Well hello there! Welcome to my fifth annual Top 50 NBA Players Countdown! In case you are new here, or if you haven’t heard what will be different this time around, allow me to explain!
(That third exclamation point was not necessary)
Typically how this works is in the days leading up to the NBA season, I release a countdown of the Top 50 players currently playing in the National Basketball Association. This year I decided that it was time to remix this idea, expand the pool of players, broaden my horizons, and give myself an excuse to watch a bunch of old games on YouTube.
This time around I’ll be counting down the Top 50 NBA Players of the 2000’s (this means we’re looking at a seventeen season sample size that goes from the 1999-00 season all the way through the 2015-16 season). I’ve detailed the criteria I used to make this awfully long list. If you want to check it out, you can do so by clicking here.
13 years, 13 quality, 12 All-Stars … 7 Top Ten MVP Finishes (’05-’06, ’09-’13), 8-time All-NBA (’05-’07, ’09-’13), 3-time All-Defensive Team (’05, ’09-’10), NBA Finals MVP (’06), 1-time Olympic Gold Medalist (’08) … Best Player on one NBA Champion (’06 Heat), 2nd best player on two NBA Champions (’12-’13 Heat), 2nd best player on two runner-up’s (’11 Heat and ’14 Heat) … Leader: Points Per Game (1x), Player Efficiency Rating (1x) … ’06 NBA Playoffs: 28-6-6, 2 steals, 50% FG, 38% 3PT, 81% FT (23 Games) … ’11-’14 Regular Seasons: 22-5-5, 2 steals, 51% FG, 29% 3PT, 75% FT (248 Games)
Overall Averages: 23.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.7 steals, 35.7 minutes, 49% FG, 17.6 FGA, 28% 3PT, 1.6 3PA, 77% FT, 7.9 FTA, 855 Games Played
7-Year Regular Season Peak: 26.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.1 blocks, 37.9 minutes, 49% FG, 19.1 FGA, 29% 3PT, 2.1 3PA, 77% FT, 9.7 FTA, 486 Games Played
Evaluating Dwyane Wade is like trying to get a firm grasp on what to make of a person with multiple personalities. This isn’t to say that Dwyane Wade has been intentionally deceiving the public about who he truly is, or that he is actually someone with multiple personalities. No, this is simply an assertion that Dwyane Wade’s evolution as a basketball player has been more complex than the inevitable one that comes for every player as he ages throughout his career. Wade obviously lost a step athletically; he can’t get up as high, he can’t play as recklessly as he once did, he’s not all over the place defensively anymore … and that makes him no different than everyone else. Father time is undefeated. But Wade’s evolution seems more significant and maybe even purposeful though. It is definitely more interesting.
Here’s what is so interesting about Wade: Aside from being more selective about when he attacks the basket, Wade’s game doesn’t look all that different today than it did in the past. Additionally, Wade himself doesn’t look all that different either. It’s deceptive, since on the surface he appears to have changed only slightly from the time he was drafted 5th overall in 2003 to now. Then again, someone with multiple personalities looks the same if you are looking from far enough away.
There are four versions of Dwyane Wade that interest me, and if someone else were to sit down and think about the evolution of Wade over thirteen years the same way I did, they would probably come up with the same four versions that I came up with. This isn’t a hard concept to grasp. It’s not difficult to track the progression of how a player changes over time, and charting Wade’s progression is really no different if you take the time to do so, especially if you were to break it down into four distinct groups like I did. So what are those four versions of Wade? Presented in chronological order:
Peak Dwyane Wade
Also known as the version of Dwyane Wade that tore though the Dallas Mavericks in the 2006 NBA Finals. Minimizing Wade’s prime to a six-game sample size is an unfair adjustment to an already brief apex, but it’s fair to say that Wade’s shining moment is that momentous Finals performance where he channeled MJ like nobody else ever had, including Kobe, in a series with stakes that high. Wade averaged 35 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists en route to a well-deserved Finals MVP. He kept attacking the basket, willing himself to take the beating knowing that he’d get the calls and get to the line (Wade’s 97 free throw attempts were 42 more than Dirk Nowitzki‘s 55 … if you aren’t familiar with certain accusations about Official bias in this series, just do a quick Google search on “Tim Donaghy and the 2006 NBA Finals”). To Wade’s credit and no one else’s (not the refs for blowing the whistle or the Mavs for playing their part in blowing a 2-0 series lead), he made every single clutch play put on the table in the last four games of the series.
The ’06 Finals will stand the test of time as the perfect snapshot of what Wade’s prime looked like and what he was capable of when he was at his peak. He possessed next level athleticism (just finding the YouTube highlight videos of Wade’s poster dunks and blocks and you’ll understand what I mean) and a tangible flair in big moments (the latter of the two has yet to go away). He was as fearless on a basketball court as any player ever has been, of both situation and opponent and one of the five best basketball players in the world for over half a decade.
Wade made a huge leap from year one to year two, and remained a capable alpha dog up until the start of the Big Three experiment. From 2004 to 2010 Wade put together an otherworldly resume for a player who hadn’t even been in the league for a decade … he won a Finals MVP in ’06, was neck and neck with Kobe for the title of Best Shooting Guard alive, played vital minutes for the Redeem Team in the 2008 Olympics (Wade, LeBron and Kobe were, in some order, the three best players in the ’08 Olympics), was averaging 26 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists per game with a 24.0 PER in the Playoffs, had already done enough to earn the distinction of being one of the most clutch players in the league, and he even somehow avoided jail time even though he attempted to murder Anderson Varejao on national television:
Fuck, that was violent. Prime D Wade was a bad dude.
Recruiter Dwyane Wade
Y’all probably either forgot about this one or just didn’t consider it at all. If you think that the Soap Opera villain Pat Riley and his storied bag of championship rings made all the difference in LeBron joining the Heat, you are dead wrong. The groundwork was probably laid years before Riley and LeBron got in touch, and that’s a credit to Wade, as a competitor and someone who wanted to take fate in his own hands, for being able to lure the league’s best player out of his hometown. It was a move that LeBron willingly made, villainizing himself in the process, just so he could play with one of his best friends. The fact that it was in Miami, Wade’s city, is largely irrelevant. If it were Chicago (coincidentally, also a “Wade city”) as Wade mentioned recently that it nearly was, it still would have been a victory for him; a top five player who may have had an idea that his game was on the decline, convincing LeBron to come along and carry the heavy burden so he could remain in contention for titles for the next half of a decade … that’s a shrewd power play if you ask me.
Big Three Dwyane Wade
Wade lured LeBron and Bosh to Miami, and things didn’t run smoothly to start. The Heat famously started 9-8 and couldn’t find the right on court chemistry all season long. LeBron and Wade shared alpha dog duties while Bosh was finding ways to entertain himself on the floor:
There was a whole lot of “You go, I go” back and forth action between LeBron and Wade that first year. There was a serious lack of cohesiveness in the half-court, and outside of the occasional fast break wizardry you could find in an All-Star Game, it looked more like LeBron and Wade had never met before teaming up together. It hardly looked like they were two dudes who were supposedly best friends. But by sheer talent, the Miami superteam made the Finals their first year together. They broke the system and crushed the notion that a team needed to be both deep and close-knit to contend for a title.
The Heat didn’t win the championship in 2011, and you can pin the blame, or give the credit, on any number of individuals. Dallas was a deeper team, had a better coach and Dirk was in the midst of an all-time postseason hot streak. It still pains me to say that LeBron was a no-show in the Finals, but that was in large part due to a bigger problem than just one bad series. The Heat had an identity problem at the very top of the roster that needed to be resolved before they took the next step. Chris Bosh had settled into his role as third banana quite nicely, but Wade and LeBron were still having an on-court cold war figuring out who the Heat’s alpha dog would be.
Wade was magnificent in the ’11 Finals and LeBron, again, was lackluster (fuck it hurts to say that), but if Wade continued to be the Batman to LeBron’s Robin the Heat would have never reached their full potential. As great as Wade was, he’s three years older than LeBron and didn’t have the same ceiling night to night or season to season that LeBron did. In order for Miami to thrive, Wade needed to let LeBron step into the role as sole alpha dog and settle into a sidekick role. That’s exactly what happened a year later, and the Heat won a title. And then a year later they won a second title.
Whether it was organic or a point of conversation at some point in time, Wade stepped back and LeBron became “the man,” and that’s certainly something that needs to be mentioned if you are talking about Wade’s legacy. Not only was Wade willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the Miami Heat, he thrived as the second option in Miami behind LeBron. With LeBron running the show Wade found the ways to maximize his value off the ball even though he wasn’t a spot-up shooter. He remained an effective post player (a big factor in Miami doing its part in revitalizing NBA offense) and spent more time making timely cuts and moving without the ball. He crashed the offensive glass and got out on fast breaks to find easy buckets. He played brilliant sidekick basketball and bailed Miami out a number of times.
Now of course, we can’t go further without mentioning the fact that by the time year three of the Big Three experiment rolled around Wade was starting to decompose. I mentioned Wade’s peak earlier, and part of the reason why Wade never reached the level Kobe or MJ did for a long period of time was because he never had a dying dedication to stay in shape or expand his game the way those two did. He missed 58 games in the last three seasons with LeBron and Bosh. Those last two Big Three seasons, specifically year four, Wade played himself into shape as the season went along. He didn’t expand his game at all in those four years and the lack of burst and shooting was actually a detriment to the Heat at times. Remember in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals when Miami, down 3-2 in the series, went from down 12 to up three in a ten-minute span while Wade was on the bench watching LeBron pick apart the Spurs defense with four shooters around him? Remember how Miami instantly surrendered that lead when Wade came back late in the 4th quarter? Remember how crazy it seemed that Erik Spoelstra couldn’t see that Wade murdered Miami’s spacing and impacted LeBron’s mojo because he checked into the game and immediately took a few “I’m Dwyane Wade, I need to get mine” shots?
Then remember how Wade was awesome in Game 7? Having to root for Dwyane Wade those four seasons LeBron spent in Miami was a Goddamn roller coaster ride.
Post-Peak Dwyane Wade
The most recent version of Wade, and maybe the most interesting. In 2014 I thought there was a better chance of Wade being out of the NBA in 2016 than leading a team to within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals. I just didn’t see how he had anything left. I had watched the man take a beating for a decade. I watched him lose his legs and being to look like a shell of himself by the time LeBron was finishing his last season in Miami. It was sad. Even more sad than that was thinking about how Wade may have been gone even sooner if he didn’t have LeBron and Bosh carrying some of the burden in Miami those few seasons.
Well, Wade evolved and he maintained his status as an impactful leader on a playoff team. He remained a savant near the basket and in the paint even though he didn’t have the benefit of getting easy looks like he did from 2010 to 2014, nor did he have the lift he had in his mid-twenties. His crafty old man/in-between game is as strong as ever … he’s still suckering in defenders to jump on his shot fake and still manages to finish with sprawled leg floaters over bigger guys. He’s even continued to dagger opponents down the stretch with all sorts of impossible looking jumpers that he has had a knack of hitting for ten plus years.
Post-peak Wade won’t be around much longer. Soon he’ll be just another old guy, an actual old guy, whose game can’t be saved with any amount of veteran guile or stubborn determination. And that, more than anything else, has been what Wade has made a legacy out of. He only received three Division 1 scholarships and the fact that he was selected fifth in the 2003 Draft was a surprise. But Wade kept coming. He took repeated ass-beatings and dealt with a broken down body almost as well as any other player on this list has. He’s always been a step ahead of defenses, better than people thought he would be, and a little more gutty than we gave him credit for, and because of that, he’s one of the most accomplished, and at times dominant, perimeter players in league history.