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What Dwyane Wade Brings to the Title-Chasing Cavaliers

LeBron’s once-former sidekick might not have the burst he used to, but he’s the kind of high-upside third playmaker the King has always wanted on his team. But can Wade accept a limited role?

Dwyane Wade Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The band is getting back together. After being bought out by the Bulls, Dwyane Wade agreed to terms Tuesday on a one-year, $2.3 million contract that will allow him to rejoin LeBron James for a season with the Cavs after Wade clears waivers on Wednesday. The two longtime friends won two titles together and played in four consecutive NBA Finals with the Heat. Wade, now 35, is a shell of the player he was in those days, but he could still have a few good years left if Tyronn Lue can limit his minutes and use him in a role that plays to his strengths. Cleveland won’t need him at max capacity in the regular season. They can keep him fresh for the playoffs. Adding Wade won’t dramatically improve the Cavs, but it can’t hurt a team that needs to replace Kyrie Irving and doesn’t expect Isaiah Thomas to come back until January—or know how healthy he will be when he does.

Despite all the dysfunction in Chicago last year, Wade was reasonably effective in the 60 games he played. He averaged 18.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals, and 0.7 blocks a game on 43.4 percent shooting. He no longer has the athleticism that made him a superstar, but he’s still incredibly long for a guard (6-foot-11 wingspan) with a great feel for the game and a knack for getting to spots on the floor where he can still be dangerous. The problem was that his individual productivity didn’t translate to team success. The Bulls had a net rating of minus-2.4 with Wade, and a net rating of plus-2.1 without him. Even worse, Wade brought their best player down. In his 1,247 minutes with Jimmy Butler, Chicago had a net rating of plus-0.1. Butler had a net rating of plus-3.0 in 2,809 total minutes last season.

The problem in Chicago was the same problem that has haunted Wade his entire career—he can’t shoot 3s. He shot 31 percent from 3 on 2.4 attempts per game last season, his best 3-point-shooting numbers in almost a decade, but defenses still didn’t respect his shot. The Three Alphas never made sense. Wade, Butler, and Rajon Rondo struggled to play with one another, since none could consistently stretch the floor. Wade needs to be surrounded by shooters. The good news for the Cavs is that almost every player in their rotation can make 3s. The notable exception is Derrick Rose, and managing his and Wade’s egos while finding ways to get them on the floor will be one of Tyronn Lue’s biggest challenges.

Rose could be the odd man out once everyone is healthy. Thomas will be the starting point guard, while Cleveland needs J.R. Smith’s 3-point shooting and perimeter defense at shooting guard. One of their two former star guards could dominate the ball on their second unit, but both can’t. Lue still needs to find minutes in the backcourt for specialists like Iman Shumpert (their best perimeter defender) and Kyle Korver (their best shooter). There won’t be much playing time available in the frontcourt either. LeBron, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Jae Crowder, and Channing Frye will take up most of the minutes, while Richard Jefferson and Jeff Green will get whatever is left.

With Thomas out, either Wade or Rose will start and the other will be the sixth man. Even though Wade has more chemistry with LeBron, the Cavs might keep him on the bench to avoid making too many changes to the rotation once Thomas returns. Wade would be most effective as a backup point guard in a bench lineup with shooters like Korver, Crowder, and Frye. With those three stretching the floor, Wade could be the secondary playmaker next to LeBron or Love. The paint would be wide open, allowing Wade to cut to the rim without much interference, and he could play with the ball without being the focal point of the opposing defense. It would give the Cavs some of the offensive versatility they were lacking last season, when LeBron complained about the lack of a third playmaker next to him and Kyrie. Wade could also be useful in helping to conserve LeBron’s energy during the regular season, since he could take on a bigger creator role when LeBron takes a rest day.

The more important matter is which lineups Lue will use in crunch time, especially in the playoffs. Even without Kyrie, Cleveland is deeper than it was last season. The Cavs will likely try to stay big and play Love, LeBron, and Thompson together, but they’ll have more options if they go small. While Wade hasn’t been an elite defender in a long time, his length allows him to slide between several positions and be passable at switching screens. That will be important in playoff matchups with either Boston or Golden State, both of whom can play lineups made up of mostly 6-foot-7-plus wings. Cleveland played LeBron at the 5 in last year’s NBA Finals. Now they can use Crowder at the 4 and Wade at the 3 in those units instead of Jefferson and Shumpert. All that matters for the Cavs is what happens in May and June, and Wade has a long history of turning it up on the biggest stages. Two years ago, he averaged 21.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game on 46.9 percent shooting in the playoffs, carrying the Heat to Game 7 of the second round.

The worst-case scenario for Wade would look like what Deron Williams did for Cleveland last season. The Cavs signed the former All-Star after he was bought out at the trade deadline, and he played well against lesser competition before turning into a pumpkin in the Finals. Williams couldn’t stay on the floor against the Warriors. There’s a chance that the same thing will happen if Wade’s body breaks down and he gets even slower. However, Wade is declining from a much higher peak than Williams, who seemed to lose his passion for the game by the end of his time with the Nets. Dwyane Wade is one of the greatest players in NBA history, and making one last run at a title with LeBron is a fitting way to end his career. Don’t be surprised if there’s still some magic left in his knees.