear and tear of another NBA season at an elite level? This time around, the fall – the humiliating Finals loss, the injuries, losing LeBron – might be a little too much to overcome.

Wade averaged 19 points, 5.7 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting a career-best 54.5 percent from the field last season. His scoring output fell way down from his career averages; with more opportunities without LeBron, Wade will have to work at becoming the offensive machine of his old days again. 

That said, with Wade, we can’t really talk about the numbers because of all the asterisks. Every number comes with a backstory, of a result much more complicated than the box score. Personally, I had ranked Wade several spots higher on his list, because I believe that the asterisk on his season will produce a more positive result. I believe that this will be year where his accumulated rest from the last few seasons will show a spring in his step again. It’ll be the year when he’ll be an All Star not because of his popularity but because he deserves to be one.

The ‘old’ D-Wade; the Flash, the MVP contender is gone and is never coming back. But I’m looking forward to seeing the ‘older’ wade respond to the new trials and tribulations like only he can best.
Fall down seven.*

*(Get up eight.)

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