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A Superstar’s Struggle

How do we know when a well-decorated career has earned its last meaningful ornament? In judging these situations, even the keenest of eyes can be blinded by years of good memories, highlight after highlight playing on a loop in their mind. Sometimes there is no defined answer. Sometimes a player shades back and forth, slipping into recession for a week before reaching deep inside and pulling out the type of incredible performance that serves as a glaring light in the investigators eye line. It’s for this reason that pinpointing a superstar’s decline is beyond difficult. Call it too soon and look like a fool. Call it too late and appear sentimental.

Right now, I’m not sure where the jury stands with Dwyane Wade. His days of being an All-Star are far from over, but—foolish as this may make me sound and despite his second straight appearance in the Finals—his existence as one of the league’s franchise leading superstars could be through.

By almost all metrics, Wade’s postseason has been an impressive one. He’s averaging 22.9 points, 4.1 assists, and 5.0 rebounds per game since the opening round against New York. That’s not terrible.

(Hidden inside those figures was a gargantuan 41 point, 10 rebound masterpiece that saw Wade misfire on just eight of his 25 shots. To make it even more spectacular in a symbolic sense, it came on the road in a close out game against a young, hungry, fearless Pacers team. On that night, Wade was once again an unforgiving menace, forcing yet another too-good-to-be-true page to be written in the book of his fantastic career.)

But for Wade, every great performance comes with a dud. In a Game 4 loss against the Knicks, he was 4-11 from the free-throw line and badly missed a strange fade away three-pointer at the buzzer. In the first three games of the second round, he was 18-58 from the floor, including an infamous five point effort in Game 3. In Games 3 and 4 against Boston, he shot 16-42 as his team came up short in both contests. Wade’s great strength is his ability to efficiently score the ball in high volumes. When he isn’t doing that, well, he kinda looks like Joe Johnson. Last Sunday night, Wade was on the court for the game’s final 17 minutes (fourth quarter and overtime). He was 1-5 from the floor, scoring three points (two fewer than Norris Cole). He also missed a wide open three-pointer at the final buzzer in overtime that would’ve won the game, and most likely, the series. In Game 6, Wade went 1-6 in the first half, finishing the game with 17 points. In Game 7, he was 3-8 in the first half, and finished the game 8-17. These were hardly incredible performances.

Superstars are human beings. And despite their otherworldly skills, they’re still prone to remind us of this fact every once in a while. But Wade’s struggles appear to go beyond the “once in a while” lapse. The big adjustment Spoelstra gifted Wade on Sunday night was having him serve as the point guard on several situations. It’s a strategy right out of Pat Riley’s book in the 2006 NBA Finals: when Dallas began to double Wade on the catch, Riley simply gave his star the ball sooner, allowing him more time (and space) to see where the double teams were coming from. It was a move that eventually led to a title. Today it’s a 7-22 effort, as we saw in Game 4.

Due to the fact that it creates taxing rotations on Boston’s defense, the best offensive option for Wade appears to be in isolation. According to Synergy, in Game 4 the Miami Heat were in isolation situations on 18 possessions, and Wade accounted for eight of them.  He was 3-8, making two threes and a floater high off the glass, but turning the ball over once and missing badly on four other jump shots.  After getting to the free-throw line 0 times in Game 3, Wade didn’t attack the basket in a single one of those isolation situations.

Players obviously look bad when they’re missing jumpers, but with Wade, a player whose team’s success relies on his own successful production, this shot selection is unacceptable. In this series it isn’t as though he’s slicing through Boston’s defense and kicking out to wide open marksmen in the corners. No. Most of his passes are on the perimeter, and they hardly force the Celtics stout defense to flinch let alone make a difficult rotation. When he did drive to the basket in Game 4, it was wild and in the hopes that a whistle would come. For the most part, it did not.

When asked to assess Wade’s performance after the game, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra said his second best player “competed”, like a tired gladiator who’s continuously fighting an uphill battle. Spoelstra’s tone had less disappointment in it than a disappointing performance deserved, but maybe that’s what he expects to get these days. (Probably not, but I still felt as though the comments were strange. Instead of criticizing a player who deserved it, Spoelstra chose to douse him with rose pedals because he tried hard.)

So much needs to be said when you’re denouncing a superstar: are we unfairly measuring a 30-year-old Wade to a version of himself six years younger? Are we taking his relatively impressive scoring efforts for granted? I don’t believe so. Every point in this article is comparing Wade to that of his fellow superstars, and only when matched up against the best of the best does he fall short. He used to laugh in the face of a double team, but now, whether it be due to a bothersome knee or the loss of an All-Star teammate, Wade is struggling. He attacks and fights and claws and comes with every fiber of his being on every drive to the basket, but for the first time since he entered the league nearly a decade ago, what we’re seeing from Dwyane Wade may not be enough.

Twitter: @ShakyAnkles

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