In a game with potential playoff seeding implications, Dwyane Wade gave the Heat a throwback performance Tuesday night, scoring 27 points off the bench in a much-needed win over the 76ers. Miami has been in a swoon since a hot start to the calendar year, falling from fourth to eighth in the conference, routinely losing the close games they were so successful in earlier in the season. With the acquisition of Wade, Erik Spoelstra now has a closer he can go to down the stretch of tight contests. Finding a way not to over rely on Wade, however, presents a new challenge for Spoelstra for the final quarter of the season.
The narrative of Wade coming back to the franchise that drafted him in 2003 and leading them into the playoffs is a tantalizing one. In reality, since Wade made his return to Miami, the results have been mixed. He’s certainly provided a jolt of energy to a team that was stuck in mud, and his veteran know-how seems to have a positive effect on the Heat’s cavalcade of young guards. But in Wade’s six games back in Downtown Miami, he has the highest usage rate (a robust 29.4%) on the team—and the lowest net rating.
The sample size is obviously small, but Spoelstra can’t fall into the trap of expecting Wade to save the Heat from every mess. His game against Philadelphia was outstanding, but it should be considered more of an outlier than the standard. From his time in Cleveland, Wade has been using possessions at a superstar rate off the bench. For multiple reasons, Spoelstra would be wise to keep Wade’s minutes in check, especially as he dominates the ball.
First and foremost, Wade certainly has the most utility coming off the bench. As Rob Mahoney noted earlier this season when the Cavs bench was outperforming LeBron-led lineups, Wade looks much more like his younger version when he’s playing against backups in short bursts. Preserving Wade’s body and not letting him creep past 25 minutes per game should allow him to be more effective whenever he does take the court.
The Heat also have young players to look out for. Josh Richardson has carried the offense for large stretches of the season and continues to play All-NBA level defense. Tyler Johnson is playing under the pressure of a large contract. Justise Winslow finally seemed to hit his stride when given playing time in the backcourt. The more possessions Wade gobbles up, the more time he takes away from those players in an important period for their development. Richardson particularly has established himself as a key cog for the franchise. Making sure he has a large role even when on the court with Wade should have short and long-term benefits.
There are still plenty of ways for Wade to be effective in Miami. He’s the best pick-and-roll player on the team, and his slithers into the paint often end in a good look—either a shot for Wade in the top half of the paint, or a lob to the roll man. Bam Adebayo and Hassan Whiteside are great partners for Wade, and the harder they screen, the better looks they should receive. Whiteside should especially benefit. His chemistry with Goran Dragic has always lacked, but the mercurial center seems to have a better bond with Wade.
During their best stretch of the season, the Heat were blitzing teams with a lineup of Winslow, Wayne Ellington, Richardson, Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo (a 16.4 net rating in 117 minutes together.) Wade can play the Winslow role in that grouping, adding more offensive punch to a unit with stout (or stout enough) defenders at every other position. Surrounding Wade with shooting will be key, and the more minutes he plays with the likes of Ellington and Olynyk, the better he will look. (Wade has already succeeded in similar lineups since his return, with James Johnson playing the Olynyk role.)
The formula, then, seems pretty simple, and it’s not dissimilar to the one Wade had success with in Cleveland. Find a bench unit for Wade to anchor, preferably one with shooters and one ace pick-and-roll partner, and let Wade run the show like it’s 2008–09 all over again. Wade is playing 22.7 minutes per game in Miami, and his minutes shouldn’t go much higher than that as long as he’s using possessions like Steph Curry. And finally, Wade certainly has the chops to play late in the fourth, particularly when the game slows down, but the heroics should be spread amongst the Heat’s youngsters.
Asking Wade to carry the team close to the manner he did even two years ago—the last time Miami made the playoffs—would be a mistake. But the Heat’s reunion with their franchise’s megastar certainly has the potential to be a successful one. As long as nostalgia doesn’t get in the way of restraint, the Heat and Wade should be headed for a much happier ending than his first stint with the team.