Backpicks GOAT: #22 Dwyane Wade

Key stats and trends

  • Massive ball-dominant stats as scorer and creator
  • Excellent offenses next to Shaq, diminished impact next to LeBron
  • Weak longevity for era caused by injuries

Scouting Report

Wade exploded in his sophomore season, displaying a reliable midrange jumper and a lightning-fast first step that earned him the moniker Flash. His efficacy stemmed from his unique physical makeup: He boasted a 6-foot-11 wingspan in a powerful 6-foot-4 frame with a low center of gravity.1 This allowed him to dart his hips past defenders like a running back, then finish among the trees or absorb contact:

The threat of Wade’s drives opened up his midrange game. Below, in the prior play from the same game, Wade feels his defender overplaying his drive, so he fires a step-back. Notice that his instinct is still to set up a move to the hoop (the extra dribble through his legs), but his man doesn’t bite, so he takes the J:

In 2005, Wade’s insatiable appetite for penetration placed him in the top-10 free throw rates in league history among perimeter scorers.2 He wasn’t efficient because he shot well, he was efficient because his instinct constantly took him to the hoop.

He was a surprisingly good passer too. In tracking nearly 500 possessions from 2005-13, Wade authored a “good” pass on about 3 possessions per 100, and that rate was even higher before LeBron James took his talents to South Beach.

He missed his fare share of passes too, sometimes overly eager to drive or find a more basic passing outlet. In the play below, he has a touchdown over the top (and then open shooters), but falls back on his instinct to dribble to the rim.

Some of his pick-and-roll reads were quite crafty, boosting his creation and making him a certifiable offensive vortex. Per my sampling, Wade created about 7 shots per 100 for his teammates from ’05-06, but exploded from ’09-10, peaking around 12 per 100 before dipping down closer to 5 per 100 with the arrival of James in 2011.3 His offensive load declined slightly with LeBron, but he maintained a similar rate of on-ball scoring attempts, as his vision narrowed slightly in favor of jumpers and drives.4

He was also a stout offensive rebounder, using his off-ball cuts to position himself for second chances. Wade was particularly adept at leveraging the momentum of his on-ball action to slide into a cut, and then a box out. In the play below, he misses a potential great find under the rim (Alonzo Mourning), shoots a nice diagonal pass that leads to an open look, and uses his momentum to seal inside position:

Next, he transitions from an off-ball cut into a put-back. These kinds of second-chance points comprised a sizable portion of his offense for a backcourt player:

In those early years, Wade even had some brilliant passes in him, mostly from lobs, lay-downs or reading pick-and-roll coverages, like this:5

At his apex, he played an enormous on-ball game, carrying the fifth largest offense load in history during the 2009 season, mixing voluminous self-generated scoring with frequent table-setting for teammates:

Wade’s passing and on-ball reads improved during the heart of those years before declining in 2012. However, when playing alongside LeBron, he often abandoned playmaking and instead looked to score, posting a career-high in offensive rebounding in ’11 and ’12 along with a jump in the percentage of his field goals that were assisted (from 28 percent in ’10 to 37 percent in ’11).

Wade’s calling card on defense was protecting the rim. He was, perhaps, the best rim protector for a guard in NBA history, holding five of the top 15 block rates ever among guards,6 serving as an extra backline defender who could help against big men at the hoop:

He was always an above-average rebounder, posting nine seasons above the 65th percentile in relative D-rebounding rate and peaking in the 90th percentile in 2011. He was less physically imposing in his early years, although he offset that slightly with his quickness. (Notice that most of those block highlights are after his rebirth in 2009.)

During the heart of his career, he was a strong man defender. In tracking him for this series, his rate of “good” on-ball defensive possessions — e.g. a great contest or stifling penetration — was an elite 3 per 100, upping his defensive stands from 2009-13 after becoming a more physical defender. He was occasionally vulnerable to penetration, but fared well against most, using his quickness and strength to inhibit opponents; in the nearly 3,000 possessions I’ve tracked from his career, he was blown by 0.8 times per 100, better than about two-thirds of wings from my two-year stat-tracking project.

Here’s a possession in which he demonstrates a number of defensive strengths, including quick feet and length that alters his man’s shot:

His game was so dependent on explosiveness that aging curtailed his efficacy quickly. Wade maintained most of his athleticism through the 2011 season before starting to decline, his body chipped at by nagging injuries. The final year of his prime was likely 2013, although his postseason that year was hampered by a nagging bone bruise in his knee that he battled down the stretch.

Impact Evaluation

Wade’s career unfolded in three distinct acts: He played alongside Shaquille O’Neal, then as a lone-star, then next to LeBron James as a member of the Heatles. These environments tested his portability — how well his game interfaced with varying teammates — and are a case study for interpreting statistics. Below I’ve plotted his scoring rate, efficiency, creation and offensive load from 2006-15, both with and without these two MVP winners:7

Notice how Wade’s numbers changed when Shaq shared the court with him. His load was slightly smaller  — he cut his scoring and creation — but his efficiency was higher, as he benefitted from O’Neal’s defensive attention. After his injury-riddled 2008 season, Wade’s ’09 numbers resembled his non-Shaq ones from 2006. Yet, because he logged so many minutes with Shaq back then, his 2009 full-season numbers leave the impression that he underwent a massive statistical upgrade.

When he was on the floor with LeBron, Wade’s stats took a larger dip; his creation declined and his offensive load was massively reduced.8 Very few can quarterback great offenses while monopolizing the ball like Magic Johnson, and Wade, like nearly ever player in history, couldn’t sustain such ball-dominance on an elite offense, so his volume shrunk when he ceded primacy to LeBron. More on this in a second.

Wade made an immediate impact right from the start. He’s one of 40 rookies to lead his team in offensive load during the 3-point era, and one of only 10 to do so with a positive scoring efficiency (rTS).9 Wade missed 17 games that year (2004), and without him an otherwise healthy team posted a -1.7 SRS (36-win pace), down from their 2.1 SRS with him (47-win clip). Even that underscores Wade’s rookie abilities; he stumbled in October and November while adjusting to the league, but his improvement afterwards was commensurate with Miami’s growth as a team. The Heat played at a 51-win pace (3.3 SRS) in 37 full-strength games after December 1, and most of the improvement was on offense, where they moved from +1.2 (rORtg) to +2.8.

Wade’s breakout 2005 season coincided with Shaq’s arrival in South Beach, and the Heat posted a 6.7 SRS when healthy (60-win pace). There’s a good argument that Shaq was the MVP of that team, but in retrospect, much of Miami’s improvement was due to Wade, who led the team in offensive load while improving his playoff scoring and dwarfing O’Neal in postseason on/off.10 The offense that year was an impressive 5.9 points better than average at full-strength.

In 2006, Miami played like a 59-win team when healthy (6.6 SRS) with a +5 rORtg, outscoring opponents by 6.5 points per 100 in nearly 1,500 minutes with Wade on the court and Shaq on the bench. For comparison, Kobe Bryant’s Lakers were +5.2 with him and Lamar Odom on the court that year. 11

In 2007, Miami’s aging supporting cast nearly crumbled and Shaq missed half of the season. In 33 games Wade logged without O’Neal, Miami played at a 42-win pace (0.2 SRS). Wade’s play was similar to his ’06 season until he dislocated his shoulder in February, but the team results suffered due to fractured peripheral parts. Jason Williams missed 21 games, ’90s notables Eddie Jones, Antoine Walker, Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning were ready for retirement, and replacement players like Jason Kapono registered major minutes. With Wade on the court and Shaq off, Miami outscored opponents by just 1.5 points per 100.

The Heat bottomed out in 2008, playing six different players who failed to log over 1,000 minutes in the NBA outside of Miami. Wade then rebounded for Act Two of his career as a solo artist in 2009. With two new draft picks (Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley) and some spare parts, Miami treaded water, playing just above average when healthy. Everything ran through Wade, and with a 3-point shooter or two and some decent athletes, Miami’s full-strength offense finished slightly above average.

Wade’s peak stats are from that lone-star period, but he was a similar offensive player (when healthy) from 2005 to 2013. His playmaking peaked during the ’09-11 period, and the result was one of the best stat lines in modern history. Here’s how his playoff numbers size up against other notable wings — in many ways, he was Jordan-Lite:

Most of those players served as the lone perimeter centerpiece for their teams, racking up voluminous stats in the process. Even Jordan was given complete primacy, despite playing alongside a budding Scottie Pippen and a well-rounded cast for Phil Jackson. But when James arrived in 2011, Wade acquiesced to the superior maestro, curtailing his numbers in the process.

Along with Chris Bosh, the Heatles were excellent, but they weren’t transcendent, failing to eclipse the 8-SRS threshold in any of their four seasons.12 With the Big 3 in the lineup, Miami posted full-strength offensive ratings of +6.5, +5.0, +9.5 and +5.5. Those were great outcomes, but the +9.5 came from shifting Bosh to center in a small-ball lineup, sacrificing defense for offense.

Wade’s role in the affair was less impressive. From 2011-13, he missed 20 games and the Heat improved without him (from a 61-win pace to a 63-win pace). In 2014, he missed 22 games and Miami fell from a 55-win pace (4.8 SRS) to a 50-win one without him (2.9 SRS). More granular play-by-play data tells the same story: Miami was +6.9 per 100 possessions from 2011-14 with LeBron on the court sans Wade, but just +1.0 over the same period with Wade on the floor without LeBron.

A player’s success in these different roles is often measured by his team’s overall efficacy, and Wade’s outcomes reveal strengths and limitations. He excelled next to O’Neal while able to play primarily on-ball, but couldn’t sustain the same value next to LeBron with a larger off-ball role; Wade’s five-year scaled APM average is one of the stronger ones on record (eighth, at +6.7), but those numbers are from 2006-10. His four-year figure next to LeBron would rank around 40th, likely caused by a lack of spot-up shooting and the aforementioned regression in his court vision during those years.

All told, his longevity hurts him against comparable players. His wonderful 2007 season was torpedoed by injury, he lost a potential prime year in 2008 and gave up more value after a strong All-NBA campaign in 2013 was short-circuited by knee issues. His offensive game doesn’t scale too well, although his excellent defense (worthy of all-league selections) propelled him to a top-20 peak of all time. Because he logged so few prime seasons, even a slight bump of his valuations would keep him outside the top-20, and any mild downgrade to his estimations would keep him in this pack of players, no lower than 27th. For this series, his apex helps him pass Pippen and Moses for the 22nd best career since the shot clock.

  1. Most players his size would be listed at 6-foot-5 given his height in shoes.
  2. Among players who averaged at least 22 points per 36 minutes and played 1,500 minutes.
  3. This is inline with his Box Creation estimates over the period.
  4. This is from game tracking and Synergy, who found that 48 percent of his offense came from pick-and-roll or isolation in 2010 and 41 percent in 2011. Wade’s scoring rate only declined by 7 percent in ’11, but his Box Creation fell by 32 percent.
  5. Wade’s passing and overall game improved a bit in ’06 after his breakout ’05 season.
  6. Using basketball-reference’s designation of a guard.
  7. Play-by-play splits in this profile are from pbpstats.
  8. From ’06-08, his load dropped 14 percent when he shared the court with Shaq compared to his solo act. But next to LeBron, it fell 31 percent.
  9. For rookies who played at least 2,000 minutes. The other nine who did it with a positive rTS: Carlos Arroyo, Elton Brand, Larry Bird, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Steve Francis, Terry Cummings, Chris Webber and Michael Jordan.
  10. Miami was 14.2 points better with Wade on the court during that postseason, but just 1.3 points better with Shaq.
  11. There are a lot of zany MVP votes over the years, but Chauncey Billups nabbing 15 first-place votes to Wade’s zero has to be up there. It also speaks volumes about voting rubrics, as Detroit posted a 6.2 SRS, but finished with 64 wins, necessitating someone receive credit for their excellent win-loss record.
  12. Miami sacrificed depth to acquire Bosh and James, but replenished the roster in 2012 with a more complete team.

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