You remember that one really quiet guy in high school? The one who always got his work done, didn’t talk much, and then one day you found out he was the smartest guy in the class? That was the guy who was accepted into MIT because of his near-perfect GPA and SAT score. He went on to MIT to become one of a few geniuses in the entire world but he still never earned the recognition he deserved at MIT…because everybody else there had his same numbers and some gloated more than he did. That’s Dwyane Wade. And when he teamed up with (an older) and more spotlight-attractive Shaquille O’Neal, followed a few years later by the NBA’s biggest superstar, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade’s greatness is often forgotten and diminished.
D-Wade in his prime was one of the most exciting players to watch. A two-way player who could slither through double teams as gracefully as he could pull off a come-from-behind block that is now ironically a signature of LeBron James. Now, before the 2014-15 NBA season starts, one that may truly make or break Wade’s legacy as remembered by the casual fan, let's look back at just how special Wade has been. He may not be a top-10 greatest player of all time, but as you may find in the coming couple-thousand words…he’s a lot closer than you might think.
Dwyane Wade at his peak was unstoppable. In the 2008-09 season, he submitted one of the most dominating seasons in NBA history, slicing through and shooting over opponents as well as anchoring Miami defensively. Wade manhandled opposing teams despite possessing a supporting cast of Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Michael Beasley, and Daequan Cook. (Hold on a second, I need to throw up.) I won’t even bother mentioning the benchwarmers.
Surrounded by this, well…putrid roster, Wade joined elite company. Not top-10 or top-5 elite, but all-time great. Only three players have ever scored over 2300 points, hauled in 350 rebounds, and dished out 500 assists in a single season: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade (2009). Bill Simmons said it best in The Book of Basketball, “ Wade performed the best Jordan imitation yet” (page 684 of the paperback for anyone who owns a copy of the great, but lengthy, book).
We need to rewind a few years to spearhead the beginning of Wade’s peak. 32-year-old Shaquille O’Neal hopped on board the Wade train in 2004, after a highly publicized feud with his Lakers co-superstar, Kobe Bryant. Bestowing his new teammate with the nickname, Flash, the seven-footer was clearly on the backside of a Hall of Fame career. In his first year (2004-05) with the Heat, Shaq put up a then-career low in minutes and rebounds per game. There was no mistaking that Shaq was Robin to Wade’s Batman.
The Heat nearly made it to the NBA Finals that season, but a forgettable fourth quarter from Wade in Game 7 vs. the Pistons in the Eastern conference finals cost them the opportunity. After sitting out Game 6 because of a rib injury, Wade started off Game 7 strong but turned the ball over twice and failed to manage to score a basket in the closing minutes of the game. Larry Brown’s Pistons went on to lose the 2005 NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs in seven.
Wade came back in 2006 with experience and a vengeance. And Miami needed it. In 2006, his teammates included a 33-year-old Shaq (who played 59 regular season games), Udonis Haslem, James Posey, and Jason Williams. 37-year-old Gary Payton and 35-year-old Alonzo Mourning hobbled off the bench.
There was no mistaking Wade’s ascension to superstardom. His signature performance that season came against Gilbert Arenas and the Wizards where Wade’s runner in the key with 21 seconds left put Miami ahead by two. His defensive rebound and clutch free throws sealed it. Wade finished with 40. Ironically, his best regular season offensive performance that season, a 44-9-8 near triple-double, came in a loss to a fellow third-year player, one LeBron James.
This was only the prelude to what would be one of the best post-season performances in NBA history. Wade took Shaq’s cape and became Superman. After handling Chicago and New Jersey, guess who was back, back again, in the Eastern Conference finals. The Detroit Pistons. Wade, Shaq, and the corpse of Alonzo Mourning, against the 64-win Pistons led by Chauncey, Prince, Rip and the Wallaces. They sound friendly, but the Pistons stingy defense reeked of the earlier “Bad Boy” rendition of the Pistons.
Six games later, Dwyane Wade, in year 3, was headed to the NBA Finals. In that ECF series, he put up 27-6-5 on 62 percent from the field and 81 percent from the line against one of the league’s premiere defenses.
Wade’s NBA Finals were even better. After a pedestrian two games in Dallas, Wade scored 42 of his team’s 98 points and hauled in 13 rebounds to drag his team to victory in Game 3. Game 4 was more of the same, with Wade scoring 36 of his team’s 98. In Game 5, Wade was already at 41 when Dirk fouled him with 1.9 seconds to go, sending him to the line. Wade sunk two clutch free throws to give the Heat a 3-2 series lead. 36 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals, and three blocks later, Wade was crowned NBA Finals MVP. Wade brought Miami their first title in franchise history.
Wade’s final Finals numbers: an average of 35-8-4, three steals, a block, and a game that qualified for one of the 25 greatest NBA playoff performances of all time. John Hollinger wrote in 2012 that it was the single greatest Finals series in NBA history. Ahead of any of Jordan’s six. Ahead of Magic. Bird. Russell. Kobe. Duncan.
In Hollinger’s own words: “while it seems strange to have somebody besides Michael Jordan in the top spot [for greatest Finals series in history], the truth is Jordan never dominated a Finals to this extent. At the time, many called Wade’s performance Jordanesque. It turns out they might have been selling [Wade] short.”
And so began the five-year stretch where Dwyane Wade averaged 27-5-7 with two steals and a block as a hybrid guard. His peak began with a championship and ended with a year strong enough to court LeBron James. I would be remiss, however, to neglect the 07-08 season where Miami competed with the local sewage system for worst record in the league. Their 15-67 finish was the pinnacle—as awkward as it sounds—of Wade’s awful supporting cast.
In that 2008 season, only Ricky Davis played more than 2000 minutes for the Heat. Behind Davis and Wade, Pat Riley threw out Jason Williams, Udonis Haslem, Mark Blount, and Daequan Cook on the court the most. Wade and Davis were the only players to score more than 1000 points. Haslem and that oh-so-gorgeous jumper was Miami’s third-leading scorer with a blistering 589 points. 35-year-old Shaq played 33 games.
Yet even with such a perfect tank-job, Miami couldn’t land the number one pick, who that year would become NBA MVP, Derrick Rose. They opted for Kansas State freshman standout, Michael Beasley. Some names that were called after Beasley’s in 2008: Russell Westbrook (number 4 overall), Kevin Love (5), Brook Lopez (10), Roy Hibbert (17), Serge Ibaka (24), and Nic Batum (25). Whoops.
The Decision that LeBron made was as huge a moment for Wade as it was for LeBron. The circus surrounding the best player of his generation is understandable, and LeBron had been hyped longer and more intensely than Wade. It’s hard to call it a sacrifice when you bring in LeBron, but it was to a certain extent. 2010-2014 Dwyane Wade was LeBron James’ sidekick. It pushed the media even farther away from that quiet kid in the back of the class.
We forget his greatness from 2006 until 2014 because his talent is too ambiguous to define in those four Big 3 seasons. With LeBron taking over much of the facilitating and playmaking role, Wade posted up more (and was efficient from the low block). He was able to take, more than ever, shots inside the paint. While it was great in the short-term, this luxury may have hindered Wade’s development of a three-point shot, something that would have been useful in the 2014 Finals.
LeBron earned the heat he took for failing to show up in the 2011 Finals. He just became invisible. Yet in the midst of that, Dwyane Wade was able to keep the Heat hanging on for six games. 27-7-5 on 55-30-69 shooting was good enough to claw away two wins in the first three games of the series. The first four games of the series went win by eight (W8), lose by two (L2), W2, L3. But the Dallas Mavericks had a team, and Dirk went 26-10 for the Finals series on 98 percent from the line. I still don’t remember him missing a free throw. (We’ll keep his mediocre efficiency from the field, at 42 percent, between you and me.) The best player in the series, especially in light of LeBron’s shortcomings, was Dwyane Wade, but history will not remember it like that.
The B2B championships in 2012 and 2013 speak for themselves. LeBron ran the show, as his pair of MVPs and Finals MVPs show, but Wade was the second wheel who kept things rolling along. Chris Bosh was nice to have, but he was more of a role player than a star in both playoffs.
This past 2013-14 NBA season drew Wade’s injury issues to the forefront. Even then, shots of Flash ran across television screens in the playoff series preceding the 2014 NBA Finals beat-down courtesy of the San Antonio Spurs.
At age 32, Dwyane Wade already has Hall of Fame-worthy accomplishments. Three-time champion, NBA Finals MVP, 10x All-Star, All-Star MVP (2010), 8x All-NBA player, 3x All-Defensive Second Team player, and an NBA scoring champion. Wade is the only player under 6’6” with more than 600 blocks. Only he and Michael Cooper have more than 500. Only Kidd (9x All-Defensive player, 4x All-First Team), Dennis Johnson (9x All-Defensive player, 6x All-Defensive First Team), Paul Pressey (3x All-Defensive player), and Kendall Gill had more than 400.
Despite the fact that Wade has never been rewarded with an All-Defensive First Team, he has shown all-world defensive talent. You knew he would bring it on a nightly basis from both ends of the floor.
Wade is also in elite company as a complete offensive threat. Since 1980, only five players have averaged 27 points, five rebounds, and six assists per game: Larry Bird (three times), Kobe (twice), LeBron (eight times), Jordan (three times) and Wade (twice). Wade did this in 2006, while leading Miami to a title almost singlehandedly, and in 2009, when Michael Beasley—who started 19 games for the season and barely played 2000 minutes—was the team’s second leading scorer at 13.9 points per game. Wade managed 7.5 assists with a starting five with Chalmers, Haslem, Shawn Marion, and Joel Anthony/Jermaine O’Neal. Off the bench he had Daequan Cook, Luther Head, Joel Anthony, Chris Quinn, and a host of other barely-NBA players.
Another impressive yet oft-forgotten aspect was Wade’s Olympic performance. Those 2008 US Olympic champions (that beat Spain) clobbered opponents by an average of almost 30 points per game. That team was stacked with All/super-stars: Carmelo, Bosh, Kobe, Dwight Howard, LeBron, Kidd, CP3, and Deron Williams. Each was vying for their piece of the scoring load. By the tournament’s finish, though, it was Dwyane Wade who scored the most. In true Wade fashion, the best team in the world got a little bit of everything from the 06 Finals MVP, who put up 16-4-2 with two steals. He scored more, rebounded more, and was more active on the defensive end of the floor than the reigning 2008 MVP, Kobe Bryant.
His career playoff numbers verify what Hollinger alluded to in his 2012 column about Wade’s 2006 performance. Seven players in history have put up 3200 points, 750 rebounds, and 750 assists in the playoffs: Jordan, LeBron, Magic, Kobe, Bird, Scottie, and Wade. (Note: all stats mentioned, this one included, are from the three-point era, or 1979-80 to the present, which overlaps almost identically with the modern era of 1980-81. It was at this point when the NBA began to average less than 90 FGA per game.) And for all the heat he takes, Wade is a career 33 percent three-point shooter in the playoffs (38 percent in 06, 41 percent in 2010). He does what his team needs him to do. No drama, no complaining, just a superstar who molds himself into what the franchise needs him to be. Few other superstars can claim that.
In his 2010 playoff series, his 33 points, five rebounds, six assists per game in the playoffs put him in more singularly elite categories. The only other players to do that: Michael Jordan, LeBron, and Tracy McGrady.
As I have highlighted multiple times, before LeBron and Bosh came along, Wade’s supporting casts weren’t even average. Eddie Jones, Lamar Odom, past-his-prime Shaq, Haslem, Jason Williams were some of his best teammates. His teammates from his rookie year to 2010 that played the most minutes were: Lamar Odom, Eddie Jones, Udonis Haslem (06 and 07), Ricky Davis, Mario Chalmers, and Michael Beasley. I just threw up again.
So when people say Carmelo, LeBron, Kobe, or even Jordan had a poor supporting cast, digest those teammates. Somehow even before LeBron, Wade managed to get 50+ wins twice.
Wade did all of this as a member of the Miami Heat. He has never wavered in his loyalty to the franchise that drafted him back in 2003. In a business-oriented league, that is worth something. Never has he even so much as demanded a trade. His skillset and the culture that he and Pat Riley cultivated in South Beach was enough to lure the greatest player in the game to leave his hometown for. Much like Paul Pierce—who did, as we all know, eventually leave the Celtics—Wade battled through awful teams, year in and year out.
He did everything when that’s what his team required of him (2005 to 2010), and stepped back when his team required that. Even in the LeBron years, Wade played his role magnificently (except for 2014 Finals, but in the 2014 playoffs before then, he had flashbacks to the Wade of old). Now the team needs the 2009 version again.
The former Marquette standout saw LeBron take his talents away from South Beach to join him. Now it’s time to see how one of the NBA greats, who has remained loyal to his team for his entire career, finishes off one of the most underrated careers in NBA history. His step back might not fake opponents out as much, his euro step might not have that same bite, and his spin move might not get him to the basket as easily as it used to. But Dwyane Wade will strive to do what he’s always done: win.
No accolades necessary.
No accolades necessary.