The Immortality of Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat
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Heat, Dwyane Wade

The Immortality of Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat

Backed into a corner after a Game 1 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Miami Heat turned to its franchise icon. Given the reins once more, Dwyane Wade did what’s he seemingly always done.

Three dribbles into Robert Covington, lulling the defender with the steady rhythm of each bounce. Feet perfectly spaced and balanced, ready to explode off the left foot if the defender lurches forward; ready to pivot off the right at the slightest retreat.

Catching Covington mid-shuffle, Wade plants hard, pivots and fades.

Through it all, Wade is serene. It’s a shot he’s performed a million times over, grafted onto muscles that no longer fire as they once did, but rise to the call when needed. In this moment, it’s the younger Covington who’s out of sorts, recovering frantically just in time to spill onto the floor at the legend’s feet.

Wade scored 28 points on 11-for-16 shooting in the Heat’s 113-103 victory over the 76ers. He also contributed seven rebounds, three assists, and two steals in just 26 minutes as Miami outscored Philadelphia by a team-high 16 points with Wade on the court.

That the quality of the performance is defined as vintage speaks to the scarcity of these moments in the present day. Wade is averaging a career-low 11.4 points and 3.4 assists per game. His True Shooting Percentage since rejoining the Heat is a paltry .465.

He’s no longer a one-man foundation for everything Miami wants to accomplish. That superstar talent no longer burns as brightly. But in a bind, he still makes for a handy emergency flare. If the game is passing him by, the moments are still undeniably his.

“It’s just in my DNA,” Wade told ESPN. “I love the stage.”

Wade’s continued presence in the NBA is sometimes met with a mix of amusement and derision. The NBA is increasingly defined by efficiency and optimization. Analysts seek the extremes.

Somewhere along the way, mainstream basketball became a championship or bust culture. In a Processed era where teams outside contention are compelled to destroy their rosters and shot profiles are homogenized Morey zones, a 36-year old shooting guard in decline with no shooting range is less than ideal.

But the playoffs often place teams in less than ideal circumstances.

Even without Joel Embiid, these Philadelphia 76ers have swarming length to throw at and disrupt Miami’s egalitarian offense. Between Robert Covington and Ben Simmons, Philadelphia has the ability to shrink passing and driving lanes, as our own Nekias Duncan showed after Game 1.

Sometimes, the ideal and optimal don’t present themselves. Efficiency isn’t always an option. Dwyane Wade’s efficiency once came from bursts of explosive athleticism beating both his defender and the help to the rim. With over a decade of playoff battles against teams locked in to prevent that, Wade has honed the counter measures.

The NBA values those who can consistently create the best shots. Sometimes under duress, a team needs those who can consistently create their shot under the worst circumstances.

Athleticism means little without the talent to manipulate it. The NBA is filled with athletes. Basketball talent is an understanding of how to break defenders and defenses. Even an eroded Wade retains the fundamental instincts to sense weak points and the skill to capitalize.

In the final minute of the fourth quarter against Ben Simmons, Wade showcased his control of the game. Simmons played to the scouting report, laying in wait just inside of Wade’s shooting range. The fast twitch muscles in Simmons’ 6-foot-10 frame remained in the split-second state where potential energy transitions to kinetic, ready to retreat to cut off Wade’s drive, or burst forward to challenge his shot with long arms extended.

The hesitation in Wade’s dribble kept Simmons in that limbo for as long as possible before introducing a different wrinkle, sidestepping to bury the final dagger.

That ability to move in any direction at any given moment and the knowledge of how, when, and where to use that ability are still valuable for their rarity.

While he may no longer be able to sustain star-level play against quality defenders, give Wade a mismatch and he can still exploit it like a superstar. The 76ers have the superior top end talent but Philadelphia relies on limited players like J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli to fill in the gaps with outside shooting.

So while Wade may no longer be able to attack an entire defense head on for sustained stretches, he can stress weak points in a defense.

And, having reinvented himself as a sixth man guarantees moments against players he can still overwhelm, like T.J. McConnell.

Or Belinelli.

None of this is sustainable. A steady diet of these shots won’t hold up over the course of a long series. And that’s okay.

There’s something to be said for the aging gunslinger of the Old West with a round left in the chamber of his trusty revolver. The draw may not be as quick, or the shot as accurate, but in times of chaos, the ability to assess the situation from years of battling through it can be invaluable.

He may no longer be a good defender, but reading the moments where he can be an impactful one can still change the course of a game.

We often think of processes in terms of building, as the 76ers have done with The Process. But the descend from glory is its own process—playing out in fits and starts.

Neither progress or decline are linear. Players and teams solve for one problem only to have other obstacles pop up. A new skill might carry with it the penalty of a temporary step back as a player or team figure out how to incorporate it. A lost step may reduce the number of opportunities a player has, but it doesn’t mean that player can no longer exploit advantages.

The NBA is defined by efficiency but Wade remains something the best analysis can never fully appreciate.

“I saw moments,” Heat Coach Erick Spoelstra said [per ESPN.com]. “That’s what defines Dwyane Wade.”

The Miami Heat can’t rely on Wade to carry the team. But when backed into a corner, it’s nice to know he’s there to pull them out.