On Dwyane Wade’s new secondary role and the Heat structure

Eric Freeman
June 15, 2012

When the Miami Heat superfriends joined powers in the summer of 2010 and created an otherworldly behemoth of a basketball team (or so we thought), the general assumption was that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would be co-leaders. As one of the five best players in the league, Wade had earned the right to be the alpha for the team he'd played for the whole career. Much of the criticism levied at LeBron to begin with, apart from that he picked his team in one of the worst ways possible, was that he didn't want to be the clear-cut best player on his team. With Wade, there was to be some question as to who would take on the lead role.

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For one season, the Heat struggled to answer that issue, as LeBron and Wade deferred to each other too often and had difficulty working together at times. Now, however, the hierarchy is fairly set. LeBron, who's playing about as well an all-around game as a human being could possibly play in the NBA Finals, is quite clearly the organizer of the Heat, giving each other player in the lineup a role and structure. But in that structure, it's a little unclear how to process the ideal use of Dwyane Wade.

It's not controversial to say that Wade has had an up-and-down playoffs, putting in a few great performances but generally struggling to break opponents down off the dribble and lacking the explosiveness of his past seasons. He's still successful, but he's a different kind of player in this postseason. Though he won't admit it, it's hard to imagine that his knee is in terrific shape. Wade's stats are pretty good — 22.8 points per game on 46.6 percent shooting in the playoffs — but he's not the same player.

But the fact that he's limited has also helped give him a clearer role. Wade is still Wade, in that he's at his best as a versatile scorer. Yet not being able to take over games in the same way as he has in the past has made him pick his spots, which in turn has allowed LeBron to take on a more set role as alpha and provided greater opportunities for players like Chris Bosh, Shane Battier, and Mario Chalmers. Instead of just having more high-end talent, the Heat have structure. In turn, that's made them a more dangerous and confident force.

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As Wade goes through a game, he no longer monopolizes the ball. In Game 2, for instance, he succeeded in large part by making smart cuts, after which James would find him for jumpers and lay-ins. Wade's not getting easy baskets, exactly — he still showcases his talent in making fadeaways and other tough shots — but he's not creating on his own. When Wade has struggled in the postseason, it's largely been because he's tried to be the fully healthy player he's not right now — by taking long two-pointers after a series of ineffective jab steps, crossovers, etc. At his best, Wade has been more of a role player — a star in that role, but a more functional piece nonetheless. It's a better situation for the Heat, because there's a greater understanding of exactly what their team identity should be.

Wade's health could improve this offseason, and he could return to his former incandescent, ball-necessitating stardom. It's possible that the difficulties they've had structuring themselves in the past could arise again. For now, though, in this NBA Finals, they seem to have reached an understanding. And while the result is still very much up in the air, there's no denying that they've become an eminently watchable, very fearsome outfit because of it.

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